By Israel Bayer, Staff Writer
New Mayor Charlie Hales recently sat down with Street Roots to talk about the state of the city, and what’s to come.
Hales is inheriting a possibly $25 million dollar deficit and recently took all 27 city bureaus under his control. Hales will be leading a challenging, yet hopeful next year in Portland.
Street Roots asked the mayor about his plans for Right 2 Dream Too, sidewalks, housing and homeless services, police reform, transportation and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Israel Bayer: You are walking into a brutal budget cycle with a potential deficit of $25 million dollars. What’s the process for determining what should be cut and what shouldn’t?
Charlie Hales: First, it’s going to be very open. The mayor in our system of government has the ability to disappear into a room for a couple of months and then produce the mayor’s proposed budget. I am certainly not going to do that. I am going to open the doors to that room and invite the rest of the City Council first and then the whole community in to say, ‘This is a tough situation, we are all going to have to face these difficulties together. Let’s put everything on the table.’
We are starting off with a big hole in the city’s budget. There is no bag of tricks in terms of some new revenue source or extra money that we can lay our hands on. It’s managing scarcity. Now, that’s the bad news: It’s going to be a tough budget.
The good news is that the economy is improving. The city’s forecast for its own budget, over time, is positive. So over the next few years, whatever base we build this year we’ll be building on that base. We won’t be cutting, and then cutting again.
I.B.: Some city bureaus are also facing federal cuts. Will these cuts be taken into consideration when determining the loss of program support from the city?
C.H.: It’s really important that you mention that. One of the first things we are going to do is have the county leadership come over and brief us on their situation before we even start thinking about our budget. We are partners with Multnomah County, particularly in homelessness, mental health and housing. In those areas, we are joined at the hip. We need to know how strong our partner is or what our partner’s problems are. We will then look at how that’s related to federal cuts and what it all means.
I.B.: Should the city and county work toward consolidating their programs, specifically for housing and homeless services?
C.H.: Yes. And that time is now. We will at least start to ask those questions. The example I’ve used in trying to explain this multiple levels of government, is, if you drove over from City Hall to the east side, you drove on a city street, got on a county bridge and touched down on a city street on the other side. If there is a homeless juvenile on the bridge while you crossed, that guy was Multnomah County’s responsibility. If there was a homeless adult on the bridge, she’s the city’s responsibility. That’s how crazy the patchwork is of what the city and the county do. Anyone can look at those examples and reach the conclusion that we might be able to be more efficient.
I.B.: There are a lot of community groups with a high level of anxiety over budget cuts. How are you going to ensure that people’s voices are heard and there is community involvement? What’s the best way to handle budget advocacy without alienating your staff and city hall?
C.H.: I’m never alienated by advocacy. I welcome it. I am never uncomfortable with people pounding on the table and advocating their point of view. That’s great, we want that.
I think the rest of the Council is the same way. This is Portland, we expect people to have an opinion and to be involved. We expect people to actually be heard and have multiple opportunities during the formal budget process for people to come to hearings or work sessions and be able to express what they care about.
We do have serious cutting to do; unfortunately, we aren’t going to get by with little tweaks here and there. My philosophy, in making those cuts, is to hold us to several key values. One is commitment to the basic services that the city is supposed to provide. No one else does police and no one else does parks. Those are our core responsibilities.
Secondly, always have an eye on equity. Make sure that we are not causing further inequity by how we cut. Make sure we keep a particular eye on vulnerable populations, whether it’s at-risk kids or people that are houseless. We have a couple thousand people on the streets tonight.
Third, as I mentioned earlier, build a city to compete for the long run. This is a one-year squeeze that’s going to start to ease up. We have to build a strong foundation for the future. If we have to cut things, cut things that we know how we are going to add back.
Part of this is advocating to other governments. For example, the city has put money into public schools from time to time because we’ve been in this permanent crisis in public education. Every year, the schools are getting cut. This year, we’ve made school funding by the legislature our top legislative priority.
The city doesn’t have the money to be grantmaker for the schools this year. As much as I love helping the schools, that’s just not a realistic possibility this year. If the legislature doesn’t step up, we are not in a good position to ride to the school’s rescue.
People are uncomfortable, because it’s scary, and we will have to make some difficult choices.
I.B.: What’s the answer for Right 2 Dream Too?
C.H.: I think the answer is a different site that is a good place to live that doesn’t have the friction that that site has. I was on the council when we approved the creation of Dignity Village. It is clearly a success.
It seems to me that Right 2 Dream Too is on the way to being that kind of sustainable, self-managed community. It’s not in the right location on the corner of Fourth and Burnside. I think there are partnership possibilities between organizers and residents of Right 2 Dream, property owners, other non-profits and public agencies that will lead to positive outcomes.
I went out to Dignity Village last fall. I am impressed. I’ve been to Right 2 Dream a couple of times. You see people really doing a great job, managing that enterprise for themselves. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the capacity of those folks to make this work. It’s up to the larger community, me included, to try to find a place for the camp to land that makes sense.
I.B.: What are your thoughts on the city’s efforts on equity, most notably addressing continued disparities among communities of color?
C.H.: The thing about equity that you will see from me is that I am going to be relentlessly looking for ways to make it real. Where are we paving the streets? Where are we building the parks? Where are we creating the jobs? Who are getting those jobs? What’s the next class of recruits in the police bureau look like? Are they representative of the community? What is the summer youth program in the Parks Bureau doing in terms of reaching at-risk kids and giving them summer jobs?
