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Midterm malaise

As Mayor Tom Potter considers a run at re-election, the pressure is on for more success and less divisiveness
by: Jim Clark, Mayor Tom Potter says he and the other city commissioners usually agree on their goals, "but we don't always share the same way to get there."

Mayor Tom Potter is publicly flirting with running for a second term - even planning a campaign fundraiser for January. But some people think he should first get his current term back on track.

After a smooth first year, the first-time elected official has found 2006 a bumpy road - starting with the failure to put a school tax on the May ballot and continuing with the Derrick Foxworth controversy, the postponement of charter reform and recent setbacks involving the Portland Development Commission.

Some of his colleagues on the City Council think that after spending his entire career as a cop, the former police chief is still learning how to be an elected official.

In terms of how Potter can achieve his agenda, ' I think he is at a turning point,' Commissioner Erik Sten said. 'He has to decide, 'Do I want to go out and personally lead the charge on things?' '

The discussion of Potter's leadership style is sparked by two recent votes in which the mayor's wishes were overruled by a majority of the council. Both involved how the Portland Development Commission does its job of investing money to revitalize areas.

Last month, over Potter's heated objections, Commissioners Sten, Randy Leonard and Sam Adams voted to conduct an audit of a controversial PDC deal in which land was given to a real estate developer for free.

Then, two weeks ago, the same three overruled the consensus recommendation of a stakeholder committee in the Central Eastside area - a committee that reflected a major reform of Potter's, concerning the way the PDC spends money.

'Those are important things to me: how we engage citizens in the political process - or, how we ignore them,' Potter said recently. 'I don't think that's what we should do when citizens spend that much time, just put their ideas aside and do what we were going to do anyway.'

Not only that, but last month, when members of the Mayor's Charter Review Commission reported to the council, they found themselves facing a skeptical grilling from Commissioners Leonard and Sten.

'I felt very badly for the Charter Review Commission members,' Potter said, when asked about the hearing, 'because they were not treated with the respect that I would like all of our citizens to be treated.'

In short, there's some strain showing between Potter and the council. As Potter puts it, they agree on their goals, 'but we don't always share the same way to get there.'

'Yes it can be frustrating at times,' he said. 'But I'm one of five elected officials, actually six if you include the city auditor, so there's that balance of how I view things and how the rest of the City Council does. And you know I don't do vote trading, so I'm not going to sell my vote one time to get something the next time. … And sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn't.'

When asked about Potter's specific comments and frustrations regarding the Central Eastside and the Charter Review Commission, some of his colleagues on the council say they're not into trading votes, either. It would, however, help if he came and visited once in a while, they said.

Need seen to sell policies

Sten, for instance, is one of Potter's closest allies on the council. He attributes Potter's recent setbacks to a quality that he finds admirable - trying to do all the public's business in public, rather than lobbying his colleagues on the council behind the scenes to get things done.

'Potter has a style of letting the chips fall where they may, and doing everything out in the open,' Sten said. This, he added, is different from Potter's predecessor, Vera Katz, who 'tried to make sure she had things lined up before she rolled things out, which is a much more traditional way of doing things.'

Sten said he did show respect to people on the Charter Review Commission - by openly challenging them on their arguments, rather than just 'patting them on the head' and not being honest about his reactions.

Sten said he and the other commissioners can't be expected to just obediently accept whatever recommendations a citizens advisory committee makes.

'Nobody is trading votes,' he said. 'What you do is craft your policy so that your colleagues can support it.'

Similarly, Leonard said no one is trading votes. However, Leonard said his fellow commissioners have frequently persuaded him to change his mind by coming to him and making their case personally - something Leonard said the mayor has not done.

'If you do run for office, you do have a responsibility to sell your agenda,' Leonard said. He said officials should not think their agenda will be followed simply by virtue of their being elected: 'That's not how it works.'

As far as the skeptical reception he gave the mayor's charter commission, Leonard noted that the stated purpose of the hearing was to give the commission feedback - so 'apparently they weren't really serious about it … if they don't want our input, don't have a council session to ask us for our input.'

There are a number of theories to explain what some describe as the current dysfunction at City Hall.

Mayor's a floor away

Some say that the distance that's grown between Potter and the City Council is in part physical: The mayor's office is on the third floor, and the commissioners are on the second floor. Indeed, the complaints about Potter not visiting his colleagues enough are eerily reminiscent of how commissioners used to complain about his predecessor, Katz.

Another theory is that Potter's stylistic issues reflect the former police chief's lack of experience in exerting mayoral power as well as forging consensus in an elected body. And that as a result, commissioners are pursuing their individual agendas with little fear of reprisal.

Potter, for his part, defended his results so far. 'When I ran for office, I said I want to reconnect the community to their government, I want to make sure government is transparent, I want to look at PDC and how it works, I want to look at the charter. I am doing all of those things,' he said. 'I am keeping my word to the citizens.'

Potter noted that he chose not to take credit for some of his successes. While he did not specify the achievements, other City Hall observers say the tram vote and the council vote on funding schools were largely his doing.

Asked what he can do better, Potter said, 'I need to work harder at improving a better spirit of collaboration on the City Council so that it's not about personalities, or even taking it personally, but really seeing what we can do to work together in the best interests of the citizens of Portland, and how we engage them in that process.'

In recent weeks, City Hall observers have been predicting Potter will face a strong challenger if indeed he does want to run for re-election - which it appears he does. Speculation has focused on Commissioner Adams, former Commissioner Charlie Hales, Metro President David Bragdon and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.

For his part, Potter said he hasn't made a final decision on whether he will run, though he said he does intend to hold a yet-to-be finalized re-election-campaign fundraiser for January - at the very least to show he remains 'engaged' in the affairs of the city.

Minutes later, however, he suggested that he probably would run for re-election, saying, 'I look forward to the debates with Charlie or anybody else' if someone does challenge him.

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