ANALYSIS: Unions jump into City Hall fight as business funds the other side

With just three weeks to go before ballots are mailed out to determine how City Hall works in Portland, both sides in the charter-change battle finally will trot out their big guns Monday at Parkrose High School.

At an evening public forum there, if interviews last week are any indication, attendees will see a contrast in styles.

While saying the charter we have works just fine, Commissioner Randy Leonard will direct an accusatory finger at the money lining up behind Mayor Tom Potter - about $50,000 reported so far, most of it in large donations from sources affiliated with the Portland Business Alliance.

'The question is why Tom Potter would be complicit with that,' Leonard told the Portland Tribune, before alluding to an incident last year in which Potter had his third-floor offices swept for electronic bugs: 'Tom, what happened? Is there something in the air conditioning on the third floor? Should we have your office swept again, for biological contaminants this time?'

While Potter is sure to use the debate to argue that Portland needs a more efficient form of government, it appears that he will say nothing about the money behind Leonard's side.

Last week, asked why labor unions have ponied up a reported $160,000 to defeat the measure he supports, Potter said, 'I really don't know.'

From a political standpoint, the large sums of labor money - most of it from unions representing city employees - might appear to be the proverbial elephant in the room. So why is Potter turning a blind eye?

2002 measure went down

Measure 26-91, the most high-profile of four proposed charter changes on the ballot, would scrap what some have called Portland's 'five-mayor' form of government, in which each of five commissioners on the City Council oversees a slice of the bureaucracy.

Instead, the measure would install a professional manager under the mayor, to oversee the city's bureaucracy.

Portland is the last big city in the nation to boast the commission form of government.

However, the city already has considered changing it seven times, and voters rejected it each time. In 2002, a measure supported by developer Robert Ball failed by a margin of 3-to-1, despite having raised approximately $200,000 and having no organized opposition.

Both sides in the charter battle have conducted polls, and both found that nearly half of voters initially are resistant to the idea of scrapping Portland's current form of government, while only about a third start out embracing the idea of change.

Still, the campaign has something going for it that Ball's initiative did not - Potter, with popularity ratings of close to 70 percent, as a frontman. And sources close to the campaign maintain emphatically that the fight is winnable.

Potter, after all, has defied the political professionals before - when he won office in 2004 by a huge margin, despite studiously avoiding raising the big-money contributions that consultants told him were necessary.

Now, however, he is taking hours out of his schedule each week to raise money from the same business community that opposed him in 2004 - which Leonard called 'just the most unlikely scenario that I could imagine happening.'

Unions switch to defense

If Potter has a new set of allies and opponents, he's not the only one.

In 2002, when Ball pursued his measure to change how City Hall works, he enjoyed the support of the Portland Firefighters Association, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Now, however, those unions are on the other side, defending the city's charter instead of attacking it.

Leonard and fellow Commissioner Erik Sten formed a political action committee opposing Potter's measure, called Portlanders for Accountability, that has reported some $115,000 raised from unions representing city employees, including AFSCME and the firefighters. It's also reported another $45,000 from nongovernment unions affected by city policy, including SEIU.

So, why have the unions changed sides on charter change?

Some say it's just because Leonard and Sten, who've gone to bat for unions on workplace issues, asked for their support. But another factor may be how the status quo has changed in recent years.

Public-employee unions often chafed under Potter's predecessor, Vera Katz, who took a firm stance on collective bargaining, and had allies in Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Jim Francesconi.

At the time of Ball's initiative, political analysts felt his proposal would have benefited unions by making council members run from districts instead of at-large.

Today, however, Leonard, a former firefighter, and Sten - often joined by Potter and Adams - have set a far more pro-union tone on the City Council than was set under Katz.

'The unions do better in Portland than in any other city in Oregon,' said political analyst and Pacific University professor Jim Moore, adding that while that's long been the case, it's become more so in recent years.

As for whether this is a good thing, people disagree.

Ed Ruttledge, who stepped down as the city's labor-relations director late last year, said that with five commissioners each dealing with work-force rules, unions 'go through five doors and look for the best response - and then build on that (citywide) in the future,' he said.

A former SEIU organizer in Detroit, Ruttledge cited instances in which city unions were successful in using influence to bypass normal city procedures, including once when maintenance personnel were given overtime for working normal hours during a snowstorm, and another in which a commissioner's office directed city staff to approve an employee's request for hundreds of hours of overtime without requiring documentation.

'Will you find these kinds of deals being cut anyplace else west of St. Louis? Probably not,' he said, adding that in his opinion, 'You have to go Chicago to find that kind of stuff happening.'

Commissioner Sten, however, said that the current City Council does work with unions more closely than the 'traditional' management style used in other cities, but he said the resulting give-and-take leads to a better run, more effective government.

James Hester of AFSCME - which has given $20,000 to the opposition campaign - said that the current council has made needed improvements in workplace conditions. In other cities that have professional managers overseeing the citywide bureaucracy, however, 'I think you find the door closed more than it is open,' he said.

Leonard, however, attributed the unions' backing to what he claimed are disingenuous tactics by Mayor Potter - such as espousing collaboration while pursuing a divisive charter change.

'I think that what workers are recognizing,' Leonard said, 'is that what Mayor Potter does is different from what he says.'

As for the upcoming debate with Potter, Leonard said, 'he's wrong on the issues, so I've got that going for me.'

Mayor anticipates big debate

Unlike Leonard, Potter was not issuing any pre-debate smack talk.

'I really like Randy, and I'm looking forward to the debate,' Potter said last week.

Clearly, Potter is taking the high road, and not by coincidence. The charter-change campaign is banking on his sky-high approval ratings - and the campaign seems intent on preserving the nice-guy image that they believe explains his popularity.

Also, consultant Mark Wiener, who is allied with Sten and Leonard, has said the charter-change proponents appear to be running a 'stealth' campaign, waiting until a 30-day maximum to report fundraising - meaning that the two sides' fundraising could be much closer than it appears.

So it's possible that downplaying the union issue is similarly an attempt to try to keep union involvement in the election to a minimum.

Potter, for his part, characterized the union issue as a red herring, saying that all he is seeking is efficiency: 'In terms of access, unions have always had access, and always will. Business has always had access and always will. … My problem is that the average citizen out there doesn't have that access, nor do they know how to navigate the rocky shoals of the commission form of government.'

Responded Leonard: 'He's always talking about efficiency. Well, what he means by that is a reduction in the services that people want.'

Sponsored by four east-side neighborhood coalitions, Monday's debate on Measure 26-91 will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 12003 N.E. Shaver St.

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