Portland City Hall: It’s the System Stupid


Portland City government is badly broken but not in the way that some people think. The public servants in City Hall work hard in a world of constraints, endless demands and never enough money or time to meet outsized expectations. That is the nature of the public sector. You can’t make everyone happy.

It’s funny that so many liberals think that the problem with Portland government is the money spent on elections by corporations and bigwigs writing checks. While political systems always favor an incumbent’s ability to raise cash, that isn’t where the corruption lies. Sure, deep pocketed developers write checks and have access but the final decisions are out in the open subject to public scrutiny. Lunch with a commissioner rarely overcomes the grind of Portland’s bureaucracy and endless public process. I heard a hundred pitches from the business insiders that were mostly greeted with smiles and little action. If anything, Council members play the role of contrarians with business interests. That is better politics in Portland.

The real inside game is with the public employee unions. They write some of the biggest political checks and can supply phone banks and political leverage. The unions are on the inside far more than any other interest group. They are the mother’s milk of liberal politics in Oregon, especially Portland. A single call from a union political representative was more likely to effect the final wording of a law than any collection of lunches with fat cats. It always amuses me when the unions spend big money in campaigns demonizing corporations. Pot meet the kettle.

And, don’t underestimate the power of mission specific non-profits in Portland. Proportionally, I spent more time in meetings with representatives of non-profits than any other group. Portland creates non-profits at an alarming rate. People trying to do good things, or just create jobs for themselves, parse issue areas into small slices and end up competing for the same charity or public dollars. And, unknown to most Portlanders, the endless events and fundraisers are actually the most powerful political networking apparatus in the city. Many of the same activists, check writers and powerbrokers can be found at event after event. Do you really think they are just there for the rubber chicken? There are events that local politicians simply cannot miss. People would notice and remember.

No, the problem with Portland’s government is structural. The commission form of government turns out to be the most weird part of what keeps Portland weird. It is a form of local government that has almost completely died out in America…for good reason. Almost every other city has a strong mayor, city manager and commissioners representing districts. We have made runs at correcting this problem, however, it is almost impossible for an outsider to properly diagnose the problem because the biggest problems with our system are mostly invisible to the average resident. As a former insider, I have seen the flaws up close.

First, here’s how it works now. The 5 members of council are elected at large, everyone gets to vote for them. The mayor is merely a member of the council who has 2 big powers. They get to create the City budget and hand out leadership of the various bureaus to the other 4 commissioners and themselves. That’s it. Oh, the mayor, for political reasons, has to be in charge of the police. No fun there.

Flaw Number 1. Everyone on council gets to think of themselves as a mini-mayor. They don’t have a district. At times the “mini-mayor” complex blends with already healthy egos. City-wide elections also mean that candidates need to run more expensive city-wide campaigns. It’s a good thing that a commissioner needs to know the city but it also means that people in parts of the city get lost in the shuffle of mini-mayorness.

Here is a real-world example. In the last few months there has been a contentious transportation issue in my neighborhood. In public settings constituents are left to puzzle out who in City Hall is their advocate. In reality, they don’t have one. The Commission-in-Charge (CinC) of transportation is all about his bureau. In a district system, everyone has an advocate, or at least listener, on council.

Right now 4 council members live on the west side. While some work hard to get out to other neighborhoods and communities, there is really no substitute for living in your district. You learn more on your daily commute and shopping where you live than you ever will in staged events or forums.

Flaw Number 2. I mentioned the idea of the CinC. This is a little mysterious to the outsider but may be the most important feature of city government. The mayor has the power to name the CinC of the city bureaus. This power has been used to both punish and reward commissioners. Commissioners judged as “lightweights” by the mayor get portfolios to match. Commissioners judged as a political threat get bureaus that are difficult and tie them down. Great system…right?

In great part, the identity of a commissioner is linked to their bureau. It is the one place an elected official’s performance can be measured. But think of it, we have a registered nurse in charge of Parks, a lawyer in charge of our public utilities and a book store owner running our development bureau. Really? Some, like my old boss, learn the ropes, get good bureau teams in place and get better at the job of running bureaus. Some never figure it out. Other commissioners are hands off, sometimes to their detriment.

