Now is the season when the people who occupy Portland City Hall dream of running it.
As WW has previously reported, all five city commissioners are weighing bids for mayor in 2024. None has ruled one out. That means all five may be foraging for a signature achievement they can trumpet to voters.
And two of them have dialed in on the same issue: fixing the city’s busted permitting system, a root cause of Portland’s housing shortage.
Within two months’ time, Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Carmen Rubio will each bring a proposal before their council colleagues to fix the broken permitting system. And the proposals are mutually exclusive—Mapps and Rubio can’t both win.
At issue is a convoluted permitting process for building new housing that stretches across seven city bureaus and can leave developers in limbo for years.
Talk of permitting is a powerful sleep aid. But the political backdrop of the simmering duel is not. Whoever wins the battle may go into an election year with real political clout.
“It makes sense that each of them would be interested in having a political trophy, but particularly one that addresses the issue of the day: housing and homelessness,” says Chris Koski, political science and environmental studies professor at Reed College. “Being able to say you streamlined government is a really popular thing to say.”
Last month, WW reported that Commissioner Rubio planned to consolidate all permitting under one office that doesn’t yet exist—an idea she hopes to bring to the City Council for a vote as soon as August.
Just weeks later, Commissioner Mapps, who announced his run for mayor last month, told WW about his alternative to fix the permitting system—an initiative he says is “fundamentally incompatible” with Rubio’s plans, which he had strong words for.
“It’s very much a cosmetic fix that doesn’t get to the underlying causes,” Mapps says. “I’m awfully afraid that we’ll stop all the progress that we made over the past few years of building better business processes. That would be really unfortunate.”
Rubio tells WW that Mapps’ representation is inaccurate.
“There is a structural issue in the system. And I simply refuse to keep taking staff to work harder to overcome a system that’s not their fault and that’s not in their power to change,” Rubio says. “His refusal to support systemic change is the biggest barrier to a long-term solution.” (Mapps’ plan would comb through city code to clarify ambiguities and delete conflicting code, but keep permitting staff within their current bureaus. Rubio’s plan would bring all permitting staff under a new office and, her office says, clean up code simultaneously.)
Both commissioners have recently held positions of influence over the permitting system.
Earlier this year, Mayor Ted Wheeler reassigned bureaus under the new slate of city commissioners. He did so in anticipation of an overhaul of city government that kicks in on Jan. 1, 2025—but which the city began preparing for as soon as voters approved it last November.
The switch landed the various planning bureaus in Rubio’s portfolio: Housing; Planning and Sustainability; the city’s economic development arm, Prosper Portland; and the city agency that deals most directly with permitting, the Bureau of Development Services.
Buoyed by Gov. Tina Kotek’s aggressive goal of building 36,000 new housing units each year, Rubio undertook a number of initiatives to speed up the city’s production capacity. She surveyed developers and builders to figure out which of the city’s building requirements and code were most onerous (see “Seattle Is Winning,” page 7). Last month, she announced her intent to get to the heart of the matter: cutting down the time it takes to obtain city permits.
“We’ve been talking about this for over 25 years,” Rubio says. “There have been plenty of half steps that have been tried during that time. We need to be investing in one team and one system.”
Rubio says Gov. Kotek supports her plan and did from the start.
But less than a month after Rubio announced her plan, Mapps spoke to WW last week about his own proposal to fix the city’s permitting system: sifting through city code to rewrite pieces that are outdated or no longer relevant and eliminating duplicative and conflicting code. “There are literally thousands and thousands of micro-irrationalities [in code]”, Mapps says. “We need to review the entire code from A to Z, with an eye toward eliminating redundant and conflicting code.”
He says he’ll present his plan to the City Council before September—right around the same time Rubio aims to bring hers to the dais.
Mapps says he is “willing to eat the cost,” finding money to fund the project from his own bureaus: Environmental Services, Transportation and Water. He estimates it will take two or three staffers one to two years to complete. “I would imagine it being relatively cheap,” Mapps says. “A couple hundred thousand dollars, maybe.”
Mapps has long staked a claim to cutting red tape around permitting. He claims a task force he oversaw in tandem with Commissioner Dan Ryan cut “the amount of time to get permits out the door in half.” Data provided by BDS shows the city has reduced the time it takes to process permits internally—but the back and forth between the city and customers means there’s been little change from a year ago in the time it takes to get most permits. (Rubio’s office claims a decrease in workload likely contributed to the faster city processing times.)
Former longtime City Commissioner Randy Leonard tried to consolidate permitting in 2009 under the Bureau of Development Services but failed to win the support of his fellow commissioners. Leonard says he ran into resistance from city employees.
“The bureaucracy itself didn’t like the idea of consolidation, at least those that were going to be transferred to BDS,” Leonard recalls. “They feared potential job loss and decision making being politically influenced. Once the bureaucracy dug in and was able to capture the attention of three of my colleagues, I didn’t have the support.”
That may be a barrier this time around, too. A union that represents 100 BDS employees and another 65 that may be impacted by consolidation, Professional & Technical Employees Local 17, also expressed displeasure: “Moving people won’t help and may hurt review timelines as members look for transfer opportunities to stay within their home bureaus,” says union representative Rachel Whiteside. “A hasty consolidation is not a magic bullet.”
Mapps tells WW that permitting employees will “absolutely quit” under Rubio’s plan. Rubio says she’s made it clear that centralizing permitting will not result in job losses.
Leonard believes Mapps’ proposal is a half measure. “It cannot be effective unless there’s a singular chain of command,” he says. “The idea is good, but it should be done under the auspices of Rubio’s plan. That’s the only way it can work.”
Koski says both plans are logical—but both also have inherent vices. “You can see a scenario in which we have centralization, but if it’s centralization of a bunch of disparate code, then it will just be centralized bad decision making,” Koski says of Rubio’s plan.
In a little under 18 months, the method by which city commissioners traditionally establish their bona fides—by overseeing and protecting a portfolio of bureaus—will vanish because of charter reform. No longer will individual city councilors make policy for bureaus they control, and no longer will bureaus be places to wage war.
Koski says this is a prime example of why the city so badly needs charter reform.
“Putting individual politicians in charge of bureaus only gives them the tools to fight each other in ways that get in the way of good governance,” Koski says. “That’s the irony.”