Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced new bureau assignments for the City Council that will take effect Sept. 4.
In the city’s unusual commission form of government, choosing bureau assignments is one of the mayor’s few unique powers.
In a signal of his priorities, the mayor is taking control of the Bureau of Development Services, which issues building permits and enforces code compliance, among other things.
Since his campaign, Wheeler has talked about trying to speed up permitting, particularly for housing.
His portfolio also includes the Portland Housing Bureau, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and Prosper Portland — formerly the Portland Development Commission.
“He took on the Bureau of Development Services because there’s a natural link between that bureau and the other planning bureaus in the mayor’s portfolio,” said Michael Cox, Wheeler’s chief of staff. “What he’d like to do is significantly reduce the time it takes to bring projects, especially housing projects, to market and by grouping these bureaus together there’s a real opportunity to do that.”
Some people in City Hall have worried that taking on another bureau with complex bureaucracy will add to an already large workload for the mayor.
In addition to the planning and housing bureaus, Wheeler also oversees the Portland Police Bureau, the City Budget Office and the Office of Management and Finance, among others.
Cox noted that while he’s taking on BDS, the mayor has given up three smaller bureaus.
Other big changes include Commissioner Chloe Eudaly taking charge of the Bureau of Transportation, Commissioner Nick Fish managing Portland Parks and Recreation and Commissioner Amanda Fritz overseeing the Water Bureau and the Office of Equity and Human Rights.
The Transportation Bureau is a big assignment for Eudaly — still a relative newcomer to government — with an annual budget of around $320 million and an underfunded mandate to maintain the city’s streets, a depreciating asset after years of deferred maintenance.
“The assignment, in general, is daunting,” said Marshal Runkel, Eudaly’s chief of staff.
Runkel said Eudaly, who is out on vacation, is excited about the challenge. They have both signed up for a free transportation course at PSU, started years ago by U.S. Rep Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland.
“The transportation systems are going to look very different 10 years from now than they do right now. It’s an incredible moment of change,” Runkel said.
The mayor’s office has been working on the significant reorganization since the budget process in April.
Staff and commissioners at city hall described the mayor as “collaborative” in his approach.
“I think he was trying to make sure that every one of my colleagues had something that they were passionate about,” Fish said.
While Wheeler will retain oversight over the Portland Police Bureau – as almost every mayor has — he assigned the city’s other public safety bureaus to retiring Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
Those are Portland Fire and Rescue, the Bureau of Emergency Communications, Fire and Police Disability and Retirement and the Bureau of Emergency Management.
Wheeler said he intends to hand those bureaus off in five months to the council member elected to replace Saltzman. Jo Ann Hardesty and Loretta Smith are in a November runoff for the seat. He reached out to both candidates before settling on the assignments.
“I’m pleased to have those bureaus for the next five months. I will be a good caretaker,” Saltzman said.
Fish encountered a similar situation in 2008 when he was a candidate and then-Commissioner Eric Sten announced his retirement.
The mayor at the time, Tom Potter, announced that the winner would take over Sten’s bureaus.
Fish said the mayor may have done the two candidates a favor.
“There is a virtue to run for office knowing what you may get,” he said. “I would expect to hear from both of them. It sharpens your platform a little bit, to talk about what your assignments are going to be.”
Fritz said she was pleased with both of her new assignments. She said she sees the possibility for overlap between work promoting equity and in the city’s hiring practices and her work overseeing the Water Bureau.
“There are huge contracts, so there’s a lot of opportunity with equity in those contracts,” Fritz said. “It’s great that we have a chief engineer and deputy engineer both of whom are women, which is not common in utility bureaus.”