10 Nov

Wheeler would bring county commission vote-counting to City Council

The next mayor of Portland sees the key part of the job as a simple but basic skill.

“Getting what you want,” says Ted Wheeler, “is about counting to three.”

It’s an arithmetic skill that he says he learned not at Stanford nor at graduate school at Harvard, but as chairman of Multnomah County, where he managed regularly to gather at least the two other commission votes to create a policy majority. It’s a mathematical feat not always in evidence lately on the Portland City Council.

A key part of the strategy, Wheeler says, is to “respect the concerns and goals of your peers,” and “There shouldn’t be surprises. Colleagues shouldn’t be surprised, and regional partners shouldn’t be surprised.”

The mayor’s race, of course, has recently had its own surprise, when incumbent Charlie Hales pulled the ripcord and changed his mind about running for re-election, leaving Wheeler as the only major candidate.

“I certainly didn’t see the mayor’s withdrawal coming,” he muses. “I was looking for a highly contested mayoral campaign.”

At this point, that kind of campaign might itself be a surprise, since Hales’ departure has been followed by a wave of refusals by local pols to enter the race. The mayor insists he’s looking for another candidate, but it’s not clear how successful he’ll be in recruiting someone into a race he didn’t want to make himself.

Whoever joins Wheeler in the race (or doesn’t), the state treasurer is devising a range of goals and strategies to offer the city. It’s a plan to break out of a system he calls “bifurcated, fragmented and siloed,” an effort he thinks would be strengthened by his connections with current City Council members, with working relationships going back to his time running the county.

“My top priority if elected mayor is matching Portland with economic opportunity,” says Wheeler.

“The cost of housing is going up twice as fast as median incomes” – which, he notes, might be a generous estimate of income growth. He would attack both ends of the equation, housing and incomes.

The city of Portland, he argues, does badly in creating affordable housing, with private developers able to do it at a third of the cost and in half the time. The permitting process, fees and multiple (but seemingly uncoordinated) inspections hamper productivity.

And while neighborhoods battle over increasing density, the city has some areas, starting with the Pearl and South Waterfront, where density could increase considerably.

On the extreme of the housing problem, “Homelessness is an umbrella term for a lot of different problems that need separate solutions.” This includes more emergency shelters and transitional housing, and devoting specific attention, working with agencies like Inside Out, to street youth – many of whom are recently aged out of foster care.

And even a minimum wage of $15, Wheeler points out, wouldn’t provide housing for a family. The vital strategy is to get more Portlander into jobs that pay much more than that – jobs that the Portland economy is now producing, in areas like technology, health care and marketing, but for which the area is not producing qualified workers, causing companies to fill the jobs from outside.

Matching workers with jobs involves working with local universities and community colleges, projects Wheeler, and maybe also a bolder approach.

“Why not recruit a world-class university to open a specific degree program?” Wheeler asks. “If you can’t create a world-class university, why not invite one in?”

He thinks the city could attract a major university; in certain ways, “Portland’s on fire.”

It could be a drawback, of course, if Portland streets get steadily harder to navigate. As mayor, Wheeler would assign himself the transportation bureau (along with the mayorally expected police bureau), and start redesigning its budget from zero. “The PBOT budget,” he has concluded, “is Byzantine.”

Wheeler supports the proposed city gas tax, and its going onto the ballot – a road that it’s taken the City Council a while to travel. But he thinks that may not be enough to fix the problem: “We have a patient on the table bleeding to death. That’s our streets.”

At a time of rising growth and national attention, Portland hasn’t had a lot of recent success with local government. Hales will be the city’s third one-term mayor in a row, and both Wheeler’s predecessor as county chairman and his successor flamed out dramatically, in very different ways.

We’re at a point now where Portland’s popularity needs to be matched by policy.

Maybe it’s a start to count to three.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/8/15.

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