Our Opinion: Saltzman's successor should meet his standards
To (mis)quote a certain bard across the pond, we come to praise Dan Saltzman, not bury him.
It's refreshing when an elected official leaves under his own steam, on his timeline, and not because of an electoral loss, a scandal or a policy failure. Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman surprised the city's political world last week by announcing he will not seek re-election next year.
News of a rare open City Council seat sparked lots of conjecture and the announcement of at least one more official candidacy, but before we get caught up in the horse race to replace Saltzman, let's reflect a bit on what he did for our city (and county) and how that might inform voters eyeing potential successors.
Saltzman started his elected tenure a quarter-century ago, winning a seat on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. Five years later, he jumped to the Portland City Council, where he has been ever since.
In those nearly two decades in City Hall, Saltzman has happily played the role of workhorse, leaving others to curry attention. He's competently overseen the bureaus he's been assigned (by five different mayors) and hasn't publicly pouted when his pet agencies get yanked from his portfolio — as recently happened with the Portland Housing Bureau.
And, while the press and public gravitate toward city officials who heed Daniel Burnham's advice to "make no little plans," Saltzman, an environmental engineer, is boringly pragmatic. He sets fairly modest goals and methodically works toward achieving them.
That's not to say he is incapable of bold ideas. He nearly single-handedly established the voter-approved Portland Children's Levy in 2002, which funds a variety of programs for abused and at-risk kids. He then led the successful renewal of the local bond measure (which generates about $10 million a year) in 2008 and 2013.
When handed the hot-potato assignment of the Police Bureau in 2009 by former Mayor Sam Adams, Saltzman reached out to the federal Justice Department and proactively asked for a review of how the bureau interacts with people who have mental health issues. That led to the settlement agreement that has gone forward without the rancor seen in other cities, where federal lawyers forced changes on local cop shops by taking them to court.
Saltzman also has been the driving force in pushing the city and county to revisit a 1980s agreement, known as Resolution A, that gave the county responsibility for social services while the city focused on urban amenities such as roads, utilities and development.
While the arrangement helped the region deal with growth (and provide a needed push for urban annexation), the city's hands-off policy on poverty wasn't working. Saltzman was the first commissioner to push the city to care for its most vulnerable residents.
Saltzman, like others, has tired of Portland's passion for public process and insistence on "bringing all stakeholders to the table." His "get-it-done" attitude backfired when he picked an out-of-state developer for an affordable housing project. But even there, he showed class, admitting his error and finding a local company for the job.
Perhaps Saltzman's greatest attribute has been his integrity. If he has used his office for personal gain, we're not aware of it. In fact, it's hard to find examples where he's used his public position for political gain.
His departure from the five-member council will come at a critical time. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly are in the first year of their first terms, and Commissioner Fish is dealing with a significant health issue.
Voters would do well to look for someone who, like Saltzman, embraces true public service, champions the underdog and disdains political gamesmanship.
It's been noted that the misdeeds of politicians live after them, while their contributions are buried in their obituaries.
Let it not be so with Saltzman.
As he prepares to cap his political career, the best tribute voters can give him would be to hold those who would succeed him to his standards.