To say Mayor Ted Wheeler has been in the hot seat is an understatement.
He's taken heat from constituents, as well as pundits and Oregonians from all political walks over his response to ongoing racial justice protests in Portland, while trying to corral a police force that has challenged him publicly.
He's felt the mounting pressure to address Portland's homeless crisis in a more substantial way and been at the helm as Portland became the subject of discussions within the Department of Justice over the use of force on protesters by federal agents during ongoing demonstrations. Many have called for his resignation.
Despite all that, he's making a bid for reelection this November.
Last month, Portland's mayor made time to meet with the Multnomah Village Neighborhood Association Tuesday, Sept. 8. In a virtual meeting, Wheeler answered presubmitted questions, giving his take on everything from the city's charter to its funding of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., policing, trees and equity.
Below are some of those questions and a summary of Wheeler's response to each.
Question: Some people believe we have a "weak mayor" system. What do you think about the current form of governance and would you propose a change? If so, how?
Wheeler: "I support a charter change. I would support a "strong mayor" or alternatively, a city manager form of government … to create more checks and balances. This form of government was created at a time when Portland was much smaller and significantly less diverse … and I believe we have outgrown this form of government. We don't have any form of district representation, so you could be the most knowledgeable expert on issues in Southwest Portland or anywhere else, but you have to run citywide and sell your agenda to everybody all throughout the city."
Question: Given the city's budget deficit and current crisis of riots and the pandemic, what plans do you have for funding (existing) priorities such as emergency earthquake preparedness, homelessness, and public safety? What are your immediate and long-range plans to improve public safety?
Wheeler: "We had a $75 million budget shortfall this year, largely as a reduction of resources coming in because of COVID and the government shutdown. Fortunately, during prior years, we already engaged in common sense fiscal practices."
Wheeler, who previously served as Oregon's treasurer, noted three years of reserves and "fail-safes" put into place, and said "90%" of the budget shortfall was addressed in June.
On emergency preparedness: Wheeler said the city is working with Multnomah County to build an earthquake-proof Burnside Bridge and is expecting FEMA dollars to help with additional infrastructure projects
On homelessness: "We're investing considerably more into homelessness ..." the mayor said. He noted city allocations to the Joint Office of Homeless Services of $11 million, and more recently, $37 million, in addition to $16.5 million in CARES money directed toward homeless services. "We've worked really hard to bring more shelter beds online both in terms of improving the quality of the shelter beds, as well as connecting those beds to services," Wheeler added.
On public safety and policing: Wheeler alluded to the impending rollout of what he called a "major reform" to public safety. Later that week, he announced a ban on the use of CS gas, or tear gas, by the Portland Police Bureau. Later during the meeting he said he favored greater oversight and consequences for officers who engage in bad behavior.
Question: What did you campaign on in your first term that you have not achieved? (Houselessness, etc.)
Wheeler: "The obvious area where I haven't delivered, we haven't delivered, is the homeless crisis. We've had some successes, and we've targeted our strategies and resources, particularly around women and children ... but where I want our focus to go … is on our chronic homeless population."
Wheeler credited the city's work on climate and resilience, saying they've "gone way beyond."
Question: If (Southwest Neighborhood Inc.'s) financial audit shows no misuse of funds, will you initiate an ordinance to restore SWNI's city financing? Additionally, will the office of Civic Life be limited on future investigations related to this issue and other issues that suspend SWNI funds?
Wheeler: "It's my understanding that SWNI has really done a great job. They've provided a lot of the requested documents to our city. It looks like everybody's trying to get to a resolution on this."
The mayor noted a forensic auditor has been hired to review documents requested by the city, noting emphatically his support for neighborhood associations. He did not directly address Civic Life's ability to initiate future investigations.
Question: The West Portland Town Center project will displace thousands of single-family dwellings and replace them with 10-plus story multiuse buildings with housing that will be unaffordable to many. What can you do to ensure funds are allocated to infrastructure given the multijurisdictional funding sources? What policies can you apply to support socioeconomic disparity and equity issues?
Wheeler: "The first major infrastructure investment is light rail, and that's going to be in the hands of voters this fall."
The mayor said city bureaus also are trying to identify street and stormwater infrastructure needs and said the plan is to "stage up the zoning in phases," so that it doesn't all happen at once, noting density increases will likely fall in line with needed infrastructure improvement projects.
Question (summarized for brevity): Regarding new tree code amendments that are related to commercial and industrial land zones, currently, these zones are exempt from tree code regulations and consequentially, there are no preservation requirements or mitigation fees associated with these zones. Please share your position on this issue.
Wheeler: "The long and the short of it is, I support increase in canopy; I support the increase of trees. … It is good for our health, and frankly, it's part of the Portland brand, so I strongly support it, and yes, I would love to be able to both regulate and collect the (mitigation) fees, but unfortunately, we are constrained by state law."
Wheeler said his staff reviewed the tree code and found the city would be out of compliance with state law if exemptions from the code were removed in heavy industrial lands.
Question: Would you consider proposing to change statewide planning goal No. 9 that requires a 20-year supply of buildable lands for strictly economic growth and create more flexibility for cities to implement that goal?
He noted he'd support a change, citing Portland's unique position of being geographically constrained in its ability to expand buildable lands because of its proximity to neighboring cities.
Question: What top equity initiative(s) do you propose and support?
Wheeler: "Any program that comes out of City Hall has to be rooted in equity."
The mayor said he's "committed to building a local government that is inclusive and diverse" as well as anti-racist. He pointed to the Business Resource Network, which largely serves women and minority-owned small businesses, and touched on his own diversity hiring initiatives. He pointed to his chief of staff being the first African American to serve as the chief of staff to a mayor.
Question: How is the city going to monitor residential infill and control haphazard construction?
Wheeler: "The public's going to get far more clear information about the progress we either are making or are not making."
Wheeler said city bureaus are committed to tracking and evaluating the residential infill project as it moves forward. He also said the city will "continue to track net new housing units by housing type, the numbers of regulated affordable units created by location type, size and tenure, tree removal, planning and preservation."
Question: With police officers committed to managing riots, what capacity is there for routine calls, especially since Clackamas and Washington county officers declined to offer assistance?
Wheeler: "I won't sugarcoat it. As long as the police are needed for the violence or for criminal destruction, they are not available for other duties. I'd like us to move beyond violence and criminal destruction. I'm separating that from nonviolent and peaceful demonstration. Violence and criminal destruction, in my opinion, is not protest, it's not demonstration, it's criminal activity, and when it takes place that draws the police from other areas."
Wheeler acknowledged an increase in police response times to emergency calls.
Portland mayoral candidate and challenger Sarah Iannarone is slated to answer the same questions during a meeting with the Multnomah Neighborhood Association on Oct. 13.
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