Mayor Ted Wheeler is prepared to pick a police chief without disclosing all the finalists' names — a departure from his earlier plan to allow public vetting of the finalists before he decides who to hire.
The more secretive process means that next month, when Wheeler is expected to announce his pick as top cop, it may be the first time Portlanders learn that person was a candidate for the job. The mayor's change in plans was based on feedback from some candidates that they would apply only if promised confidentiality, and is intended to ensure the best candidates are considered, said Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox.
On Monday afternoon, Wheeler announced the names of two of the four finalists for the job. Two other names were not released because the candidates requested confidentiality, Cox said.
In January, however, Cox told the press that Wheeler intended to release names to allow for "some public vetting of the candidates."
Officials in Portland are well aware what a background search can miss. In March, Portland Public Schools released the name of its "sole finalist" for superintendent, Donyall Dickey, only to have school board members become concerned by what they considered a lack of candor about some blotches in his record, as first reported by the Portland Tribune.
And in 2000, a local activist and writer, Dave Mazza, disclosed recordings showing that Portland's then-police chief, Mark Kroeker, had — years before — lamented the failure of criminal laws to heed the Bible's teachings, and calling homosexuality a "perversion" that should have been outlawed. The news marked the start of a prolonged period of turmoil for the city's police.
While Wheeler's plan to allow public vetting of candidates was aired in January, his subsequent about-face largely escaped discussion.
Dan Handelman, who tracks the bureau closely for Portland Copwatch, said he understands why candidates would want their application in Portland to be a secret, to avoid negative consequences in their current job.
But "we're talking about one of the most important positions in our community," he said. "We need to know what our options are to make sure that the final choice that's made isn't the wrong one."
Cox expressed confidence in the backgrounding research under way. "We have processes in place we believe will provide significant background on the finalists, and the offer/acceptance of employment will be contingent on the satisfactory completion of a background check conducted by the Oregon State Police."
Joseph Wahl, the city official who is leading the backgrounding process, said the mayor is mindful of what happened with the Portland schools job and instructed him to do a thorough job.
Some input taken
Cox noted that Wheeler has taken some public input on the factors that should be considered when choosing a chief, and that community members conducted initial confidential interviews of six candidates before the four finalists were chosen.
"We conducted an online survey asking Portland residents the qualities and characteristics in the next police chief. We held invited community focus groups to help us with the same questions. And we formed interview panels consisting of community stakeholders to forward their recommendations to the mayor."
Cox said the decision to allow confidentiality was not intended to ease the way for any particular candidate.
But in the past, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has said high-ranking city finalist names should be released under Oregon Public Records Law. Cox noted Underhill has the authority to order the names be disclosed in this case as well. The Portland Tribune has filed a formal request for all finalists' names and has asked Underhill to order disclosure of the information.
That process typically allows as much as two weeks of delay. Underhill's office has asked Wheeler to respond by July 28, and intends to decide the issue August 3.
That may be too late. Wheeler intends to interview the finalists personally before making a decision and extending an offer to one of them, expected in early August.
The decision not to hold a community forum or allow public vetting of finalists is contrary to how Portland did it for its last national search. In 1999, then-Mayor Vera Katz announced the finalists for the chief's job and held a community forum where the public could ask questions of them.
Having even less scrutiny than that process which led to Kroeker's hiring, doesn't seem like a good idea, said Mazza, the activist who dug up the recordings from Kroeker's past 17 yeas ago. He said candidates' requests for confidentiality don't bode well for their future performance.
"Secrecy is anathema to good government," he said. "A candidate who wishes to be shielded from public scrutiny is a candidate whose commitment to making police operations more transparent is suspect."
Not all cities announce the names of finalists for police chief to enable public consideration. But many do, based on a quick internet search. Those include Seattle; Dallas; Mesa, Arizona; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; Fairfield, Ohio; and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Wheeler pledged a national search while campaigning for mayor last year. Then his predecessor, Charlie Hales, named Mike Marshman to be chief, replacing embattled Larry O'Dea.
Wheeler has said he will consider keeping Marshman, and Marshman has said he is one of the current candidates.
The Oregonian has reported that former Portland Chief Charles Moose has applied for his old job, and that an assistant chief in Seattle, Perry Tarrant, may also have applied.
Capt. Bob Day, who previously had been considered the likely successor to O'Dea, told The Oregonian that his application for the job had been rejected.
Day, who is in charge of training officers and managers for the Portland Police Bureau, told The Oregonian that the city informed him he didn't demonstrate "an understanding of 21st-century policing."