On good days they're known as citizen watchdogs. On bad days, they're civic-minded pains in the neck.
If you've been to a publicmeeting in process-happy Portland, you know the type. They're the activists who testify time after time at City Council (and in front of the School Board, the county commission and, for extra measure, multiple little-known advisory groups).
One of the more enduring members of this species is Don Baack. The former president of the Hillsdale Neighborhood Association, Baack rejects the term "gadfly," as do many of his ilk. "I get more things done," he says.
The 72-year-old retired timber executive can't imagine Portland without people like him, private citizens who devote countless volunteer hours righting wrongs they see in their communities. "It would be a cold place," he says.
It would also most certainly be boring.
Individual insurrection in America dates back to the 18th century and Thomas Paine, and stretches to Howard Zinn, who died last week at 87. The author of the 1980 classic A People's History of the United States, Zinn debunked the official narrative of U.S. history by popularizing the hidden truths about this nation's founding.
In honor of Zinn, we've brought together vignettes about the Portland area's most relentless citizen watchdogs: the men and women who set out each day to puncture the established version of the news by hounding everyone from the Portland Water Bureau to Multnomah County Animal Services.
Members of this fragmented tribe are as unique as their individual causes. Not all of them are successful—or popular. But each persists with the determination of Sisyphus. Here are their stories.
DOG'S BEST FRIEND: Gail O'Connell-Babcock rails against Multnomah County's animal shelter and "pit bull breed prejudice." IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Multnomah County Animal Services euthanizes too many cats and dogs—almost 4,000 last year.
"There are people who feel we're just not making progress soon enough," says Mike Oswald, director of animal services. "We all agree with that."
Was banned from Multnomah County Animal Services by the Sheriff's Office in 2006 over allegations she upset staff and the public by handing out business cards and demanding public records.
Married, with three children.
In April 1995, a Rottweiler named Pookie was playing behind a chain-link fence in a Gresham backyard. Next door, a 2-year-old girl named Alicia played.
Then everything went terribly wrong. Alicia put her foot through the fence, and Pookie bit the child.
Later, when O'Connell-Babcock learned Pookie had been sentenced to death, she rallied her husband—a lawyer who specializes in maritime law—to appeal Pookie's case. The couple won, and Multnomah County Animal Services pardoned Pookie.
But that was just the beginning of O'Connell-Babcock's crusade to save as many pets as she could from the Multnomah County shelter. "The agency is unforgiving," she says. "That's how fascist regimes work."
If this makes her sound a tad crazy, O'Connell-Babcock is surprisingly reasonable in person. She has an undergraduate degree from one of the country's top schools, Swarthmore College, and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Miami.
But the mere mention of her name triggers weariness in the voice of Mike Oswald, the county's animal shelter director. He maintains that, despite O'Connell-Babcock's claims, the agency's top priority is returning animals to their owners. Records on the agency's website show the shelter kills fewer animals per capita than most other comparable cities.
The 66-year-old Sherwood woman persists anyway. Every two weeks, O'Connell-Babcock checks records for the names of people who've had their petsseized for biting someone or roaming off-leash. She contacts them and offers her husband's legal services for free to challenge the shelter's decision to put Fifi or Fido to sleep.
O'Connell-Babcock says she's paid thousands of dollars for public records over the past 15 years. She's spent even more helping low-income pet owners buy kennels and build protective fences. Lisa Clay, a Portlander of Cuban and African descent, calls O'Connell-Babcock and her husband "the Dr. and Mrs. King of animal rights."
A recent editorial in The Oregonian, about one man's quest to assign Oregon a "state dog," provoked a typical response from O'Connell-Babcock. The headline? "Anything but the Pit Bull."
She called it an "ignorant stupid harmful essay promoting pit bull breed prejudice" in a Jan. 26 email to 15 reporters at The Oregonian, WW and the Portland Tribune. "Would you write a similarly denigrating piece titled 'Anything but an African-American'? 'Anything but a woman'?"
Effectiveness: O'Connell-Babcock's activism hasn't changed policy at the shelter to her liking, but she has helped numerous pet owners.
EMAIL MAN: Richard Ellmyer says protecting Portsmouth "more often than not involves defending the neighborhood from government." IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
The Housing Authority of Portland "concentrates" subsidized housing in North Portland.
