City Hall: clout for sale?

• Some say big money buys influence; givers say gifts come without strings

They give. And they get.

They are property developers and downtown property owners. They are top executives with engineering, construction and consultant firms.

They give tens of thousands of dollars to Portland City Council candidates, thousands of dollars at a time. They give almost exclusively to incumbents who have almost no chance of losing.

And they spend the time between campaigns doing millions of dollars worth of business with the city.

As another campaign fund-raising season exhausts itself today, with Portland voters choosing a new city commissioner, a Portland Tribune analysis of city campaign records and public works reveals the insiders' dance between the city's business and its political campaigns:

• Several city employee labor unions are among the top givers this year, largely because of contributions to council candidate Randy Leonard. But beyond the labor unions, 10 of the top 15 contributors to mayoral or City Council candidates since 1998 are major Portland landowners or top executives with property development, engineering or construction firms. Each of the companies routinely has done business with the city.

• Combined, those 10 companies have given council candidates Ñ mostly incumbent city commissioners Ñ more than $272,000 since 1998. In the last five years, meanwhile, the city has paid those companies more than $29 million for contract work. In the same five years, it has given their developments millions of dollars in low-interest loans and hundreds of million of dollars in tax abatements and other subsidies.

• Several other companies that have worked almost exclusively for either the city's water bureau or its transportation office Ñ each doing millions of dollars worth of work for the respective bureaus Ñ have contributed either exclusively or almost exclusively to the city commissioner who oversees the bureaus for which they've worked.

City commissioners, who keep asking for campaign money from the same people, and the top contributors, who keep giving it, say the city contracts and help on development deals have nothing to do with the contributions. They say campaign contributors expect nothing and get nothing for their contributions.

'I certainly, in making a contribution, have never attached any strings to it,' said Greg Goodman of City Center Parking, whose family and businesses have given city commissioners or council candidates almost $18,000 during the last five years. 'I support people's vision and passion.'

But critics have a different view.

'The system we have is based on legalized bribery,' said Liz Callison, a board member of a local soil and water conservation district who has twice run unsuccessfully for City Council. 'The system pays back a hundredfold the people who contribute to it.'

The critics include voices from within City Hall.

Saying the city's campaign finance system 'creates the impression that large campaign contributors may have undue influence on the city,' city Commissioner Erik Sten and city Auditor Gary Blackmer two weeks ago informally proposed a major restructuring of the system, advocating public campaign financing for city candidates who agreed to limit their private fund-raising.

'I think it's a lousy system,' Sten said of the current system. 'At the end of the day, I don't think it's the right way to run a railroad.'

Unions lead list

The list of top givers reads like a who's who of city unions and business and development leaders.

• The top two givers are unions representing city employees: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Portland firefighters union, which together have made $90,000 in campaign contributions this year to one City Council candidate Ñ Portland firefighter Randy Leonard.

• At No. 3 on the list are the Schnitzer family and the Schnitzer Group of companies, with $55,250 in contributions since 1998. The Schnitzer companies are major Portland landowners and are among the biggest landowners who will benefit from the city-led development of the North Macadam District south of downtown on the west bank of the Willamette River.

Schnitzer executives did not return phone calls.

• Fourth on the givers' list is Robert Pamplin Jr., owner of Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co. and the Portland Tribune, with $45,500 in contributions since 1998. The city has paid Ross Island more than $1.3 million since July 1997 for sand, concrete and other construction products. Pamplin and the city also are working on Pamplin's plans to give the island, which the company has mined for 75 years, to the city. But that will occur only after the state has approved the company's restoration plans for the island.

Pamplin said the amount of work that Ross Island does for the city is 'so marginal that it doesn't even show up on the Richter scale.

'What I'm trying to do is help people who are good people running for office who represent the people well,' Pamplin said of his contributions. 'To me, that's the reward that you get.'

Also on the list: Gerding/Edlen Development Co., which in 1997 won the $28 million contract to design and build the city's planning and services department building on the south edge of downtown, and the development and consulting firm of Shiels Obletz Johnsen, which has done more than $700,000 worth of contract work for the city. Shiels Obletz partners have received at least $3 million in low-interest loans for work on Portland Development Commission projects.

More than money

Commissioners and contributors point out that all major city contracts are won through a competitive bid process that commissioners have little control over.

'That's what's great about the bid process,' Pamplin said. 'Everybody's on equal footing.'

But it's not only about the contracts, or the money, critics say.

Major contributors have a behind-the-scenes influence on the entire direction of the city, said David Redlich, president of the Homestead Neighborhood Association in Southwest Portland.

'You don't have to bother reading the mayor's state of the city report to find out the direction city policy is going,' Redlich said, 'because you can just tell from the people making the campaign contributions.'

