Our Opinion: Fish remembered for his service
Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish possessed a generous heart and an analytical mind.
The combination made a lasting difference for Portlanders, and his death last week from stomach cancer is a terrible loss for his family and the community.
The son and grandson of prominent New York politicians, Fish found his own calling in public service. He loved being a city commissioner. He could talk policy down to the finest details, and he — particularly in his final years — was a voice of reason in a city where extremes often are rewarded with oversized attention.
When Fish came onto the City Council in 2008, he was an obviously ambitious politician who appeared destined to move onto bigger public roles. But as he grew into his job as a commissioner, we saw a rapid transformation. Fish became a rare commissioner who actually was well-suited for Portland's flawed system of government. He had the necessary competency to oversee bureaus, while also remaining sensitive to Portlanders' political whims.
And oversee bureaus he did: During his 11 years on the City Council, Fish was given responsibility at various times to supervise city management of fire and rescue services, water and environmental services, parks and housing.
Along the way, he evolved into a cleanup expert. He revived public faith in the water bureau after a series of spending fiascos. He fought off a ballot measure that would have taken water out of city hands and given it to an independent district.
An attorney by training, he also guided the city through a massive lawsuit that challenged how the city previously had spent utility money. Fish succeeded in refocusing the water bureau's attention on the fundamentals, such as water quality.
He had similar achievements with other bureaus. One of his passions was housing. He helped launch the Portland Housing Bureau in 2009, and that led to a number of worthy projects to provide affordable housing and to help the homeless.
Fish traveled from bureau to bureau, depending on whatever assignments he received from the three mayors with whom he served. But he retained a larger view of the city's — and the region's — needs. Long after he had moved off the housing bureau, and while he was sick with cancer, he took a lead role in campaigning for the Metro regional government's housing bond in 2018.
The passage of that bond stands as one part of his legacy. Another ongoing legacy will be the extensive groundwork he laid for the Willamette River Superfund cleanup, which will continue for decades. The Superfund project exemplifies Fish at his finest: He took on a job that is difficult, costly and mostly outside the general public's interest. But he recognized its importance.
Another Nick Fish trait we wish would stand the test of time was his simple courtesy. In conversations with our editors, he sometimes disagreed with our opinions or even our reporting, but there were never moments of incivility. Fish preferred to argue the facts, and he always had them in tremendous quantity.
Fish himself made that point in his final letter to the city — released just two days before he died.
"Across the country, the last decade has seen a stark decline in civility. Portland has not been immune to the national weakening of civil discourse," Fish wrote, later adding, "It is our obligation to find the common ground in order to advance the common good."
As Portland moves into 2020, with contentious elections both locally and nationally, it's good to keep in mind Fish's admonition that the city can prosper by focusing on "diverse rather than divergent priorities." And it's certainly worthwhile to remember that basic courtesy and competency — fixing problems or advancing measurable outcomes — are essential qualities for those who aspire to follow his footsteps into true public service.
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