"If he's anything, he's persistent," says Steve Rudman, executive director of the housing authority. "His tactics are not effective in terms of really trying to change public policy."
Ellmyer, known for his lengthy mass emails, is a candidate in the Democratic primary this May for state representative in House District 44.
Married for 39 years. No children.
Strips of 3-foot-wide reflective foil cover the pitched ceiling inside the front room of Ellmyer's Portsmouth home. Ellmyer says the foil provides excellent insulation. But the effect it creates—of a giant tinfoil hat—also seems appropriate, given Ellymer's anti-government focus for much of the past decade.
A resident of North Portland for almost 40 years, Ellmyer started his fight about nine years ago when a friend casually asked, "Have you heard what's going on at Columbia Villa?'"
Columbia Villa is the subsidized housing complex that opened in 1942. The 850-unit complex reopened in 2005 as New Columbia a few blocks from Ellmyer's home. It's one of about 40 sites managed by the Housing Authority of Portland.
"I didn't know anything about HAP at the time," says Ellymer, 63.
Today Ellymer, who wears bolo ties and multicolored fleece vests, boasts of having written 300,000 to 400,000 words about HAP on his website, goodgrowthnw.org.
Ellmyer's main contention is that HAP "concentrates" public housing in just a few neighborhoods, especially his own.
That criticism—which Ellmyer shares in his frequent, impenetrable emails to local journalists, politicians and neighbors—sometimes strikes people as thinly veiled racism or classism. Ellmyer denies it. Ask him what he has against poor people, and his already loud voice gets louder. "I take offense at that question," he says.
For all his bluster, there is a sliver of truth in Ellmyer's collection of cataloged offenses. It is not good policy to "concentrate" subsidized housing, says HAP director Steve Rudman. "In an abstract way, we agree," he says. "On balance, we don't have that situation in Portland."
Effectiveness: Ellymer's emails are about as welcome in some local inboxes as Nigerian email hoaxes.
Retired Clackamas County parole officer and union president.
Wants to maintain the Mount Tabor Reservoirs as they were built around 1900.
"I have to follow the law," says Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversees the Water Bureau. Jones, he says, is "not happy with that."
Jones was part of a citizens panel that helped pick Portland's attorney in the city's fight with the Environmental Protection Agency over the reservoirs.
Unclear; she declined to be interviewed for this story.
When the Portland Water Bureau issued a two-day alert to westside residents to boil their water last November, Jones wrote bureau director David Shaff to express her deep skepticism. "Many in the community find the timing of this highly unusual incident quite suspicious," she wrote. Jones' questions about the incident stem from a years-long battle between Portland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over a safe water rule known as LT2. In November, the EPA stood poised to order Portland to decommission its three drinking water reservoirs at Mount Tabor Park. According to her emails, Jones suggests the E. coli contamination could have been manufactured to support the reservoirs' closure.
A 54-year-old Mount Tabor resident, Jones has been fighting with the Water Bureau for about 10 years to keep the majestic reservoirs open—despite concerns from officials that doing so made the drinking water susceptible to attack and the spreading of disease. In 2003, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, then in charge of the Water Bureau, pushed plans to bury the reservoirs. But an outpouring of community objections overwhelmed those plans.
Six years later, in December 2009, the EPA ruled once and for all that the uncovered reservoirs were "vulnerable" to contamination. Unless Portland can persuade the feds to change the rule, the city must comply.
But Jones continues her email campaign to city officials, decrying the changes to the water system and "the incredible orchestrated effort by the Water Bureau" to "mislead the media and the public with regard to our Bull Run water."
Effectiveness: Jones delayed plans to close the reservoirs and forced the city to examine other options.
POTTY MOUTH: Peter Apanel says the success of a redesigned PGE Park "depends on a lot of people not going to the bathroom." IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Retired researcher for a McMenamins-style company in California that converted old buildings into new uses.
The redesign of PGE Park for Major League Soccer doesn't meet MLS's recommendations for stadium design.
They get to make the rules for their own league," Mayor Sam Adams told Apanel at a recent hearing. "I know your passion is in the right place."
Apanel says he thinks he was born in the same New Jersey hospital as Bruce Springsteen.
