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Adams shows political savvy

Whether you think Portland city Commissioner Sam Adams played hardball to head off a referral of his proposed street maintenance fee - or whether you believe he simply showed political dexterity - probably depends on how you view the proposed fee to start with.

For citizens and business leaders who think the fee is necessary to preserve Portland's streets and enhance public safety and the local economy, Adams' maneuvering during the past two weeks looks like the type of assertive executive leadership that Portland has been lacking in recent years.

But for those who oppose the fee or who wanted citizens to have a chance to vote on it, that same leadership resembles manipulation of the process.

Whichever camp you fall into, you can't help but admire the nimbleness that Adams, a candidate for mayor, demonstrated by striking a deal with the Oregon Petroleum Dealers Association - which was the group most likely to mount a referral campaign against the fee.

With that agreement in place, Adams has managed to satisfy his political needs while also advancing the important policy goal of providing ongoing funding for street maintenance and improvements.

Along the way, Adams has given us a glimpse, for better or worse, of the kind of mayor he would be.

Concessions have some basis

The compromise Adams made with the petroleum dealers isn't exactly an elegant one. In return for their pledge not to pursue an election referral, Adams agreed to cut the rates for convenience stores and gas stations once the street fee is implemented.

He also pledged further reductions in the fees for gas stations if the Oregon Legislature decides to raise gas taxes statewide in the future.

Adams can rationalize each of these concessions by arguing that convenience stores and gas stations are not true destinations for motorists, but merely stopping points for people already using city streets.

There's no doubt, however, that political expediency played a big role in the deal. Adams wanted at all costs to avoid having to run for mayor in the same year that the street fee he championed was referred to the ballot.

While negotiating with the gas dealers, Adams strengthened his hand by threatening to break the street fee into three separate ordinances - a move that would have greatly complicated any petition drives.

Now that the referral threat is gone, Adams will ask the council to approve the original single ordinance Wednesday.

Will deal look fair to all?

Adams' proficient backroom politicking does have its costs. First is the obvious loss of revenue - the lower rates for convenience stores and gas dealers will trim $75,000 (down from the original $550,000 estimate) off the $24 million a year that the street fee will generate.

Another casualty is the appearance of fairness. Homeowners, who will pay $4.54 per month, and other businesses that will be assessed at their original rates may not be pleased that Adams gave into the gas dealers and convenience store owners.

But Adams deserves credit for succeeding where others have failed. If the street maintenance fee is adopted, Portland will have the monetary ability to begin attacking a huge backlog of street projects.

Portland hasn't seen this level of political acumen in years. Now the question is whether Portlanders will judge the qualities Adams recently has demonstrated as assets or liabilities as he campaigns for mayor.