The almost year-long budget process is simply crazy. Commissioners get territorial about their budgets and the internal friction is not about the city budget as a whole but often hand to hand combat over protecting “their” bureaus. Quietly, out of public view, that wrangling goes on for months.

When I say “run” a bureau, I mean right down into the details. The CinC has free rein to get into the details. This can make the professional staff crazy as they chase the momentary ambitions of their CinC. Bureaus often become the political base for a commissioner or mayor. Sam Adams was genius at using the Bureau of Transportation as a headline driving career maker.

I had decades working in a large company and treated the bureaus like small companies. It was a fairly easy translation. But for most elected officials and many in their staff, the day to day management of those small companies is like watching an aardvark play the piano. Amusing, but it just doesn’t make sense.

Flaw Number 3. Let me try Websters: Deference implies a yielding or submitting to the judgment of a recognized superior, out of respect or reverence.

There is a tradition in City Hall of respecting the right of a commissioner to run their bureau. “Their” bureau. The boundaries can blur and become contentious at Council meetings but on day to day basis you simply do not fuck with someone else’s bureau. As a liaison to a bureau I was sometimes an enforcer of those boundaries. At the staff level, you are not even supposed to call someone in another bureau without permission from your peer in another office peer. A commissioner meeting with a director of a bureau not in their portfolio is a territorial five-alarm fire.

Consider this dynamic. We elect commissioners city-wide then limit their oversight in all sorts of ways based on arbitrary bureau assignments. The number of, frankly, dumb things that are done in the name of deference is mind numbing. When bureaus get reassigned to different commissioners the new person gets to clean-up the messes left by the former CinC. In 7.5 years in City Hall, I spent of lot of time taking out the garbage left for us. You pray that if you get a new bureau it comes to you from someone who didn’t screw it up.

Flaw Number 4. Some of the most powerful, longest serving, people in the city are bureau directors. In some cases, they are responsible for hundreds of employees and billions of dollars of infrastructure.

I am proud of how we handled our bureau directors. We replaced directors who where running entrenched little fiefdoms. We did far reaching national searches for the best candidates using community driven panels of interviewers. We had mandatory, detailed yearly reviews of their performance. We wrote yearly expectation letters. And when we were done, our choices became new powerhouse leaders in city government.

Now here’s the hook, a CinC does not have to do any of that. Directors are appointed with no national search. Generally acknowledged awful performers are left in their jobs for years. Some appointees are simply political hacks who represent the personal philosophy of their CinC. They don’t get yearly reviews and if they do it’s simply a rubber stamp. Like I said, good CinC’s get to clean up the messes left for them.

Flaw Number 5. Public bodies, elected and unelected are a tough gig. Driving to consensus is hard work. Portland City Council makes the job harder by design. A system that anoints all members as being elected by the entire city then divides them bureaucratically results in flawed collective oversight and policymaking. Battles over fake turf take up way too much of the days.

To my old boss’s credit, several of our initiatives focused on trying to make the city more strategic. (Insert Fish upstream metaphor.) One of the biggest wins of my career was being the catalyst behind restoring the Chief Financial Officer for the city so council could get strategic financial advice. That’s right. A mayor had decided to get rid of that office. Astounding.

When you have a tradition of deference, battles occur as part of the budget process. The entire council has to arrive at a final budget and they always do and they always congratulate each other endlessly. For me, it was hard to tell if we were actually ever getting any strategic thinking and real oversight. Sometimes, it felt as though we were just eager to be done with the lengthy process and happy to have it out of the way.


Did my dream job in government and politics make me more cynical? I had this discussion with a buddy with whom I got to share some time in the trenches. I ended the conversation this way. Cynicism has a home at the crossroads of hope and monumental impatience. That’s me.

In my corporate and public service careers what made me the most insane was bad systems. I redesign check out lines at the grocery store when I see how they could be more efficient. I can’t help myself. Living the belly of the beast showed me that Portland City Government is a deeply flawed system. Because the design is in the City Charter, it’s also a very high bar to change it. Someday, there will be a serious run at making the changes needed. When that happens don’t believe the defenders of the status quo. Make the change.


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2 Responses to Portland City Hall: It’s the System Stupid

  1. Sally Blackwood says:

    Very thoughtful, well said, and you offered a way out!! Nice sentence about cynicism


  2. Pingback: How I Fell in Love with the Deep State | NO CLOCK

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