Four Portland Bureau Directors Pen Letter to City Council Objecting to Consolidation of Permitting

The letter comes as two city commissioners spar over how best to fix the city’s broken permitting system.

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio. (John Rudoff/Photo Credit: ©John Rudoff 2022)

On Wednesday afternoon, four city bureau directors sent a letter to the five members of the Portland City Council objecting to the consolidation of the city’s permitting system pursued by Commissioner Carmen Rubio.

The letter comes as Rubio spars with Commissioner Mingus Mapps over how best to fix the city’s broken permitting system, a disjointed process that stretches across seven bureaus and has for decades perplexed city leaders and slowed housing development.

“A consolidation process, including new reporting structures, organizational charts, authority, expectation setting, staff supervising, etc., would take time away from doing the work above and slow progress,” wrote the directors of the transportation, parks, environmental services and water bureaus. “Staff don’t come to work just to issue permits for the city of Portland, they come to work because they believe in contributing to a safe, equitable, reliable transportation system for all Portlanders, a thriving urban tree canopy, clean and safe drinking water and surface water for the community and our watersheds. Efforts to retain staff without this tie to mission will be increasingly difficult.”

By the end of September, both Rubio and Mapps plan to bring separate proposals to the City Council on how to fix the system. Mapps earlier this week called his and Rubio’s plans “fundamentally incompatible.” (Mapps wants to review city permitting requirements and delete duplicative or contradicting code. Rubio aims to consolidate all permitting functions under a new permitting office.)

Notably, one bureau director who did not sign the letter is the head of the Bureau of Development Services, Rebecca Esau. That’s the bureau most directly involved with permitting; it’s also in Rubio’s portfolio of bureaus.

Three of the four bureau directors who signed the letter are under Mapps’ portfolio of bureaus. The fourth is under Commissioner Dan Ryan’s.

The letter makes clear the directors’ opposition to Rubio’s plan to consolidate all permitting under one centralized office, and also lists a number of other proposals that could hasten permitting while keeping permitting staff within their respective bureaus.

Among the proposals were ongoing code cleanup projects, making a permit task force initially led by Commissioners Mapps and Dan Ryan permanent, setting up a new customer website, developing a one-point-of-contact system for permit applicants, and unifying permitting across the infrastructure bureaus (the four bureaus whose directors signed the letter—a form of this is already included in an ongoing pilot project.)

Rubio said in response to the letter that the proposals mentioned by the bureau directors to hasten permitting, while valuable, do not address the core problem.

“Ultimately, an entity needs to have both the responsibility and authority to be able to make needed improvements and to be held accountable,” Rubio said. “The proposal doesn’t address any of these critical and structural issues. At the end of the day, a single, and accountable leader, overseeing one team, is needed to achieve the bold housing production goals announced this week.”

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