Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has a message for constituents frustrated with the condition of their city: Portland is not dead.
In his annual State of the City address on Friday, Wheeler detailed his plans to revive the struggling city and said Portland was in the middle of “a newborn and fragile movement towards recovery.”
“We are beginning to bring back the parts of Portland that we love so much,” he told an online audience. “And together we will change the things that need to be changed.”
In recent months, poll after poll has shown many voters have a dismal view of the city and believe the current crop of local politicians are the wrong ones to fix a bevy of problems: rising gun violence, a historically high number of people sleeping outside and disconcertingly long holds on 911, to name a few.
While the mayor had pledged in his last annual address to make 2021 the “year of recovery,” many saw another year of unraveling. Wheeler said on Friday that 2022 would be the year he got to the heart of the city’s most pressing problems.
He touted his newly-released budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which would funnel tens of millions of new dollars toward solving the basic quality of life challenges. The budget includes about $85 million for homeless services, $37 million in new investments in public safety and $20 million for street clean-up and repair efforts. The mayor is calling it “a budget with ears,” intended to be receptive to emails and calls from upset constituents.
The mayor also promoted several new ideas on Thursday. These included:
- An emergency declaration to streamline the way the city cleans. Currently, Wheeler said clean-up work — a broad category that could include getting rid of trash, graffiti and abandoned cars — is done by 20 different city programs overseen by eight different bureaus and five different City Council members. The mayor said that next week he plans to sign an emergency declaration that will bring all these programs under one command structure. He noted this structure will not deal with trash outside of homeless camps. He did not say to whom the new consolidated structure would report.
- A move for the city’s crime prevention program, which is currently under the Office of Community & Civic Life, and the Office of Violence Prevention, which the mayor controls, to the city’s new Community Safety Division, a new department that will oversee public safety initiatives. The mayor said the point of the reshuffling would be to help streamline the city’s approach to gun violence reduction. The community safety division is overseen by former Portland Fire Chief Mike Myers.
- A push to combat gentrification and displacement of residents of color. The mayor was vague on what exactly this push would include but said he was making a plan to “fight back against out of control displacement and gentrification” fueled by rapidly increasing housing costs. He teased an “at-scale affordable housing plan” and noted the city is short an estimated 20,000 affordable housing units — one-third of which he said were in East Portland. He called affordability “Portland’s next moonshot”
- A plea to the state health authority to focus on funding mental health and addiction treatment, noting a dramatic spike in fentanyl deaths. He said he will be having “dialogues” with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and state legislators to focus on changes in the way the government handles mental illness in the coming weeks.
Wheeler also endorsed potential changes to the city’s current form of government, decrying it as “systematically bigoted, red tape-ridden,” and antiquated. The mayor said he would not be waiting for charter changes to do some form of government restructuring on his own.
“I will not wait a year or longer for a more functional form of city government to be put in place,” he said. “The lives and livelihoods of Portlanders are at risk right now.”
Under the city’s unique commission form of government, council members are elected citywide and serve as both legislators and executives; each oversees a portfolio of city agencies assigned by the mayor. Advocates for change say the structure is dysfunctional, leaving too much political power in the hands of wealthy and white residents who tend to dominate citywide elections and forcing elected officials to serve as administrators for departments in which they often have little expertise.
The next time Wheeler gives his annual speech, that could be all behind him.
A 20-person Charter Review Commission has been considering changes. The commission released charter amendments earlier this week that, if passed by voters as drafted, would allow voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, expand the number of seats on the city council to 12 and create four new geographic districts. The public can weigh in on the changes until the end of May and the commission takes a final vote on what to send to voters in mid-June. Their recommended changes will then be placed on the November 2022 ballot.
In his Friday remarks, Wheeler urged people to adopt the changes in November.
Recent polls suggest they likely will. A citywide survey by FM3 Research conducted in late February and early March shows voters found the concept of ranked-choice voting “broadly appealing.” A survey of 610 likely voters by research firm GBAO in March found a majority of voters supported changing the city government structure so it would be led by a city manager.
But another poll suggests Wheeler may not be the best messenger to promote a new form of government.
A survey conducted this month by public opinion firm Lake Research Partners asked 500 likely voters how much weight they would give to endorsements made by eleven different local entities and politicians — including the Portland Business Alliance, small business owners, Commissioner Mingus Mapps and Wheeler. The mayor was deemed the least credible messenger by far.