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Portland's new mayor pledges cooperation on regional issues

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland Mayor Charlie HalesCharlie Hales was surprised to receive his first standing ovation as Portland mayor last week.

It happened after Hales spoke before the Westside Economic Alliance, a business advocacy organization that includes public, private and community leaders in Washington and western Clackamas counties.

“I think I got it just for showing up,” Hales said.

There’s some truth to that. Hales is the first Portland mayor to speak to the organization since it was formed in 1998.

“And it’s not the first time one has been asked,” WEA Executive Director Pamela Treece noted when she introduced him.

Hales’ message to the organization was also warmly received. He promised that Portland would be a partner and ally on issues of regional concern. He mentioned working together to improve the economy, lobbying the 2013 Legislature to increase public school funding, improving the transportation infrastructure, and helping TriMet get back on its feet.

“We can partner in a lot of ways,” Hales said.

That theme was well received. Many in the WEA have long had a wary view of the city of Portland. The Jan. 24 breakfast forum audience of about 130 people included Metro councilors, county commissioners, mayors, city council members and special district representatives. Many of those same officials have expressed frustration as former Portland mayors have thrown their weight around on regional issues without consulting suburban officials.

For example, in the past year, former Mayor Sam Adams pushed TriMet to subsidize transit passes for Portland students, even though the transit agency is supported by a regional payroll tax. Adams also supported fluoridating the city’s water supply, even though it is also sold to several surrounding cities and water districts, some of whom opposed the plan.

Friendly competition

Hales was welcomed to the forum by Beaverton Mayor Dennis Doyle. The choice of Doyle was loaded with symbolism, because Nike, whose world headquarters is in Washington County on the edge of Beaverton, could be considering either Portland or Beaverton for its expansion project. But Doyle made it clear he is not offended by the competition.

“The game is changing,” Doyle said during his introduction. “The region is growing, and it is going to grow together.”

Other elected officials said they considered Hales’ appearance an important first step toward improving the relationship between Portland and the rest of the region.

“Just him showing up is a big deal. He’s got some uphill climbing to do, but we’ll help him,” Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey said after the speech.

Doyle agreed.

“It signaled to all of us that we can really become a region. If not, we’re going to lose out in the world economy,” Doyle said.

Despite extending an olive branch to the WEA, Hales also said Portland would continue competing with the rest of the region for appropriated economic development project. But he also cheered Hillsboro and Washington County for successfully working with Intel on recent major expansion projects.

“Twenty-five percent of Intel’s employees live in Portland. When they expand, we expand,” Hales said.

During the question-and-answer period, Hales said he supports moving forward with the Columbia River Crossing, the region’s No. 1 infrastructure project. He promised to lobby the 2013 Legislature to commit funds to begin construction.

But Hales acknowledged that the project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Oregon and Southwest Washington was still a work in progress that needs more refinement. And he warned against efforts by some Washington state legislators to remove a proposed light-rail line from the project, calling it a deal killer.

“Here’s a sound bite: The CRC without LRT is DOA,” said Hales.

Spending political capital

In addition to his regional overtures, Hales spent much of his speech talking about the challenges confronting him as Portland’s new mayor. He promised to focus primarily on a short list of priorities during his first six months in office. They include balancing the city’s next budget, which Hales said has a projected $25 million shortfall. Hales said the shortfall is actually larger because the U.S. Department of Justice is requiring the city to hire additional police officers and street maintenance has fallen woefully behind schedule.

As part of his budget-writing process, Hales said he was following former Mayor Vera Katz’s lead and temporarily assigning all city agencies to himself next week. Portland is one of the few cities where council members oversee agencies. Hales said the move was intended to prevent other council members from guarding turf while the budget was being drafted.

Hales also said he would focus on changing the culture of the Portland Police Bureau, largely in response to the federal finding that officers have historically mistreated the mentally ill. Hales said the bureau is already making progress, noting that the number of officer-involved shootings has declined in recent years. But he said more must be done to respond to the “pandemic of untreated mental illness that the police have to deal with every day.”

And Hales said lobbying the 2013 Legislature to stabilize and increase public school funding was a top priority. He said this session must act to prevent school districts from continuing to cut days from the school year, increasing class sizes and dropping valuable programs, like the workforce training classes that employers count on. He urged other elected officials to join him in Salem this session as part of a coalition to reverse the unintended consequences of Oregon’s complicated property tax relief system.

“I’m going to put a lot of time and political capital into that,” Hales said.

Other priorities mentioned by Hales include getting the entire council involved in the Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup project. The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently faulted the feasibility study prepared by the Lower Willamette Group, which includes Portland. The agency called the report inadequate and threatened to rewrite the study, potentially increasing cleanup costs.

Hales said Portland’s City Council has not been as engaged as it needs to be on the project, with too much of the city’s work on it being done by bureaucrats.

Hales said he also wants to re-examine system development charges the city assesses against developers to help fund infrastructure improvements. He said SDCs are a common source of municipal funds for capital projects, but worries that some might be too high in Portland.

And Hales said he would not take up the Port of Portland’s request to annex West Hayden Island for development until after the Columbia River Crossing project is finalized. The port owns the land, but the city must annex the property and provide urban services to support marine terminals there.

The CRC project includes new freeway interchanges for the island, but its final design and future is unclear. Hales said it makes no sense to build port terminals if trucks cannot easily get to them.

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