In this, the first installment of an ongoing series, learn about the values that drove the City Commissioners to seek their positions, and about the City bureaus they oversee – in their own words …
Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she feels holding a governmental office to be public service.
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Last November, Amanda Fritz was elected to the Portland City Council. When she took office, she became the “Commissioner of Public Utilities”. In this interview at Portland City Hall, Fritz talks about why she ran for office, how she governs, and the bureaus she oversees.
Fritz’s philosophy of governance
“I have found that the reasons that I ran for office were the right reasons,” Fritz begins. “I know how to do this [job] because I’ve been active in citizen involvement for 18 years, here in Portland. My concept of government is: ‘By the people, and for the people.’ This is why I ran for office.
“Government is public service, to me. I was born and raised in England. With a more socialized system, it’s an expectation. Here, it is a value that Portlanders should and do espouse, because taxpayers pay for government services. Portlanders, like most people, don’t like paying taxes, but they do understand that taxes pay for services.”
Fritz draws a parallel between outer East Portland neighborhoods, and where she lives in Southwest Portland. “The concern is – in both areas – that we don’t get our ‘fair share’ of services. We don’t want more than our fair share, but we do want equity. We want sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights, good schools, parks that are improved – things you’d expect to have, when you pay urban-level taxes.”
Saving taxpayers $342,000 per day
While Fritz says that “learning how to get things done” in City government has been quite challenging, she points to a recent success that she says will save taxpayers substantial money.
“The Portland Water Bureau was making the case [in favor of] a $700 million water filtration system for Bull Run water to protect against Cryptosporidium.
“Commissioner Saltzman and Fish supported my asking for a work session regarding the relative merits of filtration versus ultraviolet treatment. I requested a public hearing, to make a better-informed decision that included citizens’ input, in addition to the Bureau’s advice.
“After the hearing, we came to a consensus in favor of ultraviolet treatment – costing $180 million. That’s saving a half-billion dollars; or $342,000 per day, of the four years that I will be in office – done by my looking at details, discovering and laying out the facts, and asking my colleagues to have a discussion and public hearing.”
About being in office
“The best part about being a Commissioner is meeting with the people in Portland, especially in East Portland. They help me stay connected with their communities, and what’s important to all neighborhoods across Portland.
“But more pertinently, the best part is having a vote – having a voice for our citizens. After the testimony is closed, I am there on the City Council to say what I believe citizens want me to say – to be the advocate for East Portland, Southwest Portland, for anybody who wants to have their concerns heard. I am there for them.
“Most challenging thing about being Commissioner is not having enough time. To get things done, I utilize my staff – we have wonderful city staff, public servants all. It’s a matter of learning how to delegate, coordinate, get people to talk with one another in the bureaus – I haven’t mastered that yet, but I’m still working on it.
“What I don’t have is the capacity, as I did as a citizen activist, to take a particular problem and work on it diligently for three weeks, three months, or three years.”
City agencies overseen by Commissioner Fritz
Bureaus, offices or agencies in City government are supervised by Portland City Commissioners. Here are the agencies for which Commissioner Fritz is responsible…
> Office of Neighborhood Involvement – “In Portland, we have 95 neighborhoods. ONI provides a central staff to support our neighborhoods – and neighborhood coalitions such as East Portland neighborhood Organization.
> Office of Human Relations – “It houses the Human Rights Commission and the Community & Policing Relations Committee, formerly the Racial Profiling Committee. This small office – they have only four staff members – also works with our immigrant and refugee community; and also on issues of employment and neighborhood not addressed through the neighborhood system. They reach out to new Portlanders, and help them become established.
“Many of our immigrant communities have located in Outer East Portland, where they’re served by IRCO, Immigrant & Refugee Communities of Oregon. But, in my elementary school in Southwest Portland, more than 20 languages are spoken. My kids were enriched and challenged by that environment, as well. We have two of the largest mosques in Portland – and many Middle Eastern and African immigrants – in my neighborhood. Immigrants enhance our culture.”
> Bureau of Emergency Communications – “BOEC operates our 9-1-1 Center; it’s located in the Lents Neighborhood, next to Earl Boyles Park. Because this is a county-wide service, I visit Fairview, Gresham, and Troutdale – letting them know the City of Portland wants to be a good neighbor and a good partner.”
Office of Cable Communications & Franchise Management – “This office administers utility franchises for the City of Portland, and cable franchises for the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. This is also a county-wide service. It is a large revenue source to the City’s General Fund, providing about $65 million annually. This office oversees Portland Community Media and Metro East Media communication centers.”
> Office of Healthy Working Rivers – “They are tasked with looking at the Willamette and Columbia Rivers; figuring out how to create more good industrial jobs along their banks – as well as doing environmental restoration. South Waterfront is the traditional model: Cities take contaminated land, cap it, and put high-value office and residential units on it.
“But we also need to improve contaminated sites, and help businesses produce more good industrial jobs. Industrial jobs are a core part of our economy. People come from all over the region to work on our waterfront.”
Commissioner Fritz says she welcomes communications of all kinds from the citizens of Portland.
Says she reads her own e-mail — all of it
To learn more about her office or bureaus, or contact her, the best way is via Internet, Fritz says.
“Go to www.Portlandonline.com, and click on my picture in the right corner of the website, or send an e-mail (contact information is listed below). I read all my own e-mail. But I also check the ‘junk mail’ file because messages which are sent to a large number of people [at once] can get routed there.
“We respond to regular mail as well. In some way the e-mail is easiest to pass along the message, in the person’s own words. And calling on the telephone also works really well. Our office has a tracking system to make sure that the concern is routed to the appropriate people.
“Sometimes when I go to neighborhood events, people apologize for contacting me. But I want them to know I want them to contact me.”
Whether at events, such as after marching in the Division/Clinton Street Parade – or by other means of communications – Fritz says she welcomes input from citizens.
Shares secrets to getting action on issues
“People should understand that staff does most of the actual work in any elected official’s office. They shouldn’t feel dismissed – instead, they should feel honored, if a staff person contacts them to follow up on an issue.”
“As a citizen activist, it took a while to understand this. You must understand that a staff person can take two hours to listen to a concern; my appointments are only a half-hour at the very most.
“Sometimes, using whatever mode of communication, a person starts out with ‘You are an idiot, and have no principles, whatsoever.’ I understand they’re angry; something unfortunate happened to them, they want something fixed. The most constructive and helpful approach is if you tell me about your concern, what you’ve tried to do about it, and what you’re asking me or my staff to do.”
© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News