Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not." -- Millard Fillmore
Ron Wyden is running for a fourth full term in the Senate. Among the most liberal of the senators, he was a voice against deep involvement in Iraq and more recently has been speaking out against the government's Google-like desire to know absolutely everything about everyone. He is the 14th most senior senator and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee; if the Democrats take control of the Senate he will become the chair. His challenger, Medford city councilor Kevin Stine, is a serious candidate with a future in politics who has not advanced a good reason for Oregonians to change senators. Democrats should renominate him.
Four Republicans want the chance to challenge Senator Wyden in November. Only one has held meaningful elective office (another is a precinct committeeman). Faye Stewart, who is the chair of the Lane County Commission, is the most practical and experienced of the four Republican contenders. Besides his terms in elective and appointive office, he has firsthand experience in the lumber industry from his family's connection with the former Bohemia Corporation and civic involvement. (Stub Stewart State Park, near Vernonia, is named after his great-uncle.) Two candidates make a virtue of their lack of political experience, and the third wants to be our "constitutionally conservative" Senator, a phrase which reminds me, uncomfortably, of the ill-informed claimants to the office of "constitutional sheriff." Mr. Stewart describes his accomplishments in office; the other candidates don't seem to understand the role of a Senator. I recommend a vote for Mr. Stewart.
Over at the House, in the 1st District incumbent Suzanne Bonamici is challenged by Shabba Woodley, a political newcomer who did not file a statement in the Voter's Pamphlet, but whose website does describe issues that Congress can help. I would like to see Mr. Woodley strive for the state House, but he is not ready to run for Congress. Rep. Bonamici should be renominated. Three Republicans filed for the 1st District nomination, Jonathan Burgess, Brian Heinrich, and Delinda Morgan. It's hard for me to recommend one of them, because not one of them submitted a Voter's Pamphlet statement. Mr. Heinrich and Ms. Morgan do have campaign websites -- I couldn't find one for Mr. Burgess. Mr. Heinrich seems an engaging enough fellow, but Ms. Morgan's website does stake out positions on how she would vote if elected. I can't say that I find her positions logical -- she wants to cut taxes and also stop borrowing to finance federal spending -- but she is trying, however awkwardly, to grapple with the issues that Congress faces. She is the best of the Republicans' choices to lose to Rep. Bonamici in November.
In the 3rd District, Earl Blumenauer is unopposed in either party, a sensible decision by all of the would-be candidates for his seat. The hyperenergetic congressman has for years seemingly been able to be in the Capitol and in Portland at the same time, a feat that few challengers could match. I suspect that he's cloned himself.
In the 5th District, incumbent Democrat Kurt Schrader faces a strong challenge from Dave McTeague, who served 5 terms in the Oregon house and was later the executive director of a small state agency for 18 years. He is capable and competent, but so is Rep. Schrader. The district would be well-served with either man in office. Dr. Schrader is among the more liberal Congressmen on both domestic policy (repealing the Citizens United decision) and foreign policy (opposing increasing our ground troops in the Middle East), and is well in line with Oregonians. The 5th District is finely balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and in my view Dr. Schrader is more likely than Mr. McTeague to carry the centrists in the district. Mr. McTeague has aligned his campaign platform with that of Bernie Sanders, which gives an easy way for voters to choose: Democrats who support Senator Sanders and who would not vote for Secretary Clinton in the general election should vote for Mr. McTeague. Democrats who would vote for Secretary Clinton in the general election should support Dr. Schrader for another term.
Four Republicans have filed in the 5th District. Three submitted candidate statements. They reflect, sadly, the weakness of the Republican candidate bench in Oregon. None has held elective office. Colm Willis, an attorney, states that he is a "limited government, Constitutional conservative who will defend our freedoms and stand up for our rights." He also wants to "cut taxes and stop deficit spending," two great tastes that do not go well together. Another candidate, Seth Allan, says that the federal government "owns 53% of Oregon's land which is more than they can properly manage." If elected he will work to transfer those lands to state and local governments or to sell the lands to private parties. No one who has been to Josephine County or Curry County can possibly believe that those local governments have the wherewithal to manage even more land than they own now. I find his platform inspiring and completely impractical. That leaves Ben West, a mortgage banker who is about to receive a degree in nursing. Although parts of his platform are politically infirm, his candidate statement does give the impression that he understands that the role of government includes providing services to people who cannot help themselves, and for that reason I invite Republicans in the 5th District to vote for Mr. West.
One consequence of giving money to a committee of persons who represent different interests is that they will quickly find ways to spend the largesse several times over. The City of Portland discovered in January that it believes it will have $19 million more in revenue in the next fiscal year than it had planned to receive: $4.6 million of recurring revenue and $14.4 million of one-time income. At the end of January the council voted 4-1 (Commissioner Saltzman dissenting) to adopt a policy proposed by Amanda Fritz to allocate at least half of the extra money (so about $7.2 million) to "infrastructure maintenance or replacement," meaning "emergency preparedness, parks and recreation, and transportation." This policy will apply not only to fiscal year 2015-2016 but also to the three following fiscal years.
