WHEELER'S FIRST YEAR AS MAYOR: REALITY BITES
Mayor Ted Wheeler's first year in office got off to a rocky start. But that didn't surprise him.
"I knew there would be crises; what I didn't know was the nature of them," Wheeler said in an interview looking back at his first year as mayor.
"I think our administration handled them well, and we stayed focused on our agenda, which was critical."
After winning the election with 55 percent of the vote at the May 2016 primary, Wheeler had seven months to plan his transition to succeed Mayor Charlie Hales, who pulled out of the race after initially announcing he'd seek re-election.
Early on, Wheeler announced several things he would do to fulfill his campaign problems. They included launching a national search for a police chief committed to community policing; taking control of all city bureaus while the City Council considered his first proposed budget, to overcome "silo thinking"; and assigning himself control of the Portland Housing Bureau to spearhead efforts to create more affordable housing.
Wheeler got a break on his affordable housing goal when Portland voters approved a $285.4 million bond at the November 2016 general election to preserve and build 1,300 units of affordable housing.
But then reality intervened.
Clashes over policing
The general election also saw Republican Donald Trump win the White House, prompting ongoing protests in the famously liberal city. Those frequently degenerated into protester vandalism and clashes with the police — prompting accusations of civil rights violations that spilled into City Council meetings. Because Wheeler was in charge of the police, some activists blamed him for what they saw as heavy-handed crowd control tactics.
The 2016-17 winter also ended with a series of storms that called into question the city's ability to provide basic services like keeping the streets open and protecting the homeless. Four people froze to death, as Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury rushed to increase emergency shelter beds. Affordable housing bond funds were first spent, while Hales was still mayor, to buy an existing apartment complex. That controversial choice prompted Wheeler to create a lengthy process to prioritize future spending, postponing the next spending decision for a year.
Then, as 2017 was winding down, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle threatened to move the company's Sorel headquarters out of downtown because of safety and theft problems. That reopened the divisive debate over how the city should respond to the visible homeless population downtown during the holiday shopping season.
Wheeler defended his efforts to increase housing for the homeless while improving downtown livability, in the face of protests that accused him of favoring the business community.
But through it all, Wheeler said he remained focused on the priorities he announced when he ran for mayor in 2016.
"As mayor, no matter what you do, someone is always going to say you did the wrong thing. And usually the criticism comes from both sides. You have to have a thick skin and a sense of humor to do this job," Wheeler said.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who has now served under four mayors, says he understands the challenge.
"As mayor, you have to react to everything. As a member of the council, I can focus on a short agenda and move it forward," says Fish, who has spent the past few years resolving problems with the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city's sewer system and stormwater management programs.
Wheeler lists city accomplishments
In a Dec. 20 open letter to Portlanders, Wheeler admitted he spent some of his first year in office reacting to developments. But he insisted that progress was made on his and the city's priorities, despite the distractions.
"My administration did not plan to spend our first months governing from one crisis to the next, but we took on each crisis as it came, all the while making progress on the issues Portlanders care about most: housing, homelessness, public safety, economic growth, environmental protection, equity, and government transparency and accountability," Wheeler wrote.
On his city website, Wheeler lists 42 accomplishments that he attributes to the City Council in 2017. Some were those he initiated, including the appointment of former Oakland Deputy Police Chief Danielle Outlaw as his new police chief, passing the Build Portland program to invest $600 million over 20 years in neglected infrastructure, and committing with other mayors across the country to uphold the commitments made as part of the Paris Climate Accord.
Others were initiated by members of the council. They include renter protections sponsored by new Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, and approving a goal of creating 2,000 units of supportive housing, pushed by Fish. Those units will be in addition to thousands of other affordable units in new projects that were in the works before Wheeler took office.
Some of the other accomplishments were pushed by other elected officials. They include passing a ballot measure to increase the independence of the City Auditor's Office, which was sponsored by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero; and investing a record $28 million in the Joint Office of Homeless Services, which Kafoury aggressively sought.
"The strong partnerships we've established among the council and between bureaus, combined with our sustained focus on the core functions of our city government, have led to progress in 2017 and laid the groundwork for a successful 2018," Wheeler wrote in his open letter.
Shuffling bureau leaders
Left unsaid were major personnel changes at the top of three troubled agencies assigned to Commissioner Amanda Fritz. An internal personnel survey had revealed morale problems at the Bureau of Development Services. An audit identified the problems at the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, while an Ombudsman report docuemtned management and reporting problems at the Bureau of Emergency Communications.
The head of the 911 center retired shortly before Wheeler took the oversight responsibility away from Fritz. Eudaly replaced the directors of the development services bureau and neighborhood involvement office after Wheeler reassigned those to her.
As Wheeler begins his second year in office, things are going more peacefully. The wave of anti-Trump protests has slowed and the first winter storm was not nearly as bad as those that crippled the city during last year's holidays. Protesters have not shut down the City Council since it adopted a new policy for barring repeated disrupters from future meetings. And the current bureau assignments do not seem likely to change until 2019, when the council will have at least one new member following Commissioner Dan Saltzman's decision not to seek reelection next year.
"2018 is going to be another exciting year. We just don't know how yet," Wheeler said.
What's ahead in 2018
Looking forward, Wheeler said Portland is a great city and is becoming even better as it grows. But he sees issues that must be addressed this year:
• The homeless crisis will continue to be Wheeler's top priority in 2018. He supports extending the renter protections sponsored by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and is considering a number of potential revenue sources to fund the mental health and addiction services that chronically homeless people need to stay in permanent housing.
"Funding permanent supportive housing and street-level mental health and addiction services is essential to reduce the number of people living on the streets," said Wheeler, who is not yet ready to discuss the potential revenue sources publicly.
• Improving streets and adding sidewalks in East Portland is another priority.
"East Portland has been neglected for far too long," said Wheeler, who is not ready to publicly discuss those funding options, either.
• Redeveloping the former U.S. Postal Service site, part of what's being called the Broadway Corridor, is an economic development priority. Prosper Portland, formally called the Portland Development Commission, solicited qualified development teams in early November who will be publicly discussed within the next six months.
"There is global interest in the project," Wheeler said.
• Appointing permanent directors at three bureaus under Wheeler's control will stabilize them. They are the Bureau of Emergency Communications, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, and the Portland Housing Bureau.
"We have a good leadership team in place and will soon complete it," Wheeler said.
Find out more
• You can read Wheeler's letter at tinyurl.com/ycbj87qk.
• You can find Wheeler's list accomplishments tinyurl.com/y8d5xtd3.