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It is difficult to imagine a more disappointing race this year than that for Metro president.
The two serious candidates — if magically blended — likely would make a good president.
However, incumbent Lynn Peterson is coming off of a poor first term because of a lack of backbone and vision, and challenger Alisa Pyszka has the hunger and energy to do the job but zero experience pulling together the political partnerships to carry it off.
So, with that in mind: Pamplin Media Group endorses Pyszka in hopes that she'll do well enough to slow Peterson down and force a runoff. If neither candidate gets 50% on May 17, voters will make the final decision in November. That would give Pyszka six months to get up to speed and begin weaving the political contacts she'll need, while Peterson would get six months to get going on long-delayed actions.
Metro is a poorly understood regional government, serving the urban areas of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties with a weird portfolio ranging from solid waste disposal to the Oregon Zoo, to the urban growth boundary, to the Expo Center. Of late, Metro's bag of tricks has expanded to a transportation/light rail bond (which failed) and support services for the homeless (in which a listless Metro has taken on the passive job of serving as the counties' ATM).
Speaking to multiple insiders, one thing we repeatedly heard about Peterson is that she came to this job hoping it would be a launchpad for the governorship — just as Ted Wheeler's eyes were set on that job and hoping being mayor of Portland would get him there.
It didn't work out for either of them.
During an interview with our newspapers' editorial board, Peterson made Metro sound like a passenger in a vehicle driven by other agencies. She denied Metro has experienced "mission creep," essentially saying TriMet and the counties begged her to run the failed 2020 transportation measure, which would have delivered, among other things, light rail between Tualatin and Portland.
In doing so, she abdicated the blame for that measure's failure.
She said homeless service providers came to Metro and begged the agency to push forth the 2020 measure to create services for the homeless in all three counties. Metro raises the money, but the counties spend it, and Peterson appears to be OK with that scenario. Are the counties' plans toothless and lacking in detail? Sure, Peterson seems to concede, but what can we do? So now we have a $2.5 billion homeless services bond measure without good metrics to know exactly who is being helped.
When asked about the homeless community, Peterson mentioned the point-in-time surveys conducted by every county. But those surveys are notoriously unscientific and greatly undercount the homeless and shelterless. Again, passively, she said she hopes that information will be helpful. To whom? We don't know.
The Oregon Department of Transportation wants to piecemeal the solutions to traffic woes, opting for tolling on Interstate 205. Is that the best option for the entire three-county area? Peterson shrugs her shoulders.
Voters in 2019 gave Metro $475 million to build new parks, enhance and maintain existing parks, and improve river habitats. Three years later, Metro has spent about $10 million of that money and is sitting on the rest. Why? Peterson points to outreach for underserved communities. That's taken three years?
We went into the editorial board interviews hoping Alisa Pyszka would blow us out of the water. She's been active in a wide array of policy areas, including at Greater Portland Inc., and she comes across as smart, strategic, articulate and passionate.
Pyszka wonders why there is no central database to document how many shelter beds are in the region, where they're located, and how many are in use on any given night. With that database, she argues, a mobile app could be designed to tell shelter providers, advocates, or homeless individuals which shelters have available beds (and how many) and which are full on any given evening.
Right there, that's the kind of thinking we need — a couple of thousand dollars to help us spend a budget of $200 million per year smartly.
If Pyszka had years of experience in elected office or as a chief administrative officer, she could use that savvy and energy to get other agencies working with her. Right now, though, we feel she lacks that kind of interconnectivity. Facing the likes of the counties or cities or ODOT, we fear she'd get rolled.
When talking to our editorial board, Pyszka's most frequent answer was, "We need plans and studies." Sure. Data is vital. And data is something (especially on homelessness) that we're lacking. But without political muscle, plans and studies — like thoughts and prayers — don't get the job done.
The role of the Metro president and Portland mayor are similar in that both are hamstrung by an illogical and outdated governance model. Neither is a "strong mayor" model of one person at the top, taking command.
But despite that, there have been successful Portland mayors. Bud Clark used charm. Vera Katz used brass knuckles. They could cajole or stiff-arm others into reaching their goals. Katz wasn't afraid to make enemies. Clark wasn't hamstrung by the never-ending hunt for the next elected office.
A third candidate for Metro president, Libertarian turned Republican Gary Dye, is in the race with one goal: to abolish Metro. Enough said.
If Pyszka can do well enough to force a runoff, this could go from a lackluster campaign to one of the most exciting races in November. Peterson could roll up her sleeves and show us how wrong we are about her. Pyszka could put together a cabinet of advisers at the city, county, regional and state levels to get her up to speed and could begin to create the relationships she'd need to put Metro in gear.
If Peterson wins outright in May, expect more of the same passive "leadership" for the next four years.
We endorse Alisa Pyszka, who likely can't win outright this May but could force Peterson to up her game.
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