After Mayor Ted Wheeler's state of the city address April 29, the head of the Portland Business Alliance, a representative of the Trail Blazers basketball franchise, an African-American veteran and school students asked him mild-mannered questions.
The event, including the questions from the audience, was without dramatic tension or any announcements of new policy initiatives. That's unusual for such a marquee speech, which Portland mayors often use to debut ambitious agendas. Wheeler's speech, by contrast, drew press attention for sticking to broad declarations of principles.
But the question-and-answer session did take one unexpected turn.
Jan Zuckerman, 61, an activist for Extinction Rebellion PDX, asked the mayor what he was going to do about the Zenith Energy oil terminal, which has been the site of two consecutive weeks of protests in Northwest Portland.
Zuckerman, who attended the speech as an adviser to students, has been arrested twice by Portland Police after activists planted gardens on the train tracks as a direct action against oil trains carrying Alberta tar sands oil.
"Now we have an increase in tar sands oil coming through our city, our proud city, our green city," she said to the mayor. "You talked a lot about courage and that it takes courage to do what you're doing. And I'm asking you, What courageous steps will you be taking to address this so that we can feel safe and so that we can address the very real catastrophic climate change that we are facing right now?"
Wheeler did not have a suggestion for how to block oil expansion at the site.
"Philosophically, we are alignment," the mayor said. "I do not want the city of Portland to be an export colony for fossil fuels. That is not a good economic equation for this city, and it's not in comport with our values around climate action."
But he admonished protesters to "follow the law" and cited, as his work on the issue, meetings with "regional partners" and the relevant city bureaus to check on the permits that have been requested by the company to update the Zenith facilities. And said his office is meeting with environmental groups and labor unions.
"Whatever I do, it will have to be legal and justifiable from a legal perspective, so that's the approach I'm taking," said Wheeler.