City Council to review some but not all of Central City sites owned by members of all advisory committees

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Property owners were on all three advisory committees that contgributed to the proposed Central City update, not just the one West Quadrant Plan, which includes the Morrison Bridgehead.City planners have prepared a map showing where members of a citizen committee, who helped draft an update to the Central City plan, own properties.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz requested the map in response to a ruling from the City Ombudsman that the members should have declared their potential conflicts of interest. The ruling was issued after the ombudsman received an anonymous complaint that state law required such disclosures. Most members subsequently identified their properties after being asked by the staff of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability after the council had adopted the plan, which was incorporated into the update of the Central City Plan the City Council is currently considering.

Fritz says the ruling casts a "major question mark" over the update — officially known as Central City 2035 or CC2035 for short — that the council should discuss.

"I'm not as concerned with knowing who owns what properties as I am with why any changes were proposed and whether they're the right ones. After seeing the map, I have some questions about some of them that I intend to ask," says Fritz.

The council will be presented with an updated version of the map when it continues its consideration of the update on Wednesday. The original version shows the location of 11 underdeveloped properties owned by committee members or their businesses where maximum allowable height increases are recommended. They are all located in West Quadrant area west of the Willamette River.

Six of the properties are surface parking lots owned by variations of the Downtown Development Group, which was represented on the committee by co-president Greg Goodman. The largest is the equivalent of four blocks at the west end of the Morrison Bridge owned by a Melvin Mark Companies-affiliated group. Company president Dan Petrusich served on the committee, although he represented the Portland Business Alliance.

The committee members did not vote on individual properties, however. Instead, staff of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) offered proposals for increasing and decreasing allowable building heights along corridors within the central city. The members reacted by raising green, yellow or red cards to indicate whether they were generally in agreement, disagreement or had no opinion.

After the ombudsman ruling was issued in November 2015, committee member John Petersen wrote the BPS staff to say he disagreed with it and was disappointed none of the members were allowed to defend themselves during the investigation.

"I and all of the other members provided disclosure of our interests and qualifications at least once at the outset of the process as I am certain is reflected in the notes taken by staff. The complainants clearly have no real issue with disclosure or input; rather their issue is that their advocacy did not find its way into the plan to their satisfaction. This is not a sincere effort to get the process right but rather an effort to create appealable error wherever/however possible," wrote Petersen, president and part owner of Melvin Mark Capital Group, a commercial real estate mortgage banking business that does not have any ownership interest in the Melvin Mark Companies.

Ironically, the properties owned by the committee members may not be the most controversial ones. Willamette Week recently reported that an out-of-state company that wasn't represented on the committee wants the council to double the heights in the RiverPlace development at the south end of Tom McCall Waterfront Park so that it can build 2,500 apartments in new high-rise towers. The company, NBP Capital, would demolish an existing, low rise apartment complex — The Douglas — as part of its project.

Other quadrant committees had conflicts

During the council's first hearing on CC2035, some Portlanders said the West Quadrant planning process should start over because of the undisclosed conflicts. However, the central city contains two other quadrants where advisory committee members did not declare conflicts. And no maps have yet been prepared to show the location of their properties.

Fritz says she was not aware of that because no one has yet complained to her about any of the changes in the other two quadrants.

"That's new information to me," Fritz says.

The other quadrants are located east of the river. They are the Southeast Quadrant and the North/Northeast Quadrant. Even a cursory review of members of those two committees show numerous property holdings.

In the Southeast Quadrant, the businesses and organizations included Beam Development, OMSI, Portland Opera, and Portland Community College. In the North/Northeast Quadrant, they included the Lloyd Center, Langley Investments, the Portland Trail Blazers, and Union Pacific.

After the ombudsman's ruling, city planners contacted all West Quadrant Plan committee members and identified the properties they or their businesses owned.

The information was summarized in a report distributed to the Planning and Sustainability Commission and the City Council before they began considering the central city update. It is the basis for the map requested by Fritz.

But that did not happen with the other two advisory committees. Although staff contacted the members, few responded and the effort was dropped because they were not named in the complaint filed with the ombudsman. The ruling clearly applied to them, too, however.

The council adopted all three plans before the ombudsman's ruling was released in November 2015. Versions revised by BPS staff and the Planning and Sustainability Commission are in the CC2035 update being considered by the council.

Council considers new conflict policy

The 11 properties identified on the map requested by Fritz are a small percent of all properties within the central city. Despite that, the city ombudsman's ruling is prompting the council to adopt the first-ever standardized operating procedures for all appointed boards and commissions. They include a requirement that members publicly declare potential conflicts of interest.

"We make better decisions when we partner with the community, and the city needs to do a better job providing the volunteers who serve on boards and commissions the tools they need to be successful," said Commissioner Nick Fish, who cosponsored the resolution with the procedures with commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Amanda Fritz.

The council first heard the resolution on Oct. 4. At that time, there was broad agreement on most of the proposed procedures, including having a uniform application form for potential members to complete to be considered for appointment.

The council also agreed to delete a proposal to discourage members from talking to the press about the work of their groups, however. Commissioner Nick Fish said it was not the intention of the council to issue gag orders.

The final vote was postponed until Nov. 1 to discuss two issues further, however.

One is whether the terms the members serve should be limited to a certain duration.

The other is, when a member potentially stands to benefit from a group decision, whether that member should also be prohibited from voting on the issue or even participating in the discussion.

Public testimony splits on the questions. Most witnesses favored term limits and a prohibition on voting on issues where conflicts occur. But the Oregon League of Women Voters of Portland opposed both terms limits and the voting prohibition, noting that such decisions are only advisory.

In addition to the disclosure requirement, the proposed procedures before the council include a standard application form for all potential committee members to complete before being appointed and a standard set of bylaws for all committees.

They were drafted with input from various parties, including the City Attorney's Office and the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which is currently responsible for recruiting members for many advisory committees.

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