Sunday, April 09, 2006

The city that isn't quite working

The city that isn't quite working is a thought provoking piece in yesterday's Oregonian.

Even though I think this City Council has strayed farther from good government than past Councils, the first thing that struck me was how much of this article was written as an opinion piece--right from the opening sentence.

Watching the headlines the past few months, it's getting hard to escape the notion that Portland city government is a ship with five different captains -- each sailing in a separate direction.

That's how columns and editorials usually begin--not news reports.

The article goes on to list recent problems showing Portland's poor city government:

The list of public failures, embarrassments and squabbles is long and growing: The mayor's plan to save the public schools with a citywide income tax bombed, then he apologized to the Portland police after incorrectly suggesting race was behind the traffic stop of a Somali man. The City Council nearly let construction of the budget-busting $57 million aerial tram slam to a stop.

Various commissioners have waged rhetorical war with Oregon Health & Science University, Schumacher Furs, Portland General Electric and the Portland Business Alliance.

Add in the latest shocker -- allegations that Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth sexually harassed a department desk clerk -- and it's no wonder pollsters say that public mistrust of local government is rising faster than the mayor's blood pressure.

All of these are real problems. But are they the result of Lone Ranger government by the commissioners and mayor?

How about the Mayor's income tax proposal? Weren't the real problems there that a) there was not enough public support for the proposal and b) schools are not one of the Mayor's or the City Council's responsibilities?

Mayor Potter's assumption that his police officers were racist and his poor handling of the Foxworth allegations are not a product of five-headed leadership. Those are failings of judgment.

Small decisions, such as not obeying stop signs on his ride with Critical Mass, have shown a streak of arrogance in the Mayor. "I'm important so I'm above the law that I expect all you other Portland citizens to obey" shows a lack of humility and/or common sense. This is just a small example of an arrogance that has too often played out in the bigger decisions.

Two examples from 2005 stand out to me where there should have been major handwringing and changes made by the City Council. But there were none.

The first is the horrible environmental record the City has in negligent dumping of sewage in public waterways. More than 1.1 million gallons of sewage went into the Willamette and Fanno Creek in September and October alone. What was the City's response? Not assuming responsibility and doing everything possible to correct the problem. No, the City appealed the DEQ fines.

Then there is the utterly inadequate police force that can only respond to the worst public safety cases (e.g., one in 8,500 pleas for follow up on domestic violence get help).* Any response to fix this? No. The Police budget just keeps getting cut.

Those daily living failures in good government bother me much more than ineptness with the tram and the hobby horse desire to run PGE (despite the City's poor record with the major water utility they already run).

I'm glad The Oregonian is expressing concern about City Council ineptness in governing. I know that the paper has felt pressure to do more articles questioning national government leadership. I'm assuming this article is a response in terms of local government. There's also the increasing trend in wire service reports and reprints from other national newspapers to include more and more opinon journalism.

It's hard to buck the national trend. But, I hope The Oregonian will find a way to include more and more investigative journalism in the news section, but keep opinion/analysis journalism in the editiorial section.
*cited in SHERIFF LENDS EXTRA HELP TO 'CLOSE FRIEND', page C1, The Oregonian, July 27, 2005 (article no longer on line)

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