Portland city commissioners are increasingly quarreling ahead of a major government overhaul. One problem lies in the timing of a universally disliked occasion: moving day.
Portland is just over a year away from a critical deadline to have its City Hall ready for a City Council that’s triple the size of the current four-person body. Yet current city commissioners’ disagreement over how those necessary renovations will play out could threaten that timeline — and come with a larger price tag.
City commissioners sparred Friday over a proposal to relocate their offices before their terms end in December 2024. This plan, which has been led by Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, allows construction to convert their four offices into 12 council offices starting early next year, before the new government’s first day of work in January 2025. That would require city commissioners to move their offices to another city building during that time.
But commissioners believe their offices are move-in ready for the new Council — and that any disruption to their office spaces could impede their ability to wrap up big projects before leaving office.
“Our goal is to remain engaged and focused and strategically aligned as we keep moving the ball down the field for our city at this time,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan. “The more disruptions make that more and more challenging.”
The disagreement shows how commissioner relationships may strain as the city approaches the last year in its current form of government.
Portland voters approved a plan last year to broadly change the structure of its city government by January 2025 in hopes of producing a more equitable and streamlined system. That includes a plan to expand the City Council from five to 12 members and divide the city into four geographic voting districts, where three Council members will represent each district. The mayor will no longer serve as a member of Council under this plan, and instead will help oversee day-to-day city operations. The city will hire a new city administrator to oversee city bureaus, replacing the current model which puts elected officials in charge of departments.
On Friday, Wheeler questioned how moving into temporary offices in a city building at Southwest 4th Avenue and Southwest Hall Street, referred to as the 1900 Building, would hurt commissioners’ ability to do their job.
Both Commissioner Rene Gonzalez and Ryan argued that the current layout of City Hall’s second floor — where all four commissioners’ offices are located — is designed to allow elected officials to collaborate better than the office space in the 1900 Building.
“We really do thrive in the way it’s currently set up to be productive for the people of Portland,” Ryan said. “So that will be a big sacrifice.”
All four commissioners say they wouldn’t mind working in City Hall, even if it’s an active construction site.
“We understand there will be dust, noise, and inconveniences during construction, and we are willing to be flexible with those conditions to maintain continuity with our teams and connectivity to the public,” reads a letter sent to the mayor’s office by the four commissioners last week.
They also dispute that any renovations need to be done to their offices prior to the January 2025 switch to a 12-person Council, which could save construction costs.
Wheeler’s office and city facilities managers aren’t convinced. Facilities staff say City Hall’s second floor offices are overdue for critical security upgrades, air conditioning updates, and new cable wiring. They also suggest adding — and removing — walls to ensure new commissioners have similarly-sized offices and space for their two additional staffers.
The four commissioners said it should be up to the new City Council to decide whether they want upgraded offices.
The city has already retained Howard S. Wright Construction to carry out the construction work. On Friday, contractors with Howard S. Wright said it would cost less to renovate City Council chambers and offices at the same time. If they renovated the chambers in 2024, and then came back for office renovations the following year, it would cost more. That’s because the city would have to pay for construction site management for twice the amount of time, and material and labor costs could be higher due to inflation.
If done in tandem, the entire project would take no more than 31 weeks — nearly eight months — to complete and cost just under $4 million. The city has set aside $7.2 million to use on the entire renovation plan. Construction is expected to begin in February.
This debate comes a week after City Council members agreed to establish secondary offices in each of the four districts that new council members will represent and allow construction on City Council chambers to begin as early as January 2024. Council meetings will be held in the 1900 Building during construction.
At least three city commissioners had originally asked to delay that construction plan, which was also introduced by Wheeler. Some commissioners appeared to assume that by agreeing to that timeline, Wheeler could allow them to remain in their offices.
“To me, there was an expectation that there would be a balancing of interests… and that meant keeping our space until January 1st, 2025,” Gonzalez said.
This wasn’t Wheeler’s expectation. He said he supported the facility staff’s proposal to begin construction on both Council chambers and offices in early 2024.
“If you guys have something else, the burden is on you to bring something to council,” Wheeler said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to go.”
Ryan suggested bringing yet another plan to Council “in the spirit of shared sacrifice”, that would delay construction on City Council offices until October 2024. That would require both current commissioners and future Council members to move. Contractors and city facilities staff said they would create estimates on how much this new plan would cost by then.
Gonzalez signaled interest in this proposal, which will likely return for a vote next week. It’s not clear if Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps will support the proposal.
Ryan urged his colleagues to support his compromise to avoid further debate over this proposal, which he said delays the policy work of City Hall.
“I just hope that we can continue to collaborate and know that we’re on the same team, focused on the priorities of the city,” said Ryan, “and not have this bring tension and division at a time where we don’t need it over something like this.”
Commissioners will hold another meeting Monday to discuss additional steps in the city’s transition to a new form of government.