Meet your Portland City Commissioner: Nick Fish

In this, the second 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 City Commissioner Nick Fish says he’s found his “dream job”.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Filling the seat on the City Council vacated by Eric Sten, Nick Fish was elected to office in the May, 2008, election, and was publicly sworn in on June 13 of that year. Fish is up for reelection in 2010. Although these titles are somewhat symbolic, Fish became the City’s “Commissioner of Public Works”.

During this interview in Fish’s City Hall office, we asked him about his philosophy of governance, why he ran for office, and about the bureaus he oversees.

Fish’s philosophy of governance
“I waited 50 years for my dream job – this is it. I never tire of telling people that I consider it to be a great honor to be a public servant. I believe that serving others is the highest calling.

“It’s possible to serve others in many different ways. We do it through our nonprofit organizations, our churches, and our fraternal organizations. We do it when we raise our children well. We all have different roles that allow us to serve.

“But for me, the essence of public service is service to others and, really, the ethic that drives my service is the belief that everyone can make a difference.

“My job is to be a sort of a cheerleader, booster or supporter of people in the community who have great ideas. And, that is a joy of my job. That is to be the person who supports citizens who want to do good work. I view myself as their partner.”

About running for office
“I ran for office, in part, because I thought I could make a difference. After a career of 20 years in law, I thought it would be a good time to change careers. I had good role models, growing up – people who I admired who were or are in public office.

“I’m the first Commissioner in Portland’s history to be both the Housing Commissioner and Parks Commissioner. I ran specifically to be the Housing Commissioner – because Tom Potter said that whoever won the Council seat would be the Housing Commissioner. What I didn’t bank on was that the new mayor [Sam Adams] would also give me Portland Parks & Recreation.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would get this assignment, but I got my twin passions assigned to me. I will tell you, humbly, that I have the best assignments in City Hall.”

Commissioner Fish says he’s most pleased when he’s able to help community folks who strive to further City projects.

Fish’s proudest accomplishments in office
“My proudest accomplishment is my two kids – Maria and Chapin. They are both in public school – and they keep me humble and grounded.

“But my proudest accomplishment as a City Commissioner, so far, has been working with the community to solve problems – like saving the Portland Jazz Festival and the free summer concerts in Washington Park, providing shelter for the homeless during the winter weather emergency, and replanting the Earl Boyles community garden after it was vandalized.”

City agencies overseen by Commissioner Fish
Bureaus, offices or agencies in City government are supervised by Portland City Commissioners. Here are the agencies for which Commissioner Fish is responsible and committees on which he serves:

~ Portland Housing Bureau – “It was formerly known as the Bureau of Housing and Community Development. The purpose of the housing Bureau is to make sure that everybody has a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home.”

~ Portland Parks & Recreation – “Their mission is creating healthy parks, and a healthy Portland.  I’m responsible for overseeing all of their things, including the community centers, and master plans for parks and gardens. Our goal is to make sure that everybody lives within a five-minute walk of a park.  I’m committed to bring parks equity to East Portland.”

~ Council liaison to Elders in Action – “I’ve turned 51; I’m finding that this organization has greater personal meaning to me. In this assignment, I work on issues of parity regarding housing for older adults, and recreational opportunities. I can work directly on these core issues because of my bureau assignments.”

~ Portland Disparity Study – “I lead this big, complicated exercise in which the city examines all the contracts to make sure that women and minority vendors are getting a ‘fair slice of the pie’. We look across-the-board at our contracting practices. Next year, I’ll be making recommendations about how minority- and women-owned, and small, businesses can get a bigger piece of the pie.”

~ Oregon Cultural Trust – “On the board of this organization, I’m working at the State level to build an endowment for arts, heritage, and culture – in particular, looking for ways to put arts education back in our schools.”

Question outer East Portlanders most want answered
We asked Fish, “Does outer east Portland have more than its ‘fair share’ of low-cost housing?”

Fish answered candidly, “Probably. That’s because people who are poor are increasingly moving east; we are seeing a demographic shift, as they’re being displaced from other parts of the city.

“The city can do a better job building and financing a range of housing. Most people would welcome housing that would allow their mother to live in dignity as she approaches the end of her life. Most people would welcome housing that would allow their children, who are doubled up in their home, to get their first rental apartment. Most people would welcome affordable homeownership opportunities for first-time homeowners.  What we have to do is to get the right mix. That is housing that’s there for people who need it, as well as for people who are poor.

“The key is having a good quality of housing. I believe we can do a better job.”

On being in office
Fish said he’s happy residing East of the Willamette River.

“My wife is a teacher, and I have two young kids in public schools – so I have a full life. The biggest challenge of my life isn’t so much my ‘day job’ – but how I balance my responsibility as a parent with my job. That’s tough. The only commitments on my calendar that I never change are my daughter’s soccer games.”

Commissioner Fish describes the Portland City Council members as being committed to service.

About the Portland City Council
“I think this City Council works pretty well. The people on this Council are talented, and very committed to service. It’s a great pleasure to serve on this Council.

“If I could say something about Commissioner Amanda Fritz: She brings a set of relationships with the neighborhood activists and leaders that have really improved the way we look at a range of issues. She and I have gone to a lot of public meetings together.  She’s very skilled at organizing public meetings and getting public feedback.”

Fish’s thoughts on public contact
“The people who contact me, or who come to Portland City Council meetings, are people who I call ‘highly motivated’. They usually are communicating with us because they are upset about something. Sometimes people are very sharp in how they express themselves.

“So, I try to focus less on how people communicate – their style – and more on what their concern is. If someone e-mails me with a problem, we have an office standing policy: Everyone gets a response.

“I used to give my cell phone number out to everyone – but my staff has firmly suggested that I discontinue that practice. If you do contact my office, we will respond, I promise.”

Contact information

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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