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Stens timing sets off a tizzy

Resignation news may be too late for hopefuls to seek public funds
by: L.E. BASKOW, Many heard Erik Sten (right, conferring with Commissioner Randy Leonard at a 2006 education summit) call himself a reluctant candidate when he ran for his fourth City Council term two years ago.

The first issue of the race for city Commissioner Erik Sten's seat surfaced even as the shock waves from his unexpected resignation still were reverberating throughout the city.

Mere hours after the Wednesday-morning announcement, lawyer Nick Fish declared he already was 'aggressively running' for the seat - and came out against changing the city's public campaign financing program because of the vacancy.

Earlier in the day, both Sten and City Auditor Gary Blackmer raised the possibility of allowing candidates for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Sam Adams to jump into the new race, and to take their public campaign funds with them.

'That would be a bait-and-switch,' Fish said. 'The council shouldn't change the rules in the middle of the game.'

The program allows candidates for city offices to qualify for public funds by raising a certain number of $5 contributions from city voters - 1,000 for council seats and 1,500 for the offices of mayor and auditor. Six candidates are trying to qualify for $145,000 each in public funds in the primary election for the seat Adams is leaving to run for mayor.

But now Sten and Blackmer have suggested the City Council could change the rules to allow those candidates to transfer their contributions into the race for the seat being vacated by Sten.

'The program was created to bring new people into politics, and that happens the most in open races,' said Blackmer, who co-sponsored the program with Sten. 'It might be in keeping with the program to allow such transfers under these special circumstances.'

The dispute was just one of the surprises that began with Sten's announcement, which means that four of the five council seats are up for re-election at the same time. The seats currently held by Mayor Tom Potter and Adams are open. The only incumbent running for re-election is Commissioner Randy Leonard.

'The only member who knows for sure he'll be back next year is (Commissioner Dan) Saltzman,' said Adams, who is forgoing a council race to run for mayor.

The last time four council seats were up at the same time was 1970. At that time, Connie McCready and Lloyd Anderson, who both had been appointed to the council after two commissioners died in office, had to run in the election to keep their seats - both won.

Neil Goldschmidt won an open seat, and incumbent Frank Ivancie was re-elected. Then-Mayor Terry Schrunk was the only one not up for re-election.

'This is a historic moment,' Sandra McDonough, president and chief executive officer of the Portland Business Alliance, said of the current situation.

Another candidate to seize the moment was Brendan Finn, Saltzman's chief of staff, who said he will form a campaign committee for the seat within days. Another thought to be considering the race is Rich Rodgers, an aide to Sten.

One of Sten's previous opponents, computer consultant Dave Lister, said he would not run for the seat. Instead, Lister endorsed Finn, saying he was impressed by his understanding of small-business issues.

Also taking herself out of any council race this year is Multnomah County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey, who briefly toyed with the idea during the contentious debate over naming a street to honor César Chávez.

Seat must be declared vacant

Although Sten said he has been considering leaving elective office for some time, the unexpected announcement has thrown the city's political apparatus into confusion.

Blackmer, who oversees all municipal elections, has been rereading state laws and city rules related to the timing of special elections and restrictions on the use of the city's public campaign funds.

'I knew January was going to be a busy month, but I wasn't expecting this,' Blackmer said.

Under the City Charter, the council must set a special election to fill the vacancy. Sten has not yet picked a resignation date, however, because he wants the council to be able to set the special election for the May primary election, thereby saving the estimated $300,000 cost of a separate election.

If no candidate wins outright by receiving more than 50 percent of the votes, a runoff election must be held 45 days after the first election.

But even then, by waiting until Jan. 2 to announce his resignation, Sten has created an almost insurmountable hurdle for new candidates who want to tap the public campaign financing program.

Under the current rules governing the program, candidates have only until the end of this month to collect the necessary $5 contributions.

The actual time frame is even shorter than that, however. According to Blackmer, candidates cannot qualify to begin collecting the $5 contributions until the office is formally declared vacant, which has not yet happened.

The council could vote to extend the collection deadline past Jan. 31, but only for a few weeks because of other election deadlines that must be met, Blackmer said.

The could mean that, even though Sten co-sponsored the public campaign program, no one will use it to run for the seat he is vacating.

And this is the last election cycle it will be used before the council has promised to refer it to the 2010 ballot for voters to either approve or discontinue.

Sten's next step's unknown

When he ran for re-election in 2006, Sten repeatedly said he was a reluctant candidate - running largely because the PBA had vowed to defeat him.

'I heard him say that several times,' Lister said. 'I think it was a real personal thing.'

McDonough finds the claim hard to believe, however.

'I hope and believe Sten ran for re-election because he felt he had something positive to contribute to the city,' McDonough said. 'That's why everyone should run.'

Whatever the case, Sten showed just how tired he has grown of the day-to-day political grind by announcing his resignation about halfway through his current term.

'It's time for the next act of my life,' said Sten, the council's longest-serving member.

Although he does not have another job lined up, Sten said he looks forward to working in the private sector, preferably in the environmental or affordable housing fields.

Adams praised Sten for his intelligence and leadership on the council, especially in the fields of affordable housing and ending homelessness.

'It's been an honor to serve with him,' Adams said.

Leonard said he believed Sten had been re-evaluating his priorities for several years, pointing to the birth of his son nearly four years ago and the death of his father two years ago.

'Those are the kinds of things that make you re-examine your priorities,' Leonard said.

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