Building trust takes long time


The past week's very public fight over cost overruns involving the OHSU tram should serve as a clear indication of why, when building a better community and improved economy, the city of Portland needs to better manage and protect relationships among the business community, its own employees, nonprofit organizations and other government agencies.

The tram matter grew ugly when city Commissioner Sam Adams pushed for the termination of Vic Rhodes as director of the tram project. Rhodes had worked for the city for 32 years Ñ most recently as transportation director Ñ before being hired by a private nonprofit group that is overseeing the tram's construction.

Adams said he long had been unhappy with how the project had been managed and how its estimated costs had tripled to $45 million. He wanted change, he said.

Has the project's cost greatly mounted? Yes, without question as project design changes were made and steel prices jumped worldwide. But is the tram project important? Yes, although it shouldn't become a symbol of public largesse. The tram is an aerial conveyor that will link the Oregon Health & Science University's existing hillside campus to new research facilities, offices and surrounding homes in the South Waterfront District.

But while we can all be frustrated with the project's greatly expanded costs, Adams and other city officials must remember that public funds in the project total only $3.5 million. Ensuring the public costs stay at that level as the project price rises is very important.

Remember, too, there's more at stake than money, as evidenced this week. Today, economic and community development best occur when municipal, private and nonprofit partners work together to strategize, invest, communicate and solve problems. And this only happens with mutual trust, leadership, hard work and innovation.

This past week's tram troubles pushed several key community partners to resign from the project's nonprofit board.

These are leaders and relationships that City Hall can't afford to lose in this project or any other future projects and revitalization efforts. The very public termination of Rhodes sent shivers among City Hall staff members, who rightfully have begun to ask who's next and does long-term, quality civil service no longer count?

We agree that Adams has a responsibility to ensure that the public's trust and funding of projects such as the tram are well-served. But his ham-handed and highly personal public assault on Rhodes could have lasting Ñ and unnecessary Ñ consequences.

The folks who resigned from the tram board are community and business leaders whose reputations and future are built on doing the right thing and building, not ending, community partnerships.

The tram is but one project and investment for which the city needs support and involvement from the public, businesses and nonprofit organizations. Matters such as the expansion of light rail along Interstate 205 and onto the transit mall lay ahead. As do solutions for funding Portland's schools, plans for a public market, changes to the Burnside-Couch traffic pattern, implementation of a regional business plan and improvements in public safety.

City commissioners need to solve problems together with the public and the business community, and not publicly cut ties and burn bridges Ñ even proposed aerial ones.