Controversial issues dominate Thursday agenda

The City Council is scheduled to take up two controversial issues this week, an expansion of the plastic bag ban and the acceptance of the settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning the Portland Police Bureau’s treatment of the mentally ill.

The council is also expected to considering revising the city’s telecommunications franchise fee structure. The proposed changes would raised between $3 million and $5 million a year. Mayor Sam Adams wants to dedicated the money to complying with the DOJ settlement agreement, which is estimated to cost $5.8 million in the first year.

Portland’s plastic bag ban went into effect on Oct. 15, 2010. It applies to grocery stores with gross annual receipts of $2 million or greater and large pharmacies with 10,000 square feet or more. Smaller stores and pharmacies, such as convenience stories are exempt.

An ordinance to be considered Thursday afternoon expands the ban to cover all retail establishments and food providers on Oct. 1, 2013.

On the one-year anniversary of the current ban, the council received a report that said reusable checkout bag use had increased 304 percent and highly recyclable paper checkout bag use had increased 491 percent. The report also said the city had received fewer than five consumer complaints regarding non-compliance with the ban.

Since the city’s ban took effect, a number of other cities have adopted more comprehensive ones. Some apply to all retailers or food providers. Examples on the West Coast include: Corvallis and Eugene in Oregon; San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California; and Seattle, Washington.

An ordinance to accept the DOJ settlement agreement will also be considered Thursday afternoon. It would resolve a potential federal lawsuit over the police bureau’s handling of incidents involving the mentally ill. A DOJ investigation found that officers have routinely violated the rights of the mentally ill by using too much force when dealing with them.

The agreement requires the city and bureau to adopt new policies and practices in the areas of the use of force, training, community-based mental health services, crisis intervention, employee information system, officer accountability, and community engagement. It also requires more effective systems of oversight to identify and correct problems before they develop into patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct. The agreement further identifies measures that will help determine whether the city has changed its procedures and taken the actions listed in this agreement, whether community trust in the police has increased, and whether the improvements will be sustainable.

Advocates for the mentally ill and minority committee complain that the agreement does not go far enough. Among other things, they want an independent monitor appointed to oversee the implementation of the agreement. The agreement does not call for such an independent monitor, however.

The agreement is estimated to cost $5.8 million to implement in the first year alone. Most of the money will be spent on additional police and other city employees, and on contract services.

Adams has proposed changing the city’s telecommunications franchise fee to raise most of the money. An ordinance with the changes will also be considered Thursday afternoon.

The ordinance to change the fee says the revisions are necessary to counter the effects of changes in the industry. According to the ordinance, in part because so may people are dropping their land-line telephone service in favor of cell phones, revenue from the fee has dropped from over $6 million in 1999 to $2.1 million in 2012.

Some of the changes would have a large impact on the CenturyLink and Frontier companies. Although their fees would drop from 7 percent to 5 percent, more of the companies’ revenues would be subject to the fees. According to city officials, Frontier has a small number of customers in Portland, so most of the burden would fall on CenturyLink, the major provider of land-line services in Oregon.

The city has been levying a 7 percent fee on CenturyLink and Frontier’s basic land-line service, while charging a 5 percent fee on gross revenues to 211 other telecommunication companies. A 2009 city audit concluded that was unfair. The new ordinance equalizes treatment among the providers.

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