Make it real. We have an office designed to monitor and inform the city on equity issues, but the buck stops with decisions that we make to make it real. Every hire, every promotion, every investment needs to be looked at and we need to honestly ask ourselves the question: Are we making the city more equitable by this?
I.B.: Talk to Street Roots readers about police reform and the directions you see the bureau going in.
C.H.: We are going to make sure that the Portland Police Bureau is a truly community-policing agency that practices peacekeeping and de-escalation, that understands mental illness and who to reach out to for help. I think we are on the way.
I think Chief (Mike) Reese is following my direction on this set of issues very well. I hear a lot of commitment in the Bureau. Captain (Sarah) Westbrook is a great resource and gets it. I am going to spend some time on the street with her and her team. I’m spending a lot of time doing ride-alongs and walk-alongs with everybody from Clean & Safe officers to the police so that I have that first hand view of what’s happening in the field. There is no substitute for that. Sitting in this building getting briefings doesn’t give me the tools I need to lead on this effort. There is nothing better than getting out of this building and getting it first-hand, in person.
We are going to be that kind of community policing bureau in everything we do and embrace the changes that are required to reduce the wrongful use of force. We’re not being dragged into these changes. We’re embracing these changes, because it’s going to make for a better relationship between the police bureau and the community and a safer city.
I.B.: The Portland Business Alliance obviously thinks the current sidewalk management is not enough. Are you planning on cracking down on panhandling and changing the current sidewalk ordinance?
C.H.: No one is happy with the status quo — not the advocates for the homeless, not the downtown business managers, not the suburban shoppers who come downtown occasionally, and not the folks who live or work downtown. So no one is happy with the status quo.
The current sidewalk management ordinance is dysfunctional. So, let’s move to an ordinance that works better and to an environment where we can give people real options. We have to do both at the same time. We have to have a livable downtown where we are taking care of people.
I.B.: What’s the next evolution on the transportation front in Portland?
C.H.: The big picture in transportation is first we have to recommit to basic maintenance and show people that we can take care of the streets, because right now we are not.
We have to go to the community for additional money for transportation. I don’t know what that’s going to be — a gas tax, vehicle registration fee. We cannot even start that conversation with the broader public until they know we are being good stewards of the streets we have, that we are out there filling the potholes and fixing the streets.
Stage one is to show people really good management and good use of the dollars we have and then go out there and be the salesperson for whatever we have to do for new revenue about a year from now.
I.B.: How’s the biking community going to fare?
C.H.: Just as people are going to have to be patient with the structures of this budget, people are going to have to be patient with the rebuilding of transportation. We are not going to be building a lot of new stuff while we are doubling down on maintenance. But when we are there and on a sustainable path, then we are going to continue to be a leading city where you can take transit, walk, or ride a bike safely around the city.
I.B.: I’m not sure many understand the pressure it must take both physically and mentally to run a city. How do you internalize the work you do day-in and day-out?
C.H.: I genuinely love this city. I’m one of those people that came here by choice a long time ago. I’ve seen Portland blossom over the years. I’m really in love with this city.
I feel that I am in the right place at the right time. I’ve had a career of being both in the public and private sector. I feel I bring all that experience to the job. I’m a parent, so I understand schools, I understand kids. As a person, I think that is good grounding. I’ve learned a lot about managing people over the past 10 years, so I feel I am a better manager than I ever was before.
So I get up every day very excited about coming to work. I do wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about the budget or worrying about things occasionally. But fortunately, I think I am able to pace myself and not have the job eat me alive. I think that’s always the danger.
I try to exercise three to four days a week and occasionally have a night with my wife where we are just sitting at home reading a book. I think you have to carve out a little life for yourself outside of the work you do.
I.B.: In four years, what will you have hoped to accomplish as Mayor of Portland?
C.H.: In four years, I hope we have turned the corner on public education in this state, and therefore in this city. We’ve got to have that.
I think the economy is going to rebuild. There will be more and better jobs. There will be more manufacturing jobs because that part of our city is actually growing. So there is going to be hands-on, real work to do and I think that is vital in this city. Then I think the neighborhood business environment is going to do well. It’s already pretty good, but I think it will get better.
The other thing I hope we see after four years is real substantial improvement in the neighborhoods that have been underserved — the neighborhoods where you don’t have a park, or where you can’t walk on the sidewalk to school. East Portland, in particular, and other parts of the city that got annexed into the city late and where we haven’t made investments in our basic public services. I think we are going to be making progress there and people will be saying, “Oh, you know, I can see that maybe five or 10 years from now this neighborhood is going to be different.” That’s a 20-year solution.
I.B.: What else?
C.H.: What’s strange about being mayor is that people really do feel that they can just come up to you on the street and strike up a conversation and tell you, “Hey, I want to tell you what matters to me.” I love that about Portland. I was in the grocery store in my neighborhood last night with my wife, and we had three different conversations between the milk case and the check-out line.
I hope people always consider me approachable and that it’s OK to buttonhole the mayor on a street corner and tell me what you think. I hope no one gets intimidated by me, or the office of mayor. I try to put people at ease and try to reduce that seeming barrier between the “very important person” and a citizen. Hey, I am a citizen who just volunteered for a job here. I try to act like a small-town mayor in a big city. So I hope people feel comfortable with taking advantage of that.