My former hometown of Portland, Oregon, is proud of its international reputation for sustain- ability and land-use and transportation planning. But lately the city government has descended to the level of a sitcom.
Episode 1 – The Election: In the wake of a scandal in which a former mayor (and covert leader of the city’s light- rail mafia) admitted statutorily raping a 14-year-old girl when he was mayor, voters elect city commissioner Samuel Adams to the mayor’s office. Adams becomes the first openly gay mayor of a large American city despite rumors – which he vociferously denies – that he had had an affair with an intern in a legislative office.
Episode 2 – The Confession: Three weeks after being sworn in, Adams admits to reporters that he did have an affair with the intern – though he claims he and the boy did nothing more than make out in the city hall bathroom until the kid turned 18 (and Adams was 42). Portland voters begin counting the days until they can recall him, which Oregon law allows them to do after he has been in office for six months. Meanwhile, clothing merchant fortunes are boosted by sales of T-shirts advertising Portland as a city where “you only have to be 18 to enjoy a Sam Adams.”
Episode 3 – The Stadium: In a bizarre effort to save himself, Adams starts transferring as much public money as he can to potential campaign contributors while he has a chance. First, he signs an agreement with the owner of a soccer team – who happens to be the son of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson – to spend $65 million in public money converting a baseball stadium into a soccer stadium. The city still owes nearly $30 million on the last remodel of that stadium in a failed attempt to attract a major-league baseball team.
Episode 4 – The Hotel: The mayor wants to spend $300 million of public money building a hotel next to the city’s failed convention center. Back in the 1990s, when the convention center was half empty, the city argued that it needed to double the center’s size to attract really large conventions. Despite voter rejection of the plan, the city carried it out, so now the place is three-quarters empty. Despite the fact that other Portland hotels, including at least one built with mil- lions of dollars of public subsidies, are already suffering high vacancy rates, Adams says that another hotel is needed to help fill the convention center.
Episode 5 – The Sign: Mayor Adams’ allies on the city council, Randy Leonard and Nick Fish, have a hissy fit when the University of Oregon buys a downtown building and announces plans to change the sign on top of the building to read – what else? – “University of Oregon.” In the midst of a deep recession, Leonard and Fish propose to exercise eminent domain and spend half a million dollars buying the “historic sign.” Historically, the sign has always had the name of the building’s occupant, first “White Satin Sugar” and later “White Stag Sportswear.” But Portland newcomers only remember the current sign, which reads “Made in Oregon” after a local chain-store. The debate is settled when the University agrees to change the sign to read just “Oregon.”
Episode 6 – The Bridge: Portland’s Sellwood Bridge, the busiest two-lane bridge in Oregon, is falling down; it has a sufficiency rating of 2 out of 100, and any bridge scoring less than 50 is recommended for replacement. When Mayor Adams decided to spend the city’s share of federal stimulus money on a new streetcar line instead, the commission chair of Multnomah County, which owns the bridge, asked the mayor to help get funding to replace it. The mayor replied that he would support replacement only if the county com- mission supported the convention center hotel.
Episode 7 – The Accident: In early May, the mayor rammed a GMC pickup into a Subaru and pushed that car 50-70 feet across a Car Toys parking lot until it ran into a Honda. A wit- ness said Adams then proceeded to “peel out” for another 100 feet before coming to a stop. A Car Toys employee told reporters Adams “smelled like beer,” but Portland’s police chief claimed officers on the scene lacked “reasonable suspicion” to perform a sobriety test. Apparently, playing monster trucks in a shopping center parking lot isn’t suspicious enough. Even the most credulous Portlanders wonder why “Mayor Greenie,” who wants everyone else to ride light rail and streetcars, drives a full-sized pick-up and patronizes Car Toys. Watch for T-shirts advertising Portland as “the city whose mayor is taking cars off the road, two at a time.”
Episode 8 – The Legislature: Fourteen members of the Oregon legislature tell a reporter that Portland has been miss- ing in action as the state decides how to allocate its funds among cities. “The leadership of the biggest city in the state is not respected in the legislature,” says one committee chair. “No one from the city has talked to me about what it wants,” says another. Apparently, Adams has been too busy planning soccer stadiums and hotels to work on getting Portland’s share of state funding for such things as the Sellwood Bridge.
Who knows what kind of wacky shenanigans the mayor and his council will get themselves into before July, when the Sam Adams recall effort will officially begin. The more serious question is whether the new power vacuum will be filled by anyone who has more sense than the people who have been running the city for the last 35 years.