Within a week after the council adopted Commissioner Fritz's resolution, the Housing Bureau made a pitch to receive all of the remaining $7.2 million. Not coincidentally, the Housing Bureau operates under Commissioner Saltzman.
It's a wise idea for the city to devote some more money to maintaining what it already owns instead of building new things and starting new programs such as the Office of Equity (a project of Commissioner Fritz, as it happens). I'd like to encourage the council to resist every temptation to allocate any of the unexpected manna to any new project or program -- not just the $7.2 million that Commissioner Fritz's resolution requires to be allocated to maintenance and replacement, but the entire $14.4 million. I would allocate half of the $14.4 million to patch and repair roads and the other half to repair sewer and water lines underneath the roads before they're patched and repaired.
Until the city repairs the potholes and cracking pavement that it already owns, it shouldn't be building any more. Similarly, until the city brings its parks up to par, it shouldn't acquire any more. Feed the pets we already have before buying new ones.
The Portland City Council, having awakened to find that the city's streets are falling apart, has scheduled an advisory vote for May to solicit the public's opinion on how to best tax homeowners to pay for repairing the streets. The council will then adopt the winning proposal and move on to determine how to tax nonresidential property. Options include an income tax, a property tax, a gasoline tax, and others yet to be named.
The particular history is that in 1988 when the City Council first realized that Portland's streets were deteriorating, the council considered allocating 28% of the utility franchise fees that it receives to street maintenance and repair. At the time, the city needed $38 million to catch up on street repairs. The council set 28% as a target, but never achieved that target; in the first 8 years the council sent 12% of the utility fees ($29 million) to the transportation department for street repairs, instead of the 28% ($67 million) that the target called for. The amount of money that the council chose not to send would have caught the city completely up on street repairs and the city would not now be facing a cost of $200 million or more to catch up.
I like the idea of the council asking the voters for their thoughts, except that the council is asking one question too few. Instead of merely asking how the voters prefer to be taxed -- rather like the choice that Utah used to offer to condemned criminals, asking whether they would prefer to be shot or hanged -- the council should also ask the voters whether they agree or disagree with the choices of twenty years of city councils to divert money from street repair to other projects -- that is, whether the voters agree or disagree with the council's view that it's more important for the city to subsidize the Portland Public Schools and the Regional Arts Coordinating Council than to maintain the streets.
Uber started operating in Portland Friday evening at 5:00. Welcomed by riders, Uber faced frowns from the City, which filed suit against Uber on Monday in state court. Today Uber removed the suit to federal court (a routine step) and the battle lines are being drawn.
A few days ago I advanced the idea that Uber could comply with part of the City's car-for-hire code by recruiting its drivers from among the hundreds of persons whom the City's licensed to drive taxicabs, and then to bypass the strict limit on taxicabs by prohibiting the passengers from specifying which route the drivers will take to the passengers' destinations. (This would make the Uber vehicles not be taxicabs, thanks to a quirk of the City's code.)
A well-connected member of the Laquedemimonde passes along the tantalizing tidbit that despite this loophole being wide open for Uber to transit (so to speak), Uber won't do business with licensed cabdrivers. Why this should be, I do not know.
One unlikely possibility is that Uber hasn't figured out this loophole. I call this unlikely because Uber's lawyers have undoubtedly already parsed the City's code with attention usually reserved for the Talmud or the utterances of the chair of the Federal Reserve. Another more likely reason is that Uber believes that licensed cabdrivers must then charge riders the rates that the City has fixed for taxicabs, without the discounts that Uber usually offers or the surge pricing that it commands in peak times -- or, even worse for Uber and its passengers, that Uber must charge the 35% premium over taxi rates if it is a limousine or executive sedan service
When I read the City's complaint (the filed suit is here), I noticed that the City asserts that Uber's cars violate either the taxicab or the limited passenger transportation (LPT) vehicle rules, meaning that the City doesn't know whether Uber's cars are taxis or not. (The LPT rules are a catchall for anything that doesn't meet the definition of a taxicab.) Whether they are taxicabs depends on whether the drivers let the passengers pick the routes, something the City doesn't know. It should be a jolly bit of litigation.
Uber has an even simpler answer to getting into Portland legally than I'd thought of this morning, which is to get the roster of licensed vehicle operators from the City (the City must sell the roster to Uber if Uber asks; it's a public record) and then to solicit those operators to use their own cars to provide Uber service. Because Uber doesn't need to be licensed if it doesn't operate taxicabs, and because the cars aren't required to be licensed as taxicabs if the passengers can choose the destination but not the route, and because the drivers will be licensed as operators (thus properly tested and insured), Uber's Portland operation will comply with the city code. Presto! Legal Uber!
