An unplanned departure

The head of the Portland "planning and sustainability" office has abruptly resigned. Andrea Durbin, who held the position for roughly three years, says she wants to spend more time with her family.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, it is time for me to focus on my family and being more present for my daughter during her last two years before she leaves for college,” Durbin said in a statement. “If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it is that life is too short. I’ve decided it is time to prioritize my family. I will be working closely with Commissioner Rubio and BPS leadership during this transition.”

Uh huh. There's nothing high school juniors and seniors crave more than quality time with their parents all week long.

Oh, well. A nice $195,000 severance would help ease anyone's pain.

Durbin's hasty exit can be traced to problems with the city's three-year-old "clean energy tax" (or whatever doublespeak they use to label it) imposed on big business. The tax, which Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has claimed as her "baby" and until now has been administered by Durbin under the watchful eye of Commissioner Carmen Rubio, has raised way more revenue than the city projected. And the money is sitting in the bank with no good direction for how it's going to be spent.

The last time we heard about the fund was in December, when the City Council awarded an $11.5 million grant out of it to a minority business run by a person who turned out to have done hard time in prison for fraud. When her background was exposed, the city quickly rescinded the grant.

Then last Thursday, the city auditor issued a polite report that nonetheless reached some less-than-happy conclusions:

Voters approved a tax to create the Portland Clean Energy Fund in 2018 as an ambitious way to tackle climate change and social inequities. At the end of the last fiscal year, the tax had generated more than $185 million since its inception. The Portland Clean Energy Fund program in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability expected to spend $60 million on grants annually to achieve the legislation’s goals.

This audit assessed whether the program put management systems in place to implement the legislation. We found that the program had made progress with some elements, but othe­­­rs were not yet fully implemented or needed direction from City Council. The program:

- Began developing accountability systems but needs timeframes for completion;

- Needed guidance from its volunteer committee and decisions by Council on climate goals, capacity building, and expectations for oversight; and

- Identified challenges in managing the upcoming administrative cost limit because of unpredictable revenues.

Not addressing these elements could jeopardize the City’s ability to meet the legislative intent of the voter-approved program.

Staff and volunteer committee members who manage the program should set timeframes to complete all elements of the legislation and make plans transparent. In areas where goals, responsibilities, or intentions were unclear, Planning and Sustainability management and committee members should seek guidance from Council, propose legislative amendments to City Code where necessary, and refine their systems accordingly.

In other words, after three years, they're awash with cash, nobody knows what they're doing, and nobody's minding the store. 

The Portland Business Alliance, which is the chamber of commerce whose members actually pay the tax, was quite a bit more blunt than the auditor was. In a heated statement issued yesterday, the PBA said, among other things:

In 2018, when the Portland Clean Energy tax was proposed, the Portland Business Alliance funded an analysis by the highly respected EcoNorthwest. This study concluded that the tax was structured similar to a sales tax; that it would apply to wider range of industries than just retail businesses; and, that it would raise far more than supporters claimed. The Alliance also argued that Measure 26-201 lacked accountability measures and independent oversight, which made the fund vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse. When this study was released, it was dismissed by supporters as inaccurate, and the Alliance was accused of using scare tactics. Four years later, all of these conclusions have since been proven accurate. 

We now know conclusively that this tax has raised more than double the amount supporters told Portland taxpayers it would. This amount would be even larger if the City Council had not taken emergency action to exclude industries like construction, insurance, and retirement plan management from being subject to what was supposed to be a “retail” tax. And we now know that the fund has been a target for millions of dollars of fraud. 

The Portland Clean Energy Fund, which was sold to the community based on a promise of creating green energy jobs, requires immediate intervention with all options on the table for consideration, including repeal....

[T]he City Council must act immediately to halt the planned distribution of $100m planned for this year. It would be complete mismanagement for the Council to allow these expenditures to go forward with the findings released last week. This type of mismanagement of historic amounts of funding is precisely why the City’s credibility with voters is at an all-time low....

What’s worse is that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) attempted to impose two additional clean energy taxes on employers this past year knowing it had over $170m available for this very purpose. Similarly, those proposed taxes had no defined outcomes, little to no applicability to the goal of emissions reduction, and a striking lack of accountability. BPS is the bureau also tasked with ensuring our collective city is clean and managing litter pickup. Given the current state of our beloved Portland, especially its central core, we have to question if management is focused on the delivery of basic services that our city so desperately needs....

It is also time to evaluate the need for management changes within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. While climate change threatens all of us, we need solutions that work, not false promises and failed management.  

I was going to call it a "blistering" manifesto, but somebody else beat me to it. Next thing you know, Durbin, previously the long-time head of the Oregon Environmental Council, declared herself a born-again soccer mom.

I think the PBA has hit the nail on the head here, and has been doing so from the start. A nine-figure slush fund, conceived by Hardesty and run by Rubio and the bureaucracy – it was preposterous to think that it could possibly go right, and it hasn't.

If you want to tax big businesses unmercifully, go ahead, that's the Portland way. But for crying out loud, spend the money on something we actually need, and knock off the grants to the nonprofit bobbleheads and grifters. And hire some managers who manage more than their retirement accounts.


  1. Same deal, different day.
    By its own actions and inaction, Portland city government has become so irreversibly incompetent and corrupt as to make new crimes of political and fiscal malfeasance not merely unfortunate, but expected.


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