New Portland mayor is first to speak before group since it formed in 1998

Charlie Hales was surprised to received his first standing ovation as Portland mayor last week.

It happened after Hales spoke before the Westside Economic Alliance, a business advocacy organization made up of 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.

But 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 Oregon 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 went over well. Many in the WEA have historically viewed the City of Portland warily. The crowd at the Thursday morning breakfast forum included Metro councilors, county commissioners, mayors, city council member and special district representatives. They have often watched in frustration as former Portland mayors have thrown their weight around on regional issues without consulting them.

For example, in the past year, former Mayor Sam Adams blackmailed TriMet into subsidizing transit passes for Portland public school students, even though it is supported with a regional payroll tax. And Adams also supported fluoridating the city's water supply, even though it is also sold to several surrounding cities and water districts.

Hales was formally welcomed by Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle. The choice of Doyle was loaded with symbolism. Nikes is thought to be considering either Portland or Beaverton for its upcoming expansion project. But Doyle made it clear he is not offended by the competition.

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

Other elected officials said they considered Hales' appearance an important first step towards 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 that 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 number one infrastructure project. He promised to lobby the 2013 Oregon Legislature to commit the funds to begin construction. But Hales acknowledged the project to replace the I-5 bridge between Oregon and Washington is still a work in project that needs more refinement. And he warned against efforts by some Washington state legislators to remove light rail from the project, calling it a deal killer.

"Here's a sound bite. The CRC with LTR is DOA," said Hales, who promised to speak to the organization again.

Short-term priorities

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 in the approximately $500 million portion.???Portion??? 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 will follow former Mayor Vera Katz's lead and temporarily assign all city agencies to himself this week. Portland is one of the few cities where all council members oversee agencies. Hales said the move is intended to prevent the other council members from guarding their turf while the budget is being drafted.

Hales also said he will focus on changing the culture of the Portland Police Bureau, largely in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's 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 Oregon Legislature to stabilize and increase public school funding is a top priority. He said this session must act to prevent school districts from continuing to cut the school year, increase class size, and drop valuable classes, like the workforce training that employers are counting on for new employees. He urged the other elected officials to join him in Salem as part of a coalition to reverse the unintended consequences of Oregon's complicated property tax relief system this session.

"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 Environmental Protection Agency recently faulted the feasibility study prepared by the Lower Willamette Group, which includes Portland. The agency called them inadequate and threatened to rewrite the study, potentially increasing cleanup costs. Hales said the entire 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 the 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 currently includes a new freeways interchange for the island, but its final design and future is unclear. Hales said it makes no sense to build terminals if trucks cannot get to them easily.

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