City Club report probes mission, process, role of urban renewal agency

A City Club study committee report on the Portland Development Commission has sparked a debate over the future of the city's urban renewal agency.

The report says the agency has grown far beyond its original role of redeveloping blighted areas. It currently operates as the city's economic development agency and also helps fund many housing and transportation projects, including TriMet's MAX light-rail lines.

Because the City Charter created the PDC as a quasi-independent agency, this growth has occurred without formal City Council approval.

'The City Council has allowed that to happen, and it has become the common law,' study committee member Paul Meyer told the Portland Tribune on Monday morning.

The report also repeats much of what Tom Potter said about the PDC when he ran for mayor: It needs to behave more like all the other city bureaus, beginning with being more responsive to the public.

'The report noted that PDC is a vital part of making Portland's downtown livable and vibrant,' Potter said before leaving for the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. 'I absolutely agree. But at the heart of the City Club's recommendations is the need for more transparency and accountability at PDC, coupled with increased involvement and oversight by the public.'

Commissioner Randy Leonard said the council should consider asking voters to change the charter to give the city more direct control over the PDC.

'It's long past time we visited this,' Leonard said Sunday.

Matt Hennessee, chairman of the PDC's board of directors, said he was more than willing to work with the council on the issues raised by the report.

'The last thing we want to do is be too autonomous. If anyone feels there is too much distance between the PDC and the council, I certainly want to close that gap,' he said.

The City Club is one of Portland's leading civic organizations. Its members include many of the city's business leaders and opinion makers. The club's staff and members research public issues and present their findings to the full organization for consideration. The club will vote on whether to adopt the report at noon Jan. 28 at the Governor Hotel, 611 S.W. 10th Ave.

The comprehensive 90-page report both praised and criticized the PDC. It said the agency has contributed to the economy and livability of the region. But the report also said that the PDC's exact impact is hard to measure and comes at a significant cost Ñ property taxes used to fund agency projects reduce the money available to other governments in the region.

Because of this, the report said, the value provided by PDC-funded projects needs to be weighed against 'teachers and police officers who were never hired, rivers that were never cleaned, and roads that were never repaired.'

The report also questioned the legality of the Portland Family of Funds, an innovative financing program created by the PDC.

The report recommended a series of policy changes for the council to consider, including providing more information on the cost of PDC projects to other governments and more coordination with the Bureau of Planning. But the report did not call for a charter measure to change the PDC's relationship to the council.

'That was outside the scope of our work,' said committee Chairwoman Susan Thomas.

Portland voters created the PDC in 1958. Although the mayor appoints the five-member board of directors Ñ called commissioners Ñ the council does not approve the PDC's budget or authorize individual projects.

'While the PDC's relative independence from City Hall contributes to its effectiveness in partnering with the private sector, your committee questions whether the public and elected officials have effective or sufficient control over the PDC,' the report says.

In fact, the report says, some PDC decisions are made in secret, contrary to the way other public agencies operate.

'In accomplishing its mission, PDC often has been motivated by opportunities developed in private, which foreclosed significant public knowledge and participation,' the report says.

The report says that Portland's commission form of government contributes to the problems. According to the report, the mayor and commissioners are too busy managing individual bureaus to engage in long-range planning, as well as ongoing oversight of the executive and administrative branches of government.

'This cannot realistically happen under Portland's current form of government,' it said.

The full report is available on the City Club's Web site,

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