UPDATE (Dec. 31, 5:25 p.m. PT) — Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish is resigning to focus on his health.
Fish announced Tuesday that he feels he can no longer “do this work at the high level our community deserves and I expect of myself.” His City Council colleagues will set a date for a special election to fill his seat, a contest likely to occur on the same day as the May 2020 primary. Fish plans to resign once voters elect his successor.
Fish, 61, was first elected to the City Council in 2008. He’s championed new efforts to combat homelessness and keep people in their homes, and expansion and renovation of Portland parks. Fish later oversaw the city's water and sewer bureaus, and in 2014 helped beat back an attempt to snatch them away from city control.
He was diagnosed with stomach cancer two and a half years ago, but continued to work — and win reelection — while receiving treatment. Earlier this month, he announced his disease had become "more complicated" and that he was taking most of December off to spend with his family and focus on his health.
In his written announcement Tuesday, Fish said the cancer and treatment make continuing to serve impossible.
"I cannot escape the very sad fact that I will be unable to serve out the remainder of my term," Fish wrote.
A New York native, Fish descends from political royalty. His great-great-grandfather was U.S. secretary of state, and his father and grandfather both served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Fish, an employment lawyer by trade, began his own career in public service working for U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. Fish and his wife, Patricia Schechter, moved to Oregon so she could take a teaching position at Portland State University.
Fish was elected to City Hall in a special race to replace Commissioner Erik Sten, who had resigned, in 2008. Fish was then elected to a full term in 2010 and reelected in 2014 and 2018.
Reflecting on more than a decade working alongside Fish, Commissioner Amanda Fritz said the skill and enthusiasm with which Fish managed the two utility bureaus stands out. Both the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services were assigned to him in 2013 by Mayor Charlie Hales.
“It's not an assignment that gets you a lot of attention or opportunities to cut ribbons or make flowery speeches,” Fritz said. “They're very much utilities, and he restored public trust in them. He made sure that they worked together.”
Fritz said Fish always kept an eye out for low-income ratepayers. Last year, under Fish's direction, the utility bureaus began providing rebates on bills for families at risk of eviction.
Fritz said she’ll remember not just what Fish accomplished over the last decade but what he turned down. Years ago, she said, she was driving in the car with Fish when he let slip that the Obama administration had asked him to come work in its housing department. He turned it down.
“He described it to me as his dream job,” she said. “And yet he decided to stay in Portland because he felt that he had signed up for a job and he wanted to do that job.”
“I hope that people — over the past couple of years, especially — have been recognizing that Nick again has chosen to stay in his job for as long as he possibly could to do the right thing by the people of Portland,” she added.
Zari Santner worked with the Portland Parks Bureau for three decades but served as director under Fish for only a few. Still, reached by phone on New Year’s Eve, she easily rattled off memories of her old boss.
Santner remembers Fish as energetic, eloquent and a highly persuasive advocate for the Parks Bureau in front of his colleagues.
“Oh my gosh, after briefing him with information and facts, he could make a case far better than the bureau could do,” she said. “... It has to come from his lawyerly background.”
Santner said she was struck by Fish’s sense of obligation to serve less-fortunate Portlanders. He insisted on parks remaining open during the summertime so that children could be fed when they weren’t in school, for example, and that city community gardens donate excess food to food pantries.
“He's a very compassionate man; in everything that he does, the compassion shows,” she said. “Sometimes during budget cuts when elderly people, especially elderly women, would come and plead to council not to cut some programs for seniors, I could see tears in his eyes.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum celebrated Fish in a tweet as "a dedicated public servant and a strong champion for our most vulnerable."
Commissioner Nick Fish is a dedicated public servant and a strong champion for our most vulnerable. His resignation means we are losing an important ally in our fight to make our state and city better, and we will miss his voice on the Portland City Council. (1/2)— Ellen Rosenblum (@ORDOJ) December 31, 2019
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury wrote that he was "more than just an able legislator or an administrator with the steadiest hands.
"His unwavering desire to do the right thing, even when it wasn't easy, should be the gold standard for current and future elected officials," she wrote. "A bureau in trouble? Give it to Nick. Controversial issue? Give it to Nick. Time and time again he proved he could take care of it."
City officials have begun planning a contest to name Fish's replacement.
According to city elections officer Deborah Scroggin, the election is almost certain to occur in May, on the same date as the 2020 primary — a move which avoids the additional costs of a special election.
That May race would lead to a runoff election between the top two vote-getters if no single candidate can achieve more than 50% of the vote. The eventual winner would serve out the remainder of Fish's term, which expires at the end of 2022.
The city's charter says that an election must occur within 90 days of a vacancy on the City Council, "unless council finds reasonable use to delay beyond 90 days," Scroggin said. In his announcement Tuesday, Fish said he will resign only once a successor is elected.
"Thank you for allowing me this honor, and for all that you do to make Portland special," he wrote. "The future is bright."