Campaign contributions affect the discourse each time a major contributor has a development project before the City Council, Redlich said. He cited the city's proposed North Macadam redevelopment, which the council will consider Wednesday.

Developer Homer Williams Ñ fifth in total contributions since 1998 ($37,000) Ñ is leading the city-backed redevelopment for an area south of downtown on the western bank of the Willamette River. Williams' companies also own property in the area.

Redlich was among the Southwest Portland residents who testified angrily at City Council hearings last summer opposing an aerial tram connected with the North Macadam plans. North Macadam supporters proposed the tram Ñ operating from the development area to Oregon Health & Science University's campus on Marquam Hill Ñ to help OHSU expand its campus into North Macadam, which would in turn spur other development.

Redlich said the council's eventual approval of the tram and its general support of the North Macadam plans has happened partly because of Williams' and the Schnitzer Group's involvement in the project.

'If I had a $20,000 war chest (to give to commissioner campaigns), I believe the discussion about Marquam Hill and the tram would have had a much different character,' Redlich said. 'It would have bought me a seat at the table, and É they wouldn't have been so blatant in telling the neighborhoods that, 'You don't matter, and we're not going to listen to you.''

Saltzman said: 'When you lose, you're always going to say things like that. Neighborhoods are always going to say we're in the back pocket of developers.'

A credit due?

Charges of city favoritism have badgered Williams before.

Four years ago, representatives of Portland's chapter of the League of Women Voters opposed a $1.1 million credit against city system development charges that Williams wanted for his River District development on the north edge of downtown.

As part of the city's 1997 River District development agreement with Williams, the city spent about $80 million to, among other things, run the new streetcar into the neighborhood and to knock down the Broadway Bridge's Lovejoy ramp to clear way for the neighborhood's redevelopment plans. In return, Williams agreed to provide high-density housing and, 'at no cost,' give a square block in the neighborhood to be used as a city park.

The next year, the city instituted a policy of charging developers to help pay for parks and allowed them a credit against those charges if they donated land. Williams' representatives then asked the city to give him the $1.1 million credit against the charges Ñ what they believed Williams deserved for the value of the land he had given the city the year before. The city approved the credit.

'He should never have gotten a credit,' said Shelley Lorenzen with the League of Women Voters. 'This was land that was already committed to (the city). I just couldn't think of a better example of trying to bend over backward to accommodate this person in a situation where one really did not have to.'

Williams declined to discuss the parks fee credit. But he said he does not expect favors because of his contributions, and he doesn't think he gets favored treatment from the City Council.

His projects often get extra scrutiny from the public, he said. 'If somebody's got a bad idea and they're putting it in front of the council,' he said, 'it's not going to go anywhere, and I don't care what they did (with campaign contributions).'

The real deals

Critics suggest that it's not that simple.

Commissioner Jim Francesconi said some major contributors 'give money because they care about the city, others because they care about the city and they want access' to commissioners.

Current and former commissioners say many major contributors expect to be able to meet with a commissioner when they have concerns about issues.

'I think there's just a reality of human nature and human relationships that if somebody is a big supporter of yours in getting you elected, they're probably going to have quicker or easier access to the amount of time you might devote to the dialogue' on an issue, said former Commissioner Mike Lindberg. 'I know if somebody gave me $5,000, I'd meet with them.'

But meetings like that are important, Lorenzen said.

'Access is incredibly important,' she said. 'Who you talk to and what you hear have a big influence on what you do.'

The discussions between contributor and commissioner can make the council's public process 'feel like É a bit of a facade,' Lorenzen said. 'There's a sense that the real deals are being cut elsewhere.

'Maybe we're paranoid,' she said. 'But that's the point: When you give special access, it creates the perception that that's where the power really is.'

Commissioners Francesconi and Saltzman say those perceptions are wrong.

Major campaign contributors 'are going to get their phone calls returned,' Saltzman said. '(But) I think when we're faced with actually making decisions, casting votes, I don't think they're treated any differently.'

Sten said he mostly agrees with the system's critics. He said he pursues and accepts large contributions 'because that's the system we have.'

But, he added: 'To think that candidates raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from a very short list of people and institutions have no effect on the city's priorities is naive. It has an effect. Those issues being brought forward by people with money get more attention than those from people who don't have money.'

Still, many other observers say the influence that political contributors have on City Hall decisions is more negligible than critics believe.

Mike Houck, urban naturalist for the Audubon Society of Portland, is active in city environmental issues.

'It would be absurd to assume there isn't a connection between access and influence and money,' Houck said. 'I do not feel, however, that I am shut out from the decision-making process in any way Ñ certainly not in the city of Portland. I don't feel at a disadvantage as far as getting my viewpoint across at City Council.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..