On a sunny afternoon last August, Apanel bought a ticket to PGE Park as the Portland Beavers played the Tacoma Rainiers. He stayed only three innings.
That's odd, perhaps. Except the reason Apanel went was even weirder. The 58-year-old Southeast Portland resident wanted to measure the depth of PGE Park's seats, and what he discovered was shocking to him, if no one else. PGE Park's seats are 30 inches apart, and to Apanel, that was more evidence the City of Portland's investment in the stadium's $31 million redesign is ill-conceived.
The reason? Major League Soccer's own recommendations say seats should be 33 inches apart.
There is a major league flaw in Apanel's contention, which Mayor Sam Adams pointed out when Apanel testified at City Hall on Jan. 27. MLS's "recommendations" on stadium design are non-binding. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is allowed to retrofit PGE Park in a different fashion, and with city leaders' blessing, that's what he's doing.
Apanel's back-up argument goes something like this: High attendance at PGE Park is crucial to repaying the city for its investment. If the design isn't optimal, many fans will stay home. "It's not a frivolous thing when you want to spend $31 million and it basically can't be undone," he says.
According to Apanel, there won't be enough toilets or urinals to accommodate all the Widmer-guzzling fans when the Timbers begin MLS play in 2011. By his count, the ratio of pissoirs to people will be 1 to 121. It should be 1 to 47, he says. "It's an inconvenient truth," he says with the conviction of Al Gore. "There aren't enough fixtures for people to take a pee at any given time."
Effectiveness: The Council is still OK'ing the deal.
Secretary of Peace and Justice Works, a nonprofit that also includes Portland Copwatch.
Portland police lack adequate civilian oversight.
"He is persistent, and sometimes he's even right," says Gary Blackmer, Portland's auditor from 1999 to 2009. "Unfortunately, it doesn't happen often enough to contribute to the overall good."
Handelman—who works part time at jobs he declined to describe—earns no money for his work at Portland Copwatch.
Declined to say.
At 45, Handelman is perhaps the Police Bureau's most dedicated critic.
To keep Portlanders abreast of perceived police misconduct in the city, he monitors the citizen group that monitors police, the Citizen Review Committee of the Independent Police Review division. With another group, Flying Focus Video Collective, he films meetings for broadcast on Portland Community Media. He also publishes "The People's Police Report," a three-times-a-year newsletter that combines humor and exacting coverage of the Police Bureau. (The title is a nod to Howard Zinn, Handelman says, and is better than the first option: "What's Up With Those Nutty Police?")
Handelman's writings about the bureau and the elected officials who oversee it can be sarcastic. Words like "independent" and police "union" often appear in scare quotes. In a recent edition of the newsletter, it repeated the words of Assistant Chief Brian Martinek, who said all people should be treated equally by police. Then the newsletter translated them. "We think he meant all should be dealt with harshly," the newsletter read.
Some cops might despise Handelman. But they don't discount him. Portland police were caught sending an undercover spy into a 1992 meeting of the Copwatch parent group, Peace and Justice Works.
Blackmer, who was responsible for administering the IPR when he was Portland's elected auditor, was often at odds with Handelman. But Debbie Aiona, action chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of Portland, calls Handelman an "incredible resource for the community."
"Even at City Hall," Aiona says, "I think they've come in recent years to understand the depth of his commitment."
Effectiveness: His newsletter has a strong viewpoint, but Handelman keeps Portlanders informed.
GETTING THE LEAD OUT: Tamara Rubin says the Obamas, who live in a historic old house, are unwittingly the poster family for potential lead hazards. IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Lead poisoning is a hazard facing middle-class children, yet programs to educate parents about this danger are not aimed at them.
A friend recently sent Rubin a Facebook message telling her to focus more on her kids rather than lead. "This
about my kids," Rubin says.
She takes a banner to conferences that reads: "My children have lead poisoning. Do yours?"
Married, with four children.
Seemingly idyllic scenes on the streets of placid Sellwood suddenly take distorted shapes with Rubin as your guide.
A children's play area has peeling paint. Charming antique toys conceal hidden dangers. Old windows are covered in dust. Everywhere Rubin looks she sees lead hazards.
"I've been feeling like a wack job lately," says Rubin, 40. "People just don't get it."
