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Oh, what a mess they have made

Now that Portland Mayor Tom Potter and the four city commissioners have brought to an end the perfect mess of their efforts to honor farmworker advocate César Chávez, local residents are left to wonder whether such muddled leadership will continue to be the norm at City Hall. The City Council’s handling of the Chávez street-naming debacle provides a case study for how not to conduct any aspect of the public’s business. In this case, the mayor and commissioners made nearly every misstep possible. Influenced by Potter’s stubbornness, the council initially ignored established procedures for renaming North Interstate Avenue in honor of Chávez. Then, when that nonprocess imploded due to anger from residents, businesses and neighborhood groups along Interstate, several commissioners tossed out everything that had been done and considered renaming a completely different street — Fourth Avenue — in honor of Chávez, only to unanimously vote that proposal down Wednesday. They also tabled a plan to rewrite that portion of the city code that deals with name changes for streets. Sticking to the rules would help On the way to making all these mistakes, the mayor and commissioners managed to offend just about everyone involved in the debate. First, they ticked off residents and businesses along Interstate who didn’t favor a name change. They alienated the Hispanic community that had proposed the renaming of Interstate. Then, they almost did the same to those who live and work on Fourth Avenue. We concede that not all of this tension could have been avoided by a stricter adherence to the city code’s requirements for name changes. Let’s be honest: At least some of the opposition and emotion surrounding this issue has to do with plain and simple prejudice against Hispanics. But the mayor, first — and commissioners, later — only fueled those ugly sentiments by making it appear that they were pushing the change without full disclosure of the process, without following the rules, and without being accountable for their own actions. As we’ve stated from the start, the city of Portland must have a clear, easily understood and fair process for deciding how to honor people of importance to this community. We believe that Chávez and the social justice he represents deserve a place of prominence in Portland. That goal requires the city to find an appropriate street, park, plaza or building to bear the Chávez name — but it shouldn’t require the City Council to rewrite the rulebook to make it happen. The commissioners can do better We hope the City Council can take something away from this misadventure, including a better understanding of how it can lead the city of Portland in the future in a more cohesive way. Commissioners cannot look to the mayor for that leadership. Potter already has said he isn’t running for office again in 2008. But the rest of the commissioners — including Sam Adams, the man who would be mayor -– plan to remain at City Hall. As illustrated by the Chávez situation, the commissioners have a habit of lurching from issue to issue and proposal to proposal without an overarching vision of where they ought to be taking the city. So beyond the question of how they should best honor Chávez, commissioners also ought to be asking themselves how they can focus on achieving outcomes that are important to Portland — and how they can transparently and accountably conduct themselves with consistency of purpose and full regard for the rules that are in place.