Potter, Leonard joust at Parkrose city charter debate

Ballots are now in the mail: If four City Ballot Measures in the May 15 election pass, the way Portland is run will change dramatically. Read this and become an informed voter‚

While the discussion was framed as a “community discussion”, Portland Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Randy Leonard didn’t mince words as they expressed their views of the May ballot measures to change city government.

See it on Cable TV Channel 30!
If you have Cable TV, you can watch, videotape or TiVo this discussion between Mayor Tom Potter and Commissioner Randy Leonard on Channel 30 at these times:

  • Thursday, April 26 at  6:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, April 29 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday, May 2 at 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday, May 4 at 10:30 a.m.
  • Tuesday, May 8 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, May 11 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Monday, May 14 at 9:00 a.m.

By V. M. Wells
For East Portland News Service

Efficiency versus concentration of power was the gist of the opposing arguments, when Portland’s Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Randy Leonard debated a proposal to change the form of the City’s government.

The main focus was Ballot Measure 26-91; it amends the City Charter to change the form of government.

The meeting, held at Parkrose High School on April 16, was sponsored by East Portland neighborhood associations, Central Northeast neighborhood associations, Southeast Uplift, and Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. It was moderated by David F. Ashton.

Mayor Potter’s says voting in favor of Ballot Measure 26-91 will increase efficiency in city government.

Potter, wearing a shirt open at the throat, opened his presentation by calling on the members of the audience to stand in silence and mourn the death of the shooting victims at Virginia Tech University.

Potter pitches change in city government
The proposed change, which would put the management of the city in the hands of a city manager, would “give citizens more control over city government,” Potter declared.

Speaking in the school’s Atrium Commons, Potter said the things that make Portland worth living in currently happen “in spite of the form of city government,” rather than because of it.

The mayor and each of the four other Portland City Council members now oversee the city’s bureaus and departments. Under the new proposal, to be voted on in May, a city manager, called a Chief Administrative Officer, named by the mayor, would have full jurisdiction over the city’s administration.

Commissioner Leonard tells the group that Ballot Measure 26-91 puts too much power in the hands of one person and reduces the democratic nature of city government.

Leonard: Too much power
Leonard, wearing a sport coat and tie, declared that the proposed City Charter would concentrate “too much power in one person.”

Each man praised the other for their hard, conscientious work. Leonard said, “I’m glad Tom Potter is mayor, I’ll vote for him if he runs for re-election.”

But, his opposition to the proposal arises, partly, over a section of the proposal giving the mayor authority over the City Auditor, who, Leonard said, should be independent, as the auditor looks for mistakes and dishonesty.

Leonard also blasted a proposal to change the civil service rules and remove protection from “a whole swath of jobs.” In some cases, he said, civil service protection would be lost by employees “six layers down” the ladder.

Potter: Make tax dollars well spent
Potter summarized his stand by declaring, “The form of city government should make sure tax dollars are well spent. You can make our city better by voting ‘yes’ on the ballot measures.”

Leonard said the Portland City Club has recommended defeat for the proposed change, while developers “have given thousands of dollars” to help the measures pass.

Nearly 100 people attended the debate hosted by neighborhood associations throughout East Portland at Parkrose High School.

Leonard: Don’t give power to one person
“We cannot afford to give so much power to one person,” Leonard declared.

As an example, he said the mayor would, in effect, choose the city’s manager.

Further, he said, the proposed city charter would let the mayor sell city property, including parkland, with the approval of two other council members. “The way it is now,” Leonard explained, “four of five votes are needed to make a sale.”

Questions; and some answers
Written questions for the two guests were delivered to moderator Ashton, who read them aloud.

In answer to the question, “Why would this change in city administration lead to more responsive government?” Potter responded, “The city will have only one boss. Now, we have five.”

Thousands of American cities have city managers, he went on, but Portland is the only remaining city with over 100,000 population that still uses the commission system of government. In this system, each commissioner manages one or more bureaus, as assigned by the mayor.

Although both Potter and Leonard spoke vehemently and vigorously in while making their points, the two did share some lighter moments as well.

Potter: Greater efficiency and accountability
“This change would shift the city from five administrators to one Chief Administrative Officer,” Potter said “Everything would be under one boss, who would be accountable.”

Potter added, “It would prevent much duplication and inefficiency.”

The mayor stated that a study group has found that duplication of effort and services wastes more than $10 million a year.

Leonard: Changes would overburden mayor
Leonard said the proposed charter changes would overburden the mayor who, he said, “works too hard now.”

“With this form of administration, we would have a chain-of-command, not a democracy,” he went on. “It wouldn’t be responsive to the citizens.”

Leonard commented that he and the mayor had similar backgrounds. “Tom chose police, I chose the fire bureau. Both operate with using a strong chain of command.” But, he added, he’d learned a lot from being a city commissioner‚ council members must heed the needs of citizens.

Potter answered that the change would make it easier for citizens to reach council members, who would retain legislative duties.

Leonard: Concerned about citizen access
Leonard said, on the other hand, Portland leads the country in neighborhood activism. That kind of activity, he said, cannot be legislated.

“If citizens don’t like the treatment they receive from the Chief Administrative Officer,” Potter responded, “they would still have the same access to a commissioner that they have now.

“Part of the job of a city is to make itself accessible,” Potter declared. A CAO would “clarify who is responsible.”

Further, Potter added, the CAO would be responsible to the mayor and he to the people. “Voters can defeat the mayor,” he explained.

Disagree about the Tram
To a question asking if this new form of management would have brought the OHSU tram in on-budget, Potter responded that it cost millions of dollars more than forecast because “different council members were in charge of the project at different times. Money would have been saved if only one individual would have been in charge.”

Leonard responded that, if the mayor had voted to stop developers as they “pulled a fast one”, the cost would not have ballooned.

Regarding the city’s budget, Leonard warned that a “cadre” of experts would be needed to sift through every part of the city budget, at a cost of at least $2 million.

Potter responded saying this cost would be more than offset by the greater efficiency of the new form of government.

The mayor said the change in the charter would “put the council members out in the community, instead of behind a desk” and they “would have more authority than they have now.”

After the debate, both Mayor Potter and Commissioner Leonard stayed to talk with citizens. Here, Valerie Curry, Argay; Mary Walker and Marcy Emerson-Peters, Parkrose, speak with the mayor.

Leonard: No checks and balances
But Leonard warned that the proposal has “no checks and balances”. He also said, if access to policymakers truly is desired, the city should be divided into districts, and each council member be elected from a district.

Referring to the civil service reform ballot measure, Leonard stated he believed Potter would not replace employees with handpicked friends “but he won’t be mayor forever.” A future mayor would have the right to replace managers with his handpicked people, he warned “and it has happened in New York, Chicago, and other cities.”

Closing statements reflect sentiments
In closing statements, Leonard said the proposed charter would hand all the administration and most of the executive decisions to the mayor. “That’s too much power for one man.”

In closing, Potter told the audience, “If you want your tax dollars to go further and be more effectively spent, vote for the change. It will make our city better.”

Randy Leonard listens to a citizen’s response to the debate.


  • For arguments in favor of changing Portland’s city government system and structure, see www.reformcityhall.com.
  • For arguments against changing Portland’s city government system and structure, see www.toomuchpower.org.

Special thanks to Gail Kiely for photographing this event for East Portland News Service.

© 2007 East Portland News Service – All Rights Reserved

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