Five years ago, after a contractor removed paint from her 96-year-old home, lead fumes enveloped Rubin's family's living quarters. Two of Rubin's children suffered lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities.
Preventing harm to other kids has become a second full-time job that has meandered in unusual directions. Last year, she captured the attention of backyard-chicken fans after writing a lengthy letter to the Portland Tribune. Her topic? Warning readers that backyard chickens could transmit lead poisoning to children through their eggs.
Rubin's latest cause has been the Sellwood Community Center a few blocks from her home. Believing potential lead problems exist at the 99-year-old building, Rubin prodded the center's board to act. Recently, the Multnomah County Health Department took seven samples from the building. One swab—from inside a window frame—showed significant levels of lead.
Portland Parks & Recreation responded by blocking people from opening the window. It's considering a long-term plan. "I'm a little more outspoken about this issue than people are open to," she says. "It's really hard to convince people their homes are poisonous. They don't want to consider it."
Effectiveness: Safety improvements rarely happen as soon as Rubin would like, but she has kept the issue in front of parents.
VISIBLE MAN: Clifford Walker says Portlanders are uncomfortable confronting racism. IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Civil rights activist
Portland is littered with symbols of racism. A glaring one is Jefferson High School, which honors a slave owner. Portland Public Schools should change the school's name.
There was never any measurable support for this from the community when I was on the board," says Marc Abrams, a Portland School Board member from 1995 to 2003.
Walker maintains a website, noslavetraders.com, railing against the lionization of America's founding fathers.
Walker, chairman of the volunteer Oregon Commission on Black Affairs, has been working for 15 years to remove "the signs and symbols of racial oppression" from our national currency—and from Portland's landscape.
Target No. 1 in Portland is Jefferson High School, the city's only majority black high school. Walker, 66, wants to change the school's name. One suggestion? Paul Robeson High, to honor the African-American civil rights worker and performer.
Walker, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1976 and city commissioner in 2002, got his diploma from Jeff in 1961. Although he didn't think much about the symbolism of the school's name then, he's made it his job to make others think about it now, 100 years after the school's founding. "People are not sensitive to the pain of African-Americans," Walker says. "They're trained to disregard us. They're taught at a very early age to worship the people who oppress us."
Walker has brought this issue to the attention of Portland School Board many times. "They're just not ready to lead the district in a new direction," he says.
Effectiveness: Jefferson remains Jefferson. But Walker has succeeded in getting the City of Portland's Human Rights Commission to hear his case Feb. 3. We doubt it can do much, but Walker has kept the debate alive.
"TRAIL GUY": Don Baack says, "The inertia of bureaucracy is the adversary." IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Retired wood products executive
Portland lacks a "new paradigm" for defining pedestrian and bicycle connections on unbuilt rights of way.
"The city has always been supportive of SW Trails," says Don Gardner, a retired transportation manager. "I personally believe he could have been much more effective if he had used more tact."
His inspiration was Siskiyou, a now-dead golden retriever.
Married, with two grown children.
Baack has devoted the past 15 years of his life to building walking trails—all because of Siskiyou, an overactive dog that once needed lots of exercise.
The problem then was that the paths in Southwest Portland were disconnected. No maps existed.
Baack, 72, changed that, but not without creating some unrest among Portland's bureaucrats. Not all of Baack's work has come with appropriate city permits. "There's a dispute about that," Baack says. "We weren't told we needed permits."
But Baack estimates he's built 500 stairs and 50 pedestrian connections with the group he founded, SW Trails. He prodded the city to publish the area's first map of neighborhood trails. He's also helped install neighborhood drinking fountains and put up signs directing pedestrians to trails. Folks in Hillsdale call him "the trail guy."
His stair-building in the public rights of way screeched to a halt in 2008, after Baack helped construct steps in one yard and the homeowners realized Portland's sidewalk rules left them potentially liable for accidents. That's when Portland made it impossible to build more of Baack's connections, he says.
There is a solution, Baack says. For two years, Baack has been writing letters, emailing and attending numerous neighborhood meetings to get Portland to accept liability for the few pedestrian connections he wants to create. "I think it's imperative that they do," Baack says.
Effectiveness: So far, city attorneys haven't agreed on language for a new regulation.