In a surprise move, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is reassigning the Bureau of Emergency Communications to himself—and not to Commissioner Amanda Fritz—after an ombudsman report documented dramatic management failures at the bureau that oversees the city's 911 system.
In a report issued last week, ombudsman Margie Sollinger documented that the failure of the bureau to accurately report 911 hold times—the key way the bureau measures its own performance. For more than a decade, the bureau had failed to account for how long 911 callers were waiting for an operator to pick up the phone.
Fritz oversaw the bureau before budget season, when the mayor assumed control of all the bureaus. Former Commissioner Steve Novick oversaw the bureau until December, but before Novick, Fritz had overseen it.
Assigning the bureaus is a main power that elevates the Portland mayor over his City Council colleagues under the commissioner form of government.
Today marks the second time that Wheeler is taking a bureau away from Fritz over management problems.
When he took office in January, the most significant decision was to take the Office of Neighborhood Involvement away from Fritz, citing management problems at the bureau. An auditor's report had documented the problems.
The mayor has not given Fritz an additional bureau this time to replace the one he's taking away.
The mayor's spokesman, Michael Cox, said the mayor's office was in the best position to coordinate between other bureaus as the work of improving BOEC's management is under way.
"Commissioner Fritz and our office have enjoyed a collegial and cooperative working relationship and we expect that to continue," says Cox. "Assigning BOEC to ourselves is by and large a product of our proactive agenda for the bureau."
Fritz's office issued an immediate statement, saying she was "disappointed" not to see through changes the bureau.
"The Mayor has decided to keep BOEC within his portfolio in order to manage the recruitment of a permanent director and to coordinate the response to the Ombudsman's report," says Fritz.
"While I am disappointed that my staff and I will not be able to see the process through at BOEC, I am very grateful to Lisa St. Helen for her leadership of the bureau as Interim Director, and to all the staff at BOEC who work so hard to get help to callers."
Wheeler had temporarily taken control all the bureaus as part of the budget process in an effort to unite his colleagues on decisions and discourage infighting over funding for their respective bureaus. Wheeler ran a smooth budget process with no significant clashes with the city commissioners. (There was a fight with the county over funding for the joint office for homeless services.)
But the longer hold times, first reported by WW, were a bombshell in City Hall.
Sollinger's report documented that BOEC had known for more than a year that they had failed to properly account for cell phone times. From December 2016 to April of this year, the average wait time for all calls to 911 was 23 seconds. In past years, the bureau had reported that callers only had to wait 1 second on average.
The bureau quietly disclosed the problem in budget hearings earlier this year.