In Portland, bad government 'R' us

This week has given us several prominent examples of the hot mess of dysfunction that is local govermnment in Portland. Of course, I've been ruminating on this for a couple of deacades now, but this week it's really been in my face.

One of things that I've always thought holds Portland back is the setup of the City Council. It's the "city commission" form of government, a quaint idea that probably worked well in some place like Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in some year like 1903 but makes no sense for Portland 2021, or even 1981. Under this system, the elected politicians run the city bureaus, at least nominally. They come in knowing nothing, and often with few or no managerial skills. But they are actually put in charge of the day-to-day operation of City Hall departments, right away. The mayor makes the assignments, and he or she uses that power for poltical purposes. A lot of the real clout lies with faceless, nameless, arrogant bureaucrats who know what's really going on and are experts in putting one over on the boss. There's a new boss every few years. It's a circus.

A separate problem is that the City Council members all run for office on a citywide basis. They don't represent any particular part of the city, and they act like it. They get free tax money to finance their political campaigns, and so they don't even have to answer to fat cats. To be elected, you just spout left-wing platitudes and try to look more hipster-friendly than your opponent.

They keep saying the form of government is going to be changed, but they've been saying that for 30 years. Don't hold your breath.

Anyway, that's not the point of this post. No, this week's failure stories reveal other problems, just as bad as the commission business. To get anything done on a lot of issues around here, you have to navigate not only the goofball City Council, but also the lovely ladies of the county commission and the infernal regional graft factory known as Metro

This week we see the mayor, Dud Wheeler, and his fall guy on homeless issues, commissioner Dan Ryan, getting the cold shoulder from the county chair, Deadly Deborah, the Latest Kafoury, over long-term funding for cleaning up the squatter life that defiles the city's sidewalks, parks, and roadsides. She has her pot of money, and she's not letting the city have it unless the city does things her way. Her way is a nice little apartment for every tent guy, some day. So count on nothing being done for a long time, if ever.

It's time to merge the city and county governments, the way some real cities have done. For example, it's been the combined City and County of San Francisco for many, many years. We should have the City and County of Portland. Give it some native American name, if that will help make it happen. But do away with the duelling political boards and bureaucracies that force us to navigate two sets of egos and pipedreams just to screw in a lightbulb.

Or make that three sets. We're also reading now that the smart idea to set up a car camp at the Expo Center can't get anywhere because – get this – the Metro government is demanding too much rent from the city. Buried way down in this story:

The city was in talks with Metro about using part of the Expo Center parking lot as a car camping village, but Ryan said it was too pricey of an option for the city to stomach.

I am so used to garbage from the local government here that rarely do I ever slap my head reading about it any more, but in this case, I had to give it my loudest "WTF?" To get a sensible managed homeless camp set up on public property, we have to have two sets of bureaucrats negotiating rent with each other? That is so exquisitely wrong that it deserves some kind of medal. To have Metro hold out for more money from the dying city is borderline criminal. And for what, the funky old Expo Center, which is surrounded by homeless filth? As the kids say, GMAFB.

Metro was designated 50 years ago as a land use planning authority. The idea was to slow down the build-out of Portland into the surrounding rural areas, and provide some order to that process. Well, mission accomplished. Portland is now built out, to Bridgeport Village, to Gresham, to Tanasbourne and beyond. The trains run from Hillsboro to the airport. The reason to have a Metro pretty much no longer exists. Metro certainly shouldn't be collecting an income tax, running a zoo and an empty convention center, vaguely maintaining the public cemeteries, farting around with landfills and recycling, building a white elephant hotel, and now becoming the boss on homelessness in Portland. The day after you merge the city and the county, you should abolish Metro and restore its functions to the city-county and surrounding municipalities.

No other metropolitan area has a Metro, because it's an additional layer of government that generates little or no real benefit. Drive around Portland and you'll see that it hasn't made our area any better in many years.

Will any of my proposed structural changes ever come to pass? Highly unlikely. You'd have to get it through the state Legislature, with bobbleheads like Grandma Tina Kotek and Civil War veteran Peter Courtney running the show. They couldn't get these things done even if they wanted to, and they like the status quo just fine, thank you. Keep the unions happy and they'll be in power for as long as they want to be.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, the recent news also spotlights the fact that Portland has developed over the years a shadow government of private companies that perform some of the most crucial government functions. For example, there was a lot of noise this week about Downtown Clean and Safe, a private nonprofit that does police work and litter pickup downtown. Police work and litter pickup that is paid for, handsomely, with tax dollars. The city signs a contract, writes a check to the nonprofit, and washes its hands of what happens next. They just re-upped for another five years. I hope they do a better job than they've been doing the last five. If there are two things that downtown Portland isn't, they're clean and safe.

