Frustrated mayors sidestep Metro panel

It's not a rebellion, but some say their ideas aren't considered
by: patrick cote Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden began organizing meetings of other mayors in the region after being surprised by a Metro advisory committee vote.

Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden was shocked when a Metro advisory committee voted in September to require that new housing developments across the region have a minimum of 20 units per acre.

'No one talked to me about it before the vote,' Ogden says. 'I don't think that would work in Tualatin or most other cities.'

Even though the Metro Policy Advisory Committee is supposed to represent local elected officials like Ogden on issues before the elected regional government, Ogden says the vote shows that some other mayors don't understand the needs of different cities in the region. Three mayors on the committee voted in favor of the housing density recommendation, including Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who introduced the plan. Although three mayors voted against it, the committee passed it 13 to 6.

In response, Ogden invited all of the mayors within Metro's boundaries to meet and discussion their concerns about the elected regional government. About 20 of the 25 mayors got together on Nov. 16 and talked about a range of issues, including Metro, the impact of fluctuating property tax collections, unfunded state and federal mandates, and economic development ideas.

In the end, the mayors agreed to keep meeting and set the next gathering for Dec. 14. (The meetings were first reported by Metro's in-house reporter, Nick Christensen on the agency's website.)

Ogden insists the nearly two dozen mayors aren't rebelling against Metro or trying to establish an alternative organization.

'We're not competing against Metro. We just have a lot in common and a lot to learn about each other,' says Ogden.

Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, who attended the first meeting, agrees.

'I think it's great that we are talking. Congress should try it,' says Doyle, who tried setting up similar meetings with other mayors when he was elected three years ago.

At the same time, the meetings are another sign of strains within the region on some of Metro's policies. Many voters in Damascus are resisting Metro's efforts to spur development there. Clackamas County voters have refused to help finance the Sellwood Bridge replacement project, one of Metro's top transportation priorities. And some elected officials in Washington County still think that Metro did not approve enough new land for development in October.

The meetings are also happening at a time when much of the region's growth is taking place outside Portland. According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, Portland only grew .35 percent last year. Multnomah County, which included Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village and Damascus, grew .7 percent. In contrast, Washington County grew 1 percent. Clackamas County grew .5 percent.

Better communication

Metro President Tom Hughes - a former mayor of Hillsboro - supports the meetings. He agrees that Metro does not provide a forum for all the mayors to be heard. The 30-member MPAC includes only seven mayors. Other members on the panel are Metro councilors, county chairs and commissioners, city commissioners, the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, TriMet, special district representatives and citizen representatives.

'I'm thinking about other ways we can get the mayors more involved,' says Hughes.

Former Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake also agrees that Ogden is on to something. Drake served on MPAC for years while he was mayor of Washington County's second-largest city (behind Hillsboro). Although Drake supports Metro, he believes those representing suburban cities frequently felt shut out at MPAC meetings.

'It seemed the decisions were already made before the meetings started, and ideas we considered good never had a chance," Drake says

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett doesn't see any value in MPAC, or Metro, for that matter.

'I don't see what benefit we're getting out of Metro and neither do most of my voters,' says Spinnett, who also attended the mid-November mayors' meeting.

Damascus incorporated in 2004 after Metro targeted it for development. During a May election, Damascus voters rejected the first development plan approved by its City Council by a 2-to-1 margin.

MPAC's housing density recommendation approved in September was related to the debate on whether and where Metro should expand the Portland-area's urban growth boundary. At the time, Metro considered increasing the boundary by 3,012 acres for new residential, commercial and industrial development. A majority of the expansion area had been requested by cities in Washington County, including Tualatin.

Adams' recommendation would require that at least 20 housing units be built in any urban growth boundary expansion areas approved for residential development. He sent it to MPAC members in a memo a week before the meeting.

'I think it's important that when we add expansion areas for housing, that they meet regional goals for addressing climate change, transit-oriented development, and 20-minute walkable neighborhoods,' says Adams.

Drake agrees with Ogden that the requirement would prove unworkable in many cities and limit housing choices, however.

'Twenty units per acre is twice the density of Beaverton. I agree it's appropriate in some specific areas, but not everywhere,' says Drake.

The Metro Council ultimately ignored the recommendation. It expanded the urban growth boundary to include 1,985 more acres without imposing a minimum number of housing units on new residential development.

Hughes believes that Ogden is partly upset that Metro did not approve Tualatin's request to add 117 acres to the growth boundary for large-lot industrial development near Southwest Morgan Road and Tonquin Road. Hughes notes that he was on the losing side of urban growth boundary-related votes when he served on MPAC.

Taking up time

Metro is the only elected regional government in the country. Its boundaries include the urbanized portions of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. It is governed by six-member council elected by districts and a council president elected by the entire region.

Part of the tension stems from the difference between full-time and part-time elected city officials. The members of the Portland City Council and the mayor of Beaverton work full-time. They can attend numerous meetings, like MPAC, without sacrificing their personal incomes. On the other hand, all other elected city officials within Metro's boundaries serve part time. As a result, most have full-time jobs and have trouble fitting many meetings into their schedules.

To help accommodate this, the mayors who serve on MPAC are supposed to consult with other mayors before each meeting. But Adams' memo was only sent out a few days before the Sept. 28 meeting and most mayors did not see it, including some of the mayors on MPAC who were surprised when the recommendation came up.

Hughes agrees with Ogden that the incident raises questions about MPAC's effectiveness.

'The meetings only last a couple hours, and a lot of the time is taken up with staff reports,' Hughes says. 'I can understand why some mayors might think they're not worth attending.'