City Council Takes Important Step Toward Splitting Planning and Sustainability Commission in Two

The split comes in the wake of a spring 2022 report that showed the commission in crisis.

PEARL RISING: Construction along Northwest Naito Parkway. (Brian Burk)

The Portland City Council took the first step Wednesday to split Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission in two.

The effort to split the commission was sparked by a consultant’s report delivered to City Commissioner Carmen Rubio in April 2022 that described a critical commission, which advises the City Council on land use and planning policy, in an identity crisis.

The report found the 11-member commission was rendered ineffectual by unclear responsibilities, split ideologies among the commissioners, and years of muddled guidance from city leaders, including Rubio and her predecessors. In addition, members of the commission focused on climate resilience were sparring with other commissioners who prioritized land use issues—and commissioners seemed to be confused about the limits of their authority.

A city ordinance, if approved, would create a new Planning Commission and pledge to soon create a Sustainability Commission that focuses solely on climate issues.

The City Council on Wednesday pushed the ordinance forward to a second reading at next week’s hearing. All four city commissioners at the meeting (Mayor Ted Wheeler is at a mayors’ conference in Washington, D.C.) supported the ordinance.

“The ordinance represents the first step to creating two important commissions. One focused on long range land use planning, and the other focused on climate and sustainability,” Rubio told her colleagues on Wednesday. “The need for these two commissions is clear, as the oversight responsibilities related to both land use planning and sustainability in Portland have become more than one commission can undertake.”

Last fall, Rubio’s plan to split the commission into two met with some resistance. Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, served on the commission for 11 years before retiring pre-pandemic. Houck, who spoke to WW in August, said he “totally disagrees” with the decision to split it up. He argued that when the commission first merged planning and sustainability, in 2010, it “elevated issues related to sustainability” because the planning commission had more political clout.

At the Wednesday council hearing, current PSC chair Steph Routh applauded the move.

“It would be easy to simply continue the Planning and Sustainability Commission, which was established 14 years ago, but sunk costs are not sufficient reasons to continue when a better way is possible,” Routh said. “It would be hard to overstate how breathless with anticipation for the development of the Sustainability Commission we are.”

Mark Lineman, a transportation advocate, worried at the hearing that the split would weaken the city’s attentiveness to sustainability: “I’m disappointed this split is being done without simultaneously establishing the new Sustainability Commission. I think it makes Portland look like it doesn’t care as much about sustainability as it should...I’m also concerned it may be weak in the sense of not having the budget and staff that PSC currently has.”

If the ordinance is approved Jan. 25, the City Council will appoint members to the Planning Commission on Feb. 22 so it can begin its work in March.

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