As Congress often inadvertently provides comic relief to the public, and comes in for a full meed of satire and derision, it's remarkable to see two conservative Congressional candidates brave enough to advertise their campaigns by doing stand-up political comedy. This unusual event (the promoters say it's the first time ever that candidates have tried to raise funds by being intentionally funny) happens tomorrow evening at Harvey's Comedy Club, under the name of Standup for the Constitution. James Buchal (Republican candidate for the Third District, running against Earl Blumenauer, shown in this video) and Jason Yates (Republican candidate for the First District, running against Suzanne Bonamici). I don't know Rep. Bonamici's sense of humor, but Rep. Blumenauer's ability to be self-deprecatory might give Mr. Buchal some challenges to equal; some years ago when Rep. Blumenauer was on the ballot three times in one year he cheerfully used the slogan "Vote Earl, Vote Often."
One thing to keep in mind as the Portland City Council debates the street fee -- charging residents and businesses a fee to maintain the streets, on the ground that the City's revenues aren't sufficient to pay to maintain the streets -- is that this is not a new problem. The City, its residents, and its muffler shops have known for years that the streets have been decaying faster than the City was maintaining them. Something over two years ago, the City announced that it would stop maintaining most streets at all, reserving its paving dollars for arterials and streets needed for emergencies.
A few months earlier, in late 2011, the City Council created the Office of Equity. The Council allocated it $1.2 million from the budget for fiscal year 2013-2014. While $1.2 million won't patch a lot of potholes, it still represented a new program at a time when the City Council was painfully aware (or should have been painfully aware) that it didn't have the money to fund its existing programs.
Another way to look at it is that the Councilors all agreed two years ago, and again last year, that funding the Office of Equity was more important than patching potholes and repairing the streets.
A few years back, the Portland City Council created a new agency, the Office of Equity and Human Rights. Its mission statement is to provide "education and technical support to City staff and elected officials, leading to recognition and removal of systemic barriers to fair and just distribution of resources, access and opportunity, starting with issues of race and disability."
I had a vaguely good feeling about the Office of Equity when the Council created it -- it's nice to see our elected officials take seriously the problems and effects of racial discrimination -- but it seemed odd to me, and still does, that the mayor and councilors thought it necessary to form an agency to remind them not to discriminate against racial minorities and the disabled.
The Office of Equity may have its first challenge. Jack Graham, formerly the City's finance chief, has announced his intention to sue the City for discriminating against him on account of his race (he is black) and Commissioners Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz, and Steve Novick for remarks they made in connection with his performance. To oversimplify the heart of Mr. Graham's complaint, he believes that he was terminated as finance director for proposing improper transfers between one City fund and another, in response to direction from then-Mayor Sam Adams, when white finance managers who had actually completed a similar transfer from one fund to another were not disciplined, but continued to work for the City. The important sentences from the letter that Mr. Graham's lawyer sent to the City Attorney:
At the conclusion of the investigation [by an outside law firm the City hired], which erroneously concluded that Mr. Graham attempted to transfer Water and BES funds to the General Fund, the City and individual City Commissioners publicly communicated false, stigmatizing, and professionally damaging statements without first offering him a name clearing hearing. Even more shocking, Commissioners Fritz and Novick made false and signatizing statements about Mr. Graham to the media without even having read the investigation findings. In contrast the City turned a blind eye when white financial managers completed a comparable transfer in 2011 and did not make public statements impugning those managers' ethics or professional competency. [You can read the entire letter here, in PDF, courtesy of Willamette Week.]
It's a conundrum for the City. If the councilors believe that they have done nothing wrong, then they can't justly pay more than a pittance to settle Mr. Graham's claim. And if they do agree to pay more than a nominal amount to settle his claim, then they are admitting that Commissioners Fish, Fritz, and Novick need some training from the Office of Equity that they voted to create.
Not to throw too much manure into the CRC pigpen, but in doing the research for yesterday's autopsy of the Columbia River Crossing, I came across this juicy bit, reported by Joseph Rose in the Oregonian of August 10, 2010. Mr. Rose reported on a recent vote about the proposed bridge, in question-and-answer format, including this question and answer:
What ever happened to the eight-lane option? That pretty much disappeared from the rearview mirror this summer when a Portland-funded independent study by URS Consultants found that an eight-lane option would work only if 37 percent of commuters took public transit or bicycled over the new span. Currently, those commuters make up only 3 percent of the traffic over the six-lane Interstate Bridge. Officials saw a disastrous scenario that wouldn’t be able to handle the first year of traffic, much less the demand by 2030.
Think about that for a bit. In 2010 Portland hired a reputable consultant who reported that an eight-lane bridge wouldn't be big enough to handle the first year of traffic after it opened. In 2013 the bridgemeisters were asserting that six lanes would be enough. Somewhere in there is a logical disconnect.
I am not implying that the CRC proponents lied about the six-lane bridge, but I do think that in this Age of Google they shouldn't have expected a study from four years ago to be unfindable.