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March 23rd, 2011 BETH SLOVIC | City Hall
 

Launch Pad

The Mayor plays “Will it float?” with a proposal to take control of Multnomah County’s River Patrol Unit.

news1-sailorsam_3720WW Photo Illustration
Late in Mayor Sam Adams’ third annual State of the City address last month, he proposed a change to give Multnomah County extra cash it badly needs for social services.

But as reported on wweek.com March 18 and 21, Adams’ idea to have the City of Portland take over the county sheriff’s River Patrol Unit faces multiple hurdles. 

Sheriff Dan Staton has not approved the switch, which Adams said would save the county more than $1 million.

Neither has the Oregon State Marine Board, which funds about a third of the unit’s $2 million annual budget. The Multnomah County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, whose 90 members include the 15 officers who police the waterways, also has expressed skepticism.

Adams says their concerns mask a more basic instinct; the agencies are territorial, he says. So is this just a turf war?

At his Feb. 18 State of the City speech, Adams called his proposal to take over the River Patrol Unit a “controversial but common sense” idea. He also characterized it as an opportunity for Multnomah County to save money that elected leaders can instead earmark for the prosecution of misdemeanor drug crimes and mental health services.

Multnomah County, which gets most of its funding from the state, faces a far grimmer budget forecast than the City of Portland, whose revenues are comparatively stable.

But it’s not at all clear that Adams’ plan is realistic. The county’s river patrol polices the portion of the Willamette River that runs through Portland. But the county unit also covers the Sandy and Columbia rivers far outside Portland’s jurisdiction. If the proposal were adopted, Adams says, Portland would shoulder river-patrol activities outside its city borders. That would require extra steps, since state law now says county sheriffs take responsibility for search and rescue efforts.

“When you take on hard issues you’re not always going to announce it and get it perfect [at the announcement],” Adams says.

Others see in Adams’ proposal a hint of one of the mayor’s biggest weakness heading into the 2012 election season in which Adams is expected to seek re-election. When Adams isn’t drowning Portlanders in months-long bouts of public process, he’s hastily trying to float ideas that sometimes sink under their own weight.

Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear and a financial backer of the second failed attempt to recall Adams, in 2010, considers this political “pandering” to win points. Even if it’s not pandering, it may not be effective.

“If you really want to make it happen, announcing it’s going to happen without consulting others isn’t necessarily going to make it happen,” says Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who previously served on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.

The other most recent example of Adams’ propensity for hurried policy changes involves parking around the newly renamed PGE Park, now called Jeld-Wen Field. Three business days before a scheduled City Council vote on the topic last week—as the Portland Timbers prepared for their April 14 Major League Soccer home opener—Adams introduced a plan that would extend the hours for paid parking and more than double the existing parking-meter rates for select spots around the stadium on game nights. 

The Goose Hollow Foothills League, which represents the stadium’s surrounding businesses and residents, called initial response among its members to the plan “overwhelmingly negative.” At least two of Adams’ fellow city commissioners had similarly strong feelings against the plan. After hearing objections from Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman, Adams scuttled the vote and agreed to further tweaks.

Other examples of Adams’ rushed decision-making abound.

A new policy in 2010 to charge residents and businesses in certain “leaf districts” for street clean-up also backfired. After public outcry, Adams admitted he’d made the change too quickly and without sufficient public outreach. 

In February 2010, Adams experienced a similar whiplash after announcing a plan to spend $20 million in “contract savings” from the Bureau of Environmental Services capital budget to help pay for the city’s bike infrastructure. That plan, which called for building new bioswales that slow car traffic and support bike boulevards, did not go before BES’s director or commissioner-in-charge before Adams introduced the idea at a packed City Council hearing.

On March 16, talking about his parking plan for Jeld-Wen Field, Adams used a revealing phrase to describe his approach: “try-storming.”

The phrase, which Adams says he borrowed from former Multnomah County Chairwoman Bev Stein, speaks to Adams’ willingness to try out new ideas before they’re fully formed.

“These are difficult issues that have been ignored for a long time,” Adams says. “The easy stuff has mostly been done.” 

 
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