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The wonkiest agency in the region just got a new elected leader at a time of unprecedented upheaval.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - New Metro Councilor-elect Mary Nolan represents much of Portland, including downtown.The points of the compass run from north to northwest, northeast to downtown for Mary Nolan.

The veteran politico will take her seat on the Metro Council in January, representing those sections of Portland at a time, she says, when the boarded-up and COVID-scarred central city has never looked worse than at any other point during her 44 years living here.

"I don't think the region's vitality can sustain that in the long term," Nolan said in a virtual interview. "I don't want us to become a Rust Belt city."

With a plurality of the local homeless living in her Metro District, Nolan said one of her top priorities will be addressing the humanitarian crisis and monitoring the implementation of the HereTogether supportive housing measure approved by voters in May.

The marginal income tax on high-earners promises to raise $250 million per year and to effectively end the region's chronic homelessness epidemic, though many details were left unhashed during a two-month-long dash to refer the measure to the ballot, earlier this year.

"The voters voted to end the crisis," Nolan said. "It is a very big ask, and there was not a plan."

Now it is less certain whether those lofty goals can be accomplished, not the least because the revenue estimates were prepared before the arrival of the novel coronavirus. The Metro Council officially appointed a 15-member oversight committee on Nov. 19.

Nolan said she believes the council must craft better benchmarks, such as what percentage of metro area homeless are served each year, in order to communicate the success or failure of the revenue measure to the public. She said she supports the HereTogether effort and believes it will succeed, but only as part of a more inclusive package of funding for mental health services and education.

"We have thousands of people, human beings, who are affected directly by this," she said, "and a half million people who live in the metro area who want this crisis to be ended."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Before winning a seat on the Metro council last month, Mary Nolan also served in the Oregon Legislature. There, she garnered a reputation for her knowledge of budgets and technical issues. Crossroads ahead

Nolan, 66, takes up the mantle of representing District 5 at a critical crossroads in the regional government's history.

The pandemic-prompted closures of Metro's arts and entertainment venues, including the Convention and Expo centers and many of the city's best-known concert halls, has dropped revenue projections for this fiscal year by $45 million at the venues and by $7 million at the Oregon Zoo, according to spokesman Nick Christensen. Metro has already laid off 37% of its total workforce.

In a less glamorous corner of Metro's wheelhouse, the council has postponed until Dec. 17 a vote to increase fees at its waste transfer stations by 8%, citing its fixed costs and a decline in trash arriving from haulers.

Metro was even dealt a rare defeat at the ballot box in November after voters in all three counties rejected the Get Moving transportation measure, which included a new light rail line between Portland and Southeast Washington County.

Nolan isn't ready to give up the ghost for the long-dreamt-of Southwest Corridor MAX line, though she says the measure's revenue mechanism — a payroll tax — wasn't clearly linked with the improvements it would have paid for.

The last time Multnomah County voters gave a tax measure the thumbs down was in the early '90s, she recalled, and the lesson for Metro may be to find concessions that forestall attracting well-funded opposition campaigns.

"The package had a rounding-error effect on greenhouse gases," she added. "That's not good enough if we're going to invest $5 billion."

Practically the only area of Metro's purview not rattled by the present moment is control over the urban growth boundary, outside of which most new development is prohibited. The issue hits close to home for Nolan, whose family relocated from a single family home on a 10,000-square-foot lot in Southwest Portland to an apartment in the Lloyd District five years ago.

"I live in a building that has almost 600 people living on a city block," she said. "I'm not afraid of density."

PHOTO - Metro Councilor-elect Mary Nolan is ready for a new type of government conducted virtually and remotely. She flies…

Nolan may have been less in the spotlight since she was bested by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz in the race for a City Hall seat in 2012, but she's already mastered the real key to governance in the teleworking '20s — a tasteful home backdrop for all those on-camera meetings.

During a recent video chat, Nolan was framed by keepsakes from her 12 years representing Southwest Portland in the Oregon House, including photographs of the Portlandia statue and from her speech during the MAX Green Line ribbon-cutting ceremony, as well as a copy of the Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals."

The scenery's centerpiece is a wall-mounted license plate reading VOLAT, the Latin verb "to fly" and part of Oregon's state motto — Alis volat propriis — "She flies with her own wings."

It's only fitting for a licensed pilot who was president of an avionics company, AvroTec, before her foray into politics.

"I got into aviation because I fell in love with a pilot, and I didn't want to sit in the right seat all the time," said Nolan, who can't stop herself from immediately clarifying that both seats of a single-engine have steering controls. "It's called redundancy and it's fundamental for designing airplane systems."

To be sure, that laser-focus on the details will be key if Nolan hopes to succeed on Metro Council — a governing board where wonks thrive.

"I'm not all sugar and spice," says Nolan, but "matching budget investments with outcomes ... that I am most inclined to."

What is Metro?

Metro is a regional government serving more than 1.5 million people in the urban portions of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. It has its own elected board of directors. Responsibilities range from solid waste disposal, to supervision of the Oregon Zoo, the Oregon Convention Center and the Portland Expo Center, to maintenance of the urban growth boundary, the invisible barrier around Portland's suburbs, beyond which urban services such as water and sewers are prohibited. The agency was created by a statewide ballot measure in 1978. It was proceeded, from 1966 to 1968, by the Columbia Region Association of Governments, or CRAG.

Zane Sparling
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