Another nonprofit in the shadows is something called the Regional Arts and Culture Council, which among other things, decides what is done with the art that's owned by the city and displayed in public places. This week the RACC decided that the Lincoln statue that was trashed by the black-bloc-heads should not go back up in the South Park Blocks. Neither should the beloved elk statue go back up where it belongs in Lownsdale Square.

Who the heck are these people, and why are they deciding these things? Why can't our elected officials do their jobs? And are these nonprofits subject to same public records rules and ethics restrictions that the Council members and city employees are? Something seems very wrong.

A reader recently pointed me at another one: something called Worksystems. According to the O, this outfit "serves as the city’s workforce development organization." Huh? Apparently, if a grant comes into the city to create jobs, the city turns it over to Worksystems, a nonprofit, to dish out. This time around, Worksystems "will give $30,000 in gift cards to 600 students at Portland State to spend at downtown businesses.... Worksystems will also use money from a state grant and federal coronavirus relief funding — allocated to the nonprofit by the city — to pay roughly 30 students $16 an hour to work part time at downtown restaurants and retail shops starting as soon as October."

Whatever you may think of "allocating" tax dollars to pay the payrolls of private businesses like restaurants, the burning question I have is why the money's getting passed through a middleman like Worksystems. You can just imagine how much administrative overhead that adds. How many bureaucrats does Worksystem have on its own payroll? I count 31 people on this webpage. That's a lot of lard.

There are way too many unsupervised pots of public money around Portland: Metro, Tri-Met, OHSU, the school boards and "educational service districts," and the Port, just to name a few. But as if that weren't bad enough, it turns out that there's another whole set of private pots into which the tax dollars go. They're "nonprofits," which means they don't have private shareholders. But that doesn't mean that nobody's getting rich, stealing, or wasting money.


  1. Are you kidding? No way the politicians ever agree to a scheme that cuts the number of positions by two thirds and reduces the excuses for doing nothing by 98%. Why, next thing you'll be suggesting a unicameral Legislature and apportioning electoral votes by congressional district ...

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with every word you typed - burn it down!


  3. ‘Will any of the my proposed structural changes ever come to pass? Highly unlikely. You'd have to get it through the state Legislature, with bobbleheads like Grandma Tina Kotek and Civil War veteran Peter Courtney running the show. They couldn't get these things done even if they wanted to, and they like the status quo just fine, thank you. Keep the unions happy and they'll be in power for as long as they want to be.’

    That’s your nut graph right there. It explains why we’re pretty much screwed for eternity.

  4. I've been around long enough to remember the last City/County consolidation effort in the early 70's. That was defeated at the ballot box. Then there have been previous attempts at City charter reform but those have been defeated too. The power structure in Portland like it just the way it is.

    I remember at the time when they were formulating (they I believe was the Tri County Local Government Study Committee or something like that) what Metro would be, the selling point to get voters to approve it was that it would eliminate the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG) which was universally disliked and consolidate it with the Metropolitan Service District (MSD, responsible for solid waste) and call it Metro. The groups long range strategy was to eventually take over the Port of Portland and TriMet.

    Then there was Resolution "A", an agreement between Portland and Multnomah County to restructure services. The County was going to focus on service that were available county-wide such as health and human services libraries, regional park, tax collect and jails. The city would focus on city services like police, fire, local road and streets. and parks. People and assets were transferred between governments. The City got a bunch of roads in the deal along with some of the County's gas tax money. Resolution "A" was the brain child of Earl Blumenauer and mark Gardner. You can see it didn't stick as just about every public agency now is in the human services business.

    So, no, I don't see any of what you are suggesting become reality. Everyone is to intent on building their empire and besides, when it comes down to it, who's fire chief is going to resign.

  5. I often come back to read this particular post. It's hilarious, it's introductory, the ¨civil war veteran¨ line deserves a Pulitzer. I think we should have a "featured articles pages" so the first-time wanderer bumps into this and not one of your dog posts which I still don't quite get (in good humor).


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