WW’s November 2019 Endorsements

What to do in the election nobody remembers exists.

Ever get that feeling you've forgotten something? Left the oven on, or forgot to feed the goldfish? Has that feeling been unusually intense for the past week?

It's because you need to vote.

What's that? You didn't even know it was an election year? Understandable: It's an off-cycle election, and the eyes of political junkies are glued to the impeachment action in Washington, D.C.

Special elections like this one rarely attract a high turnout. In November 2017, Oregon held one—and just 32 percent of Multnomah County voters turned in their ballots.

That's all the more reason for you to fill out your ballot. The four measures Portlanders face aren't exactly lurid—renewals of an existing bond and a levy and two tweaks to the city charter—but they could have substantive effects on our shared future (and your wallet, if you're not feeling so civic-minded). Plus, given how few people will remember to vote by Nov. 5, your opinion will count far more than it usually does. It's like you get two votes!

Here's what we believe you should do with them.

Oxbow Regional Park. (Metro)

Measure 26-203

Gives Metro $475 million to buy and improve open spaces


Metro, the regional government that serves the tri-county area, has long been misunderstood and, in some circles, treated with open contempt.

Metro operates a broad portfolio of assets: It owns the Oregon Zoo, the Oregon Convention Center and the Expo Center, and 17,000 acres of open space, including Blue Lake and Oxbow parks. It also oversees regional solid waste disposal, and land use and transportation planning. No wonder critics often refer to it as the Island of Misfit Toys.

With some justification, critics—whose venom increases proportionally to their distance from Metro's central eastside headquarters—used to accuse the agency of top-down smugness. That's changed, both because Washington County and, to a lesser extent, Clackamas have shifted blue and because Metro learned the value of consulting with and sharing money with other area governments.

The agency recently assumed a higher profile—with an ambitious money-raising operation that began last year with a $652 million affordable housing bond and is expected to continue next year with what may be a multibillion-dollar transportation bond.

In the meantime, Metro is focusing on a more traditional exercise—buying up land to preserve open spaces.

Opponents of this measure, which include the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, and the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, have said it gives the agency too much money and puts insufficient limits on the spending of it.

We share some of those concerns. A significant percentage of the $475 million will go to community grants and broadly defined expenditures that may not result in the long-term accumulation of outdoor spaces.

But overall, critics are penny-wise and pound foolish to object to the further acquisition of open space. They also ignore some important history.

In fact, Metro is doing exactly what government should do—make a long-term plan that benefits all residents of the region and methodically follow it.

This measure is part of a strategy Metro articulated clearly in a 1992 Greenspaces Master Plan.

"If the people of the Portland-Vancouver area seek to retain livability and a green heritage as the region changes, we must act aggressively and act now to protect significant natural areas, open spaces, parks, forests, wetlands, rivers and streams, riparian corridors and wildlife habitat," that plan said.

Metro's service area, which includes the state's three largest counties—Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas—then contained about 1.1 million people. Today, those three counties are home to 1.84 million—an increase of nearly 70 percent.

Of course, there's been no new land created in that time. In fact, the opposite is true. Those 730,000 new residents needed places to live, work and spend their money. Those activities consumed vast tracts of previously undeveloped land.

Today, Metro is seeking to preserve and improve habitat at a time the state's reputation as a leader on environmental issues is in tatters and when regional population growth is swamping existing recreational areas.

Metro's answer: continue to pursue the strategy it laid out nearly three decades ago.

Metro has twice previously asked voters for big chunks of money to buy land for parks and preservation: In 1995, voters gave the agency $136 million, and in 2003, voters gave another $227 million. This measure would replace the 2003 bond. It's a much larger amount of money because the region's population and property values have grown significantly since 2003, but the tax rate stays the same 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed value: about $48 a year on a home with an assessed value of $250,000.

The new money would go to a number of different uses. About $155 million would be dedicated to buying new land. Another $92 million would fund improvements to the agency's two busiest parks, Oxbow and Blue Lake, and completion of the build-out of a third big property, Chehalem Ridge in Washington County.

The third-largest pot of money, $50 million, would be set aside for complex community projects, such as the acquisition and improvement of access to Willamette Falls. After that, two $40 million pools would preserve walking and biking trails and continue a habitat-restoration grant program called "Nature in the Neighborhoods."

The Oregonian, in endorsing a "no" vote on this measure, accurately noted that beyond $20 million identified for Willamette Falls, the $50 million pot looks a little bit like a slush fund. That's a fair criticism. But Metro's seven-member council is accountable to voters, and the agency has ambitious plans for other bond measures. In effect, by naming Willamette Falls, an unquestionably worthy site for investment, the agency is establishing a competitive process for other jurisdictions to propose other worthy acquisitions. We think all of those factors will push the agency toward a responsible use of the money.

Previous reporting and Metro audits have raised questions. A 2015 audit criticized the loose controls and record keeping around the Nature in the Neighborhoods grant program. The agency says it has fixed those shortcomings—and makes a strong case that such programs are essential to spreading benefits to low-income and minority constituencies. Buying, preserving and improving property adjacent to low-income areas—such as along Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland—have a strong equity component.

