Portland’s city council approved a five-year renewal of a contract for security and cleaning services downtown Wednesday.
The council voted 4-1 to approve the $25 million contract with Downtown Clean & Safe, a nonprofit that provides extra security and sanitation services to a 213-block area of the central city. The vote came over vehement objections from critics, who argued the contract was half-baked and failed to grapple with numerous concerns raised last year in a city audit. That audit found the city had taken a hands off approach to the city’s three enhanced services districts, specific zones where property owners pay extra money to get better services than what the city supplies.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty cast the lone ‘no’ vote, saying she had heard overwhelming concern from the public that the contract left major concerns unaddressed. But the rest of the council said they felt the agreement was necessary to help revitalize the city’s downtown post-pandemic and rehab its reputation. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler cited a public at its “wit’s end.”
“I believe this contract provides us just one more opportunity to resolve some of the safety and liability issues that have impacted the downtown community,” said Wheeler.
Critics, including local homeless advocacy group Stop the Sweeps and business group Business for a Better Portland, had pushed for the city to ditch the renewal and, instead, extend the contract for one year while city officials dealt with some of the bigger concerns raised by the public. Homeless individuals have accused the district-hired guards of routinely harassing homeless people who live downtown. Some ratepayers and business groups have said the agreement funnels too much money into the pockets of the Portland Business Alliance, with which the district contracts to help manage the program.
Despite a months-long negotiation process between city officials and the Portland Business Alliance, Hardesty said these issues were not dealt with in the new contract.
“The city failed the community today,” said Hardesty.
Hardesty introduced an amendment Wednesday to extend the current contract instead of approving a new one while the city undergoes a promised two-year long examination of enhanced services districts in response to last year’s audit. City officials have said any changes they make to the districts will impact the current contract with Downtown Clean & Safe.
“I’ve never heard of signing a contract with the intent to go back to negotiate policy decisions,” said Hardesty.
But Hardesty’s bid to abandon the new contract failed Wednesday. Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who was considered the most likely to side with Hardesty, said she felt the current changes in the contract regarding labor agreements and private security were too critical to delay. The new contract includes a requirement for safety coordinators to wear name tags and hand out business cards and a more “easily accessible” complaint process for guards, among other changes.
“I’m concerned and not willing to put them on hold or abandon the progress we’ve made,” Rubio.
Rubio joined Commissioner Dan Ryan in asking for the city to expand the review of enhanced services districts. The two commissioners introduced an amendment that would direct city officials to look into issues “related to the governance of enhanced services districts,” the use of private security, and the inclusion of residential property-owners as ratepayers who must pay into the district.
But some advocates felt the last-minute tweaks didn’t go far enough. Ashley Henry, the executive director of Business for a Better Portland, said the city missed an opportunity.
“While we recognize the value of many of the services provided by Downtown Clean & Safe, we have serious concerns about renewing a five-year contract without clear guidelines for governance and accountability,” she said. “We will continue to push for improvements in the ways Downtown Clean & Safe (DCS) spends funds from Old Town and downtown businesses and all Portland taxpayers to ensure that DCS is focused on providing the services our community needs to emerge stronger from the crises we face.”