Carmen Rubio Finds Unlikely Opposition to Single Permitting Office: Mingus Mapps

Mapps says his infrastructure bureaus are sorting through permitting snafus already—and is concerned about how further consolidation could interrupt those efforts.

Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the city’s Development Services and Housing bureaus, said in a June 6 memo she had concluded the city’s disjointed and lengthy permitting process must fall under one office.

“I have had five months to look at the intersection of housing production and our permitting services, and it is apparent is that the next step is the one many have been talking about for years yet has never taken hold,” Rubio wrote. “The city of Portland must unify its permitting functions within one entity.”

Rubio is not the first city commissioner in charge of permitting who’s tried to fix the deeply disjointed system. Developers must wade through up to seven bureaus to obtain permits to build housing, resulting in what’s often a yearslong process to obtain city permits. The city’s fragmented permits system is one of the reasons often cited for the city’s sluggish pace in building affordable housing and the resulting housing crisis.

But Rubio is meeting unlikely opposition from one City Council colleague and potential 2024 opponent: Commissioner Mingus Mapps. Mapps oversees the three largest public works bureaus: Water, Transportation and Environmental Services. All three regularly touch development that requires permits, both residential and infrastructure development.

In a recent interview with WW, Mapps expressed opposition to Rubio’s intent to consolidate all permitting functions under one office. He says a pilot project currently underway, in which one point person coordinates permits among Mapps’ service bureaus as well as Portland Parks & Recreation, is working well—and he doesn’t want further consolidation to jeopardize it.

“One of my concerns of late...is that there are some initiatives to move on to something different, and I really want to see this pilot project play itself out,” says Mapps, who formally announced Wednesday his bid for mayor in 2024. “I think we can be sometimes eager to make change without paying attention to what we’re actually doing.”

Mapps says he hasn’t yet seen a written proposal from Rubio’s office of what the permits office would look like, but he expressed skepticism about its efficacy.

“I know they are exploring creating a single permits office, which sounds great and whatnot,” Mapps says. “But we’ve already accomplished that to a significant degree in the infrastructure space, so I kind of don’t want to go back to ground zero on permitting, especially for public permits as we try to do another consolidation.”

Mapps’ opposition to Rubio’s permits office is ironic in part because he and Commissioner Dan Ryan formed a task force in 2021 to address the permitting backlog. That group produced a number of ideas for how to speed up permitting, and one of them included a central permitting office, much like what Rubio is now pursuing. The pilot project that streamlines permitting in Mapps’ bureaus was also born of the task force.

Rubio told WW on Friday that various city commissioners have discussed streamlining permits since the 1990s—yet it’s never happened.

“This is not a new issue. I fully can appreciate there’s a reason that it’s been challenging to get this done. But someone needs to make a hard call,” Rubio says. “I just don’t think it’s fair to keep asking city staff to do more in a system that essentially works against them. I don’t understand Mapps’ knee-jerk reaction to protect the status quo when it’s not working.”

Rubio directed staff to begin work on the permits office this July, with the goal of standing it up by July 2024.

Mapps is the only city commissioner that’s stated his intent to run for mayor, but it’s rumored that Rubio is considering a run, too. Mayor Ted Wheeler says he hasn’t ruled it out. And the skirmish over bureau consolidation could be viewed as two likely candidates trying to establish who deserves credit for getting things done at a dysfunctional City Hall.

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