One of the features that makes Portland different from other cities and, judging by population trends, more attractive than most is its proximity to nature. Those of us who are already here have an obligation to ensure the continued existence—and health—of natural areas. That means protecting not just obvious gems, like the Sandy River, but the swamps, seasonal streams and nameless hills that make for a healthy ecosystem and provide habitat for a vast number of species, in addition to humans.

The Metro region contains more than 40 percent of the state's population and an even greater share of its economy. Residents of the region place enormous demands on Oregon's environment and have the capacity to preserve more of it before it's gone.

In asking voters for this money, Metro is making a long-term investment for the benefit of future generations. It's a worthy endeavor.

Mount Hood and the Bull Run Watershed (Aaron Mesh)

Measure 26-204

Increases protections for Portland's Bull Run Watershed


Portland gets its drinking water from the pristine Bull Run Watershed, an untouched 101-square-mile wilderness in the Mount Hood National Forest where snowmelt collects in an alpine lake.

Today, a simple majority of the five-member Portland City Council could vote to sell, develop or otherwise alter the Bull Run Watershed, which provides drinking water for nearly 1 million people. Bull Run, which is jointly owned by the city and the U.S. Forest Service, is largely closed to human use—but a group of Portlanders unhappy with Water Bureau management did try to privatize the system in 2014. Voters soundly rejected the measure, but a little paranoia is probably healthy.

It's highly unlikely three city commissioners would sell or lease the property to Disney or turn it into a motocross track. But City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Water Bureau, wants to make any hanky-panky more difficult. At Fritz's request, the council unanimously voted to move existing land use and environmental protections for Bull Run from the city code to the city charter. That would mean any change to Bull Run would require a vote of the people—not just the council. There's no organized opposition to the measure.

While it may feel like strapping on suspenders when you are already wearing a belt, Bull Run is perhaps the most irreplaceable asset the city possesses. Enshrine it in the charter.

Bull Run dam. (Wikimedia Commons)

Measure 26-205

Allows the Portland Water Bureau to form emergency aid agreements with other cities


After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the Portland Water Bureau sent a team of experts to help that city restore its drinking water system, which was destroyed by floodwaters.

Later, critics of that expedition sued the city because the use of ratepayer dollars is heavily restricted. A judge agreed the money should not have been used for a rescue mission, no matter how noble. The city's general fund repaid the Water Bureau more than $300,000.

Fritz, who oversees the bureau, believes there will be natural disasters here and in other places that will require cooperation and mutual aid between cities. This measure would specifically allow the Water Bureau to spend money to send teams to other cities facing emergencies—and to receive aid from other cities as well.

Fritz is concerned that in the event of the massive earthquake scientists predict Oregon will experience in the future, the 26-mile pipeline that connects the Bull Run Watershed to the city is vulnerable as is the aging matrix of pipes that distributes that water. The council unanimously agreed with Fritz's request that the Water Bureau be allowed to sign mutual emergency aid agreements for personnel, equipment and expertise with other cities. Such agreements would not apply to other bureaus, nor would they include any specific financial obligation.

For a city that experts acknowledge is woefully unprepared for natural disasters, this is a small step in the right direction.

Jefferson High School. (Joe Riedl)

Measure 26-207

Renews levy to fund teachers in Portland Public Schools


More than a quarter of the teaching positions in Portland Public Schools depend on voters approving this measure.

That's an extraordinarily high percentage of key resources to hinge on voters agreeing to renew a property tax levy every five years. For so many crucial jobs to depend on the public mood is a testament to how broken Oregon's school funding model is.

It is also a reason to vote yes.

The levy would generate roughly $100 million next school year, which would fund 888 teachers. The renewal does not increase existing tax rates; it would retain the rate of $1.99 per $1,000 assessed value.

For the average house in the district (with an assessed value of $233,925 and a market value of more than $500,000), it would continue to cost property owners slightly more than $1.25 a day.

The levy is a reminder of the dysfunction of Oregon's tax system, which capped property tax increases and, in so doing, created stark disparities in tax bills in different parts of the city and state. If we had our way, the whole system would be overhauled.

But in the real world—with a tax system we inherited from a libertarian-leaning electorate—voters should be loath to remove resources from public schools.

No one, including supporters, suggests Portland Public Schools has eliminated all the educational and bureaucratic dysfunctions that exist in the district. But even critics would be out of their gourds to argue that withholding the resources needed to pay teacher salaries would improve results in Portland Public Schools.

School Board members point to a renewed commitment to positive outcomes for students, and the district has reason to be proud: The graduation rate has risen more than 17 percentage points since 2010.

They can also point to independent reviews of the last levy, which show the money went where it was promised: to teachers in classrooms.

Let's do it again. Vote yes.

Vote by 8 pm Tuesday, Nov. 5

For the complete list of ballot dropsites go to: multco.us/dropsites

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.