Donnie Oliveira Was Quietly Placed in Charge of Portland’s Most Controversial Project. He Explains His Strategy.

“Many of these organizations have operating budgets of $200,000, and we’re like, ‘I don’t know, do you want a million?’”

Donnie Oliveira will lead Portland's preparation for devastating heat waves, like the one that baked the city one year ago this week. (Chris Nesseth)

Before voters approved the ballot measure that created the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, the agency that oversees the fund was just a little policy shop that drew up 20-year plans for the city’s growth and regulated trash haulers.

Then, in 2019, PCEF began taxing big retailers to fund green jobs and drive climate projects in low-income communities of color. The pandemic hit shortly afterward, and people redirected money from travel to stuff. Instead of buying plane tickets from Alaska Airlines, they bought patio furniture at Target.

Taxes on those purchases created a cash tsunami at PCEF and, by extension, its caretakers at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. The fund has almost $300 million to spend in the fiscal year that starts July 1. By comparison, BPS’s budget is just $22 million.

Spending the PCEF money has been tricky. A series of high-profile setbacks in the first round of grants delayed the second. Those will be approved July 13.

The man now tasked with wrangling the PCEF elephant is Donnie Oliveira, 42. He took over BPS on June 3, two months after director Andrea Durbin left to spend more time with her family. Oliveira had been Durbin’s deputy for two years, and before that, he was BPS’s communications head.

His promotion occurred without fanfare—in fact, the bureau didn’t publicize it for two weeks, until hours after WW broke the news.

Oliveira is a native Californian. Thinking he would go to law school, he got a degree in anthropology with an emphasis on medieval studies from the University of California, Davis, in 2003. But while in college, he got hooked on energy politics and policy.

He moved to San Francisco and started a program to recycle waste from concert venues.

A huge San Francisco Giants fan, he did the same thing at what is now Oracle Park, diverting 90% of its waste from landfills. In 2014, he co-authored San Francisco’s climate action plan.

He moved to Oregon in 2018 to work at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

We got the first interview with Oliveira since his promotion to what is certain to be a challenging position. Here’s what he had to say.

WW: Why didn’t BPS announce your appointment with a press release?

Donnie Oliveira: I’ve just been heads down. From a bureau perspective, nothing’s changed since Andrea left. We were on the same page on strategy. It’s not like a new director coming in. It was more “just keep the work going.” We’ve got some really big stuff coming up this summer. The stakes are getting higher. I haven’t been focused on my own moment.

How did PCEF change BPS?

PCEF came in and completely upended what we do. All of a sudden, we were one of the biggest fund administrators in the state. We had an additional $90 million annually when we were planning for $44 million. We had to build all the scaffolding to catch that money and give it out. It’s a pretty big deal to get $90 million out the door once. But this is $90 million, then $90 million, then $90 million. Organizations in Oregon haven’t seen resources at this scale, and they have to catch these dollars. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem. Many of these organizations have operating budgets of $200,000, and we’re like, “I don’t know, do you want a million?”

We’ve heard some other city agencies are sniffing around PCEF’s pot of money, trying to find a way to get a piece of it. Is that the case?

My most diplomatic version of that story is that a lot of really talented people have really good ideas about how to spend money in the city, and PCEF is not off-limits to those ideas.

So people are knocking on the door?

Yes. It looks like we’re just sitting on a lot of money. It’s completely appropriate for people to be looking around for how to solve housing or other problems. We’re in a housing emergency. I don’t begrudge people who see what looks like a stagnant pot of money and say, “Well, let’s use that.” I understand that. And I have a responsibility to remind everybody that we’re building something in response to a ballot initiative. And the ballot language was really restrictive.

How has PCEF changed its vetting and approval system in response to the $11 million heat pump grant that had to be withdrawn?

We added a layer. I apologize to Biko Taylor, the city’s chief procurement officer, but our systems as a city are broken. We need an entire overhaul of how we do contracts and grants. BPS shouldn’t have been holding the bag on coming up with a system this important. There was no guidance.

One proven method of fighting climate change is to plant more trees. But last year PCEF denied a grant to Friends of Trees. Should you be doing more to get new trees in the ground?

We spend a lot of time working with organizations to help them pivot from doing landscape work to becoming tree planters and arborists. It’s just taking a little more time for us to build up that scaffolding with our community partners. I’m really confident that we’ll see more organizations ready to put forward meaningful programs.

Every time we do a PCEF story, we get email from people saying it’s a colossal waste of money because the projects don’t appear to have an immediate climate impact. What do you say to those readers?

People need to see a thing, a tangible object. We hear that. But the idea that just because the money’s there, it magically turns into stuff? That’s not how it works. The cool thing is that the results are starting to show up. The heat pumps [to cool low-income homes] are getting installed. We turned dollars into installations in less than six months. For government, that’s pretty aggressive.

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