Stens legacy is a mixed bag
The city of Portland has a lot of reasons to remember Erik Sten. Sten announced last week that he had lost his zest for elected politics and would resign from office sometime in early April without completing the last three years of his council term.
Sten's legacy at City Hall spans three decades. He began work for the city in 1989 and was elected to the council in 1996 at age 28, bringing with him passion, a knack for hard-nosed politics and a willingness to battle daunting issues and daunting opponents.
Many of his contributions are legendary - although not all will be positively remembered.
Early, Sten demonstrated a sincere concern for the homeless and folks who could not find or afford reasonable housing. His leadership on housing matters crystallized locally an understanding that no city can be great if it prices out the working poor and families from its neighborhoods.
Accomplishments and missteps
Sten's housing goals, including a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Portland, never will be fully achieved, but they mobilized public and private efforts to expand affordable housing and reduce homelessness.
He also introduced Portland to publicly financed council elections - a flawed concept that must be either fixed or abandoned.
Sten proved himself to be a shrewd vote-getter and frequently put together council coalitions to oppose former Mayor Vera Katz on some budget matters and later to undermine Mayor Tom Potter on issues such as who controls the Portland Development Commission or whether to rename North Interstate Avenue in honor of César Chávez. These efforts provided for dynamic politics, but too often they offered no better policy alternatives.
Sten also leaves a legacy of missteps.
He opposed the out-of-state takeover of Portland General Electric by the haughty Texas Pacific Group, but turned his objections into ambitious and poorly conceived efforts to buy PGE through a regional power authority and then through city ownership.
It wasn't enough that these notions about public power had no legs, Sten held on to them for the longest time, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
Math also wasn't Sten's strong suit when it came to managing the Water Bureau and incurring $30 million in overruns in implementing a new water billing system.
Effectiveness as important as passion
As he prepares to exit, Sten leaves the city and would-be councilors with an important road map.
His resignation means that by next January, Portland's five-person City Council could have as many as four new faces. Regardless of who is elected, Sten's legacy should instruct others not only to have passion for political maneuvering and public policy, but also for effective governance of city bureau operations and outcomes that are grounded in operational reality and good math.
His decision to leave early should be a caution to others not to stay in office too long. And we hope his limited City Hall employment and elected tenure will demonstrate the importance of having candidates with deeper real life experiences.
We congratulate Sten for his contributions to important matters such as affordable housing and public access to City Hall. We think average Portlanders have benefited from many of his efforts. We admire his decision to leave politics and focus on his family.
But we hope that future city council members will learn from Erik Sten about what to do - and as important, what not to do - for the good of Portland and its citizens.