PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JOHN M. VINCENT - State Treasurer talked about Portland politics at the annual meeting of the Columbia Corridor Association.State Treasurer Ted Wheeler sounded more like a candidate for Portland mayor than Oregon’s top financial officer when he spoke at the annual meeting of the Columbia Corridor Association last Friday.

Wheeler, who is running for mayor, was asked to fill in for Mayor Charlie Hales, who pulled out because of a scheduling conflict. The switch gave Wheeler an opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues before the group that includes many industrial businesses along the Columbia River from North Portland to Troutdale — most of them related to city government.

Among other things, Wheeler talked about the need to streamline city processes for multi-family housing developers and other construction-related businesses. He expressed frustration about hearing from small businesses all the way up to Fred Meyer talking about the impediments they run into when it comes to permitting, fees, inspections and getting government permission to open new places of employment in the community.

Wheeler described the current process as laborious, detailed, and confusing, saying that a major problem is multiple inspection by different city agencies.

“The most infuriating, I’m told, is when one inspector from one bureau comes out and contradicts a different inspector from a different bureau, and it’s not up to those inspectors to talk to each other and work it out, it’s up to the developer to figure out how to reconcile those competing interests,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler proposed creating a single office responsible for the entire process. He admitted that will be challenging because different city commissioners oversee different agencies under Portland’s form of government, but said it was worth trying.

Red tape

“Other cities actually have one office, and the inspectors all sit next to each another and work as a team in that office,” Wheeler said. “They have a fast-track office, with the goal of not being punitive or regulatory, so much as figuring out how we can solve problems, how can we pragmatically get to yes and get this through.”

Wheeler also mentioned the city’s design review process, which is intended to assure new buildings are compatible with their surrounding neighborhoods. He said the process can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“I’d like to take the subjectivity aspect out of process as much as possible,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler also proposed creating another office for business permitting.

“I would create a business office, an office of small business expansion and retention — whatever you want to call it. It would ideally, if it’s possible, bring those inspectors into one office and streamline the process, cut the red tape, and make it faster,” he said.

Wheeler also said more good paying jobs must created, citing the need to improve education and jobs training programs to fill the skills gap preventing Portlanders from getting jobs that provide sufficient income for housing in the city.

Very confused message

Wheeler also repeated his previous criticism of Hales’ handling of the Pembina Pipeline company’s proposed propane terminal at the Port of Portland. Hales supported the project as the company went through a lengthy set of hearings before the Planning and Sustainability Commission to secure a permit for the project. But Hales changed his mind after the commission forwarded the application to the council for approval and preventing the hearing on it from occurring.

“I said it at the time that it sent a very confused message to the world about the word of City Hall,” Wheeler said. “As I talk to people, they ask me why is it that we’re talking so much about fossil fuel exports, and we’re not talking about what we’re going to say yes to,” he says.

In addition, Wheeler discussed the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup that is expected to pick up steam in 2016. He’s hopeful that the process is finally moving to the point where costs and solutions are identified, and roles can be assigned.

“For those of you from the city of Portland, I’m going to say this gently, you need to step up,” he said.

Wheeler also addressed Portland’s transportation needs by describing the city’s infrastructure as a patient sitting in the hospital bleeding to death.

“Rule number one, stop the bleeding,” he said. “We cannot wait for Congress, we cannot wait for the state of Oregon to bail us out, because there’s no guarantee that they will.”

Wheeler expressed dismay at the Oregon Legislature’s failure to address transportation funding during the last session.

“It just bewilders me that you have Democrats and Republicans stand on a stage effectively shake hands and say that the one thing that we agree on is we need a transportation package — and then not deliver,” he said. “I can’t take them at their word that they’re ever going to deliver anything, if they can’t deliver on what they already said they agreed on.”

Because of that, municipalities are going to have to step up and fill the funding gap, if only to preserve what infrastructure that they have left after years of disinvestment. Portland’s backlog of transportation spending was $750 million two years ago, but estimates place it as high as $2 billion now, Wheeler said.

A number of people protesting the proposed Liquified Natural Gas project at Coos Bay’s Jordan Cove showed up outside the meeting, but left before Wheeler arrived. Wheeler sits on the Oregon Land Board, which must approve the application.

“That’s not a very effective protest,” Wheeler said, adding that he’s always happy to talk to protesters.

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