slides: Mayor Hales Could Make Power Play with Portland City Hall Reshuffle
Monday, January 26, 2015
Political experts and City Hall insiders say a move by Hales to redistribute commissioners’ bureau assignments would be an opportunity to reassert himself as the city’s most powerful politician, while hitting the reset button on a number of contentious issues.
Of the major bureaus, like police, water, transportation, and housing, several hit major challenges in the last year.
The Bureau of Environmental Services is still reeling from the ousting of its director, Dean Marriott; the city fell short of its affordable housing goals; and the Portland Street Fee proposal is in tatters. But, the move could come at a terrible cost for Hales and the city.
Slides Below: 7 Things the Mayor Could Do with a City Hall Reshuffle
The potential reshuffle, announced on Friday, would be the first time in recent memory that a Mayor had taken control of all the city’s agencies, not once, but twice, in their first term.
“To take all the bureaus from the commissioners is a bit odd,” said Pacific University Political Science Professor Jim Moore. “New mayors will do this, giving the reason as needing to learn about the bureaus and the expertise of the commissioners. Hales already knows all this.”
Positioning for a shake up
The city’s 27 bureaus are divided between the four city councilors and the mayor, under the commissioner form of government. The mayor however, has the power to assign or reassign the bureaus. No mayor in recent memory has reshuffled bureaus twice in their first term.
Hales’ office confirmed Friday that he was “considering” taking the bureaus back into his wheelhouse during this year’s budget session.
“He considers it every year,” said the Mayor’s spokesman Dana Haynes.
While that may be so, this year, Hales is talking to the media and his colleagues about it.
In 2013, when the Mayor first took office, he took control of all of the bureaus for six months. Now, just 18 months later, he might do it again -- a sign, experts say, that all is not well.
Departure from the recent past
“Any time there is a major shift in government it usually means something is going wrong,” said Richard Clucas, a political science professor at Portland State University.
Former Mayor Tom Potter also took control of the all of the city bureaus for six months when he was first elected Mayor. But, he doesn’t recommend it.
“It’s disruptive at all levels,” Potter said. That said, Potter said reassigning bureaus is one of the most power administrative and political weapons at the Mayor’s disposal. "Mayors can punish commissioners with bureaus they don't like, or leave them with a legacy they wouldn't want,” Potter said.
In 2010, then Mayor Sam Adams yanked the Police Bureau from Commissioner Dan Saltzman. Experts say his intention was to rein in then-Police Chief Rosie Sizer, who was ultimately fired. However, Saltzman called the move “vindictive” at the same time, as it came right before the commissioner’s re-election. The next year, Adams passed him the Bureau of Development Services, and the Office of Cable Communications and Franchises Management.
In 2003, Mayor Vera Katz pulled the Water Bureau from Commissioner Erik Sten after a failed computer billing system threatened to cost ratepayers between $20 million and $30 million. Sten’s political career never recovered.
After almost a year of public campaigning, readjusting and reboots, the Portland Street Fee has been tabled. Hales announced Jan 15 that he would put the issue down until the state legislature has time to pass a transportation bill.
“It is a highly public issue, and it appears there is no city-centric set of solutions that all players can agree upon,” Moore said. “So, just as the water bureau shifted in the past, the police have shifted in the past, as well as others, Hales may feel it's time for a big shakeup because of the street fee ideas. I think it is probable that Novick and some other commissioner will be the only changes (a trade, in effect).”
Even if Hales only reassigned one bureau this year, most agree that it would surely be the Transportation Bureau. Current Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick has been widely criticized for his abrasive political rhetoric and unilateral approach to raising funds for street maintenance.
Political insiders say Novick’s leadership on the Street Fee has upset a range of people, from the business community to the staff in the Bureau of Transportation.
That said, it’s not the only hit City Hall has taken recently. On Jan. 3, Dean Marriott stepped down as BES director after costs for the construction of an $11.5 million office facility in North Portland skyrocketed. That bureau is headed by Commissioner Nick Fish.
Portland’s housing strategy has also come under recent fire. Last year, African American leaders in North and Northeast Portland halted a proposed Trader Joe’s development at the corner of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Alberta Street that they believed would exacerbate gentrification in the area.
The development only moved forward once Trader Joe’s backed out, and the Mayor pledged $20 million in new affordable housing investment. Even with that pledge activists in say that the housing commitment for the Eastside is not enough. While Hales technically oversees the Portland Development Commission, which builds affordable housing in urban renewal areas, the Housing Bureau itself is currently overseen by Saltzman.
Experts agree a reshuffle of bureaus would be a strong power play for the Mayor. GoLocalPDX previously reported communication inside City Hall broke down over the street fee issue.
In the past, the Mayor said that he wanted the commissioners to work more like a board of directors than like siloed executives, according to Haynes.
That’s exactly the kind of collaborative work that Hales wants to see more of.
Moreover, a reshuffle puts the Mayor back in the driver’s seat, and puts him in a better position to raise money for a second term as mayor. As he crosses into his third year, Hales will need to start getting big money donors to make their initial campaign commitments.
"The downsides outweigh the upsides,” Potter, the former Mayor, said. He believes that reshuffles are more disruption than they are worth. They overwhelm the staff in the Mayor’s office and the other bureaus. “The [bureau] directors bear a lot of the brunt of the shifting.”
Chris Koski, Associate Professor of Political Science at Reed College, agreed that a reshuffle would be a potentially paralyzing shock to the city.
“It’s hard to imagine that any bureau chief would want a mayor to take over his or her powers involuntarily -- much less all them,” Koski said.
Moreover, the Mayor would have to carefully weigh the politics.
Hales came in as a reformer, who promised to change the dynamics of City Hall. One way in which he made good on that promise was by shuffling bureaus. Shuffling the bureaus back to the way they were when Hales took office might give voters the impression of flip-flopping.
While Hales might be able to mend fences, for example, by returning the Housing Bureau back to Nick Fish, who is passionate about the issue, a move to take the transportation bureau away from Novick might be a devastating hit to the commissioner’s political career.
That said, taking the Transportation Bureau on himself would give Hales a strong hand and a good position in the next election, if he can indeed find a solution to the street maintenance question. As Hales weighs the potential risks and rewards, the city moves closer to this year’s budget season.
Related Slideshow: 7 Things the Mayor Could Do by Reorganizing City Hall
Here are some things a reshuffle might do for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales.
7. Shake up the Bureau Directors
While commissioners come and go, the directors are in charge of their bureaus in the long term. Bringing all the bureaus under his control during the budgeting process would force the directors to answer to the Mayor, if only for a short time. This move would send a strong message to the bureaucracy that the Mayor, in fact, is in charge.
5. Realign Bureaus with Commissioners' Interests
Each Commissioner has his or her own strengths and interests. Amanda Fritz has always been passionate about neighborhoods, while Nick Fish is equally focused on housing. Giving the Office of Neighborhood Involvement back to Fritz and the Housing Bureau back to Fish might build political capital.
4. Reset Relationships
It would take significant negotiating with commissioners to execute a reshuffle smoothly. The Mayor would have an opportunity to rebuild alliances or work to align commissioners with his vision of a city council that functions more like a board of directors than a gang of mini-mayors.
3. Take Over The Bureau of Transportation
Hales' boldest play would be to take the Bureau of Transportation for himself. While it lays the responsibility of the Portland Street Fee squarely on his shoulders, if he is successful, Hales could claim victory over an issue that has vexed him since he was on City Council more than a decade ago.
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