We've made a mess. Can we clean it up together?
Wednesday night was the toughest city council meeting I’ve had yet. Race and equity, public safety, homelessness, how to spend $2 million in COVID relief funds, and whether to borrow $6 million for city projects were discussed – sometimes hotly – over more than three hours.
The information was heavy, the truths hard to hear. The divisions are real.
The upshot: We live in historically difficult and dangerous times here in Fairview and all over the country. We face huge problems – and your leaders do not always agree on the problems or the solutions. The public, meanwhile, is largely absent.
So here we are, in a tough and dispiriting tangle. Here is what it looked like Wednesday night:
· We got a report from Multnomah County Sheriff’s Capt. Carey Kaer, our city’s top cop, (see the profile here) on a public safety survey that was promoted online and in the city newsletter. We got only 140 online responses on what is arguably the biggest issue on our civic table. The top line: Only about half of respondents feel “very” or “somewhat safe” in Fairview. Only about half said they see officers on our streets more than a few times a month. Most people want to hire a community resource officer (CRO) and are willing to pay extra for it. Results of the survey, and future council debate, will determine whether we hire a CRO and make any other immediate changes to improve law enforcement and crime prevention.
· We heard from Fairview Post Master Capriece Paschall and Director of the City of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) Bob Cozzie. Pascall reported that our post office has been routinely vandalized during the pandemic – windows shattered, collection boxes broken into, gas siphoned and catalytic converters removed from mail delivery trucks, homeless folks sleeping in the lobby. “It’s getting a little frightening,” she said. “It hurts my heart that Fairview is becoming a scary place.” Paschall reported that when she’s called the 911 non-emergency line, she has had to wait over an hour – twice. Cozzie, whose office runs the 911 system, reported that, compared 2020, the center this year has seen a 20 to 45 percent weekly increase in calls – both emergency and non-emergency. One reason is the loss of 10 percent of BOEC staff, but mostly, Cozzie said, it’s just an increase in general crisis and crime during the pandemic – security alarms going off, shots being fired, people getting hurt. Cozzie said it’s hard to keep up. Recruiting and training a 911 dispatcher takes about a year.
· We held a public hearing on an ordinance that would authorize the city to go out and borrow $6 million on behalf of our Urban Renewal Agency. No one from the public spoke on the issue. The money would pay for a variety of improvement projects, from completing the Halsey Street food cart pod to developing the “Heart of Fairview” site at Halsey and NE Village Street to building pedestrian and bike access under the railroad bridge at 223rd Avenue. Borrowing the money would not raise property taxes – but $6 million is a huge investment of public funds. I don’t disagree with the projects – we’ve discussed them as a council before. But I do disagree with how the matter was handled on the council agenda. The public hearing, the staff report, and the council vote on the Urban Renewal funds were packaged together. We were expected to hear the facts from the city manager, listen to the public, and make a vote all in a matter of minutes. In most cities, this kind of action is usually spaced out over two or three meetings. So, with $6 million on the table, I voted “no.” I was the only councilor to do so. (For the record, before I was elected, the council approved the food cart pods and the purchase of the “Heart of Fairview” property without public hearings. These are multi-million-dollar projects).
· We got a report from Nate Midgely, our Portland State University fellow and COVID expert, on a community survey about the pandemic and what Fairview residents and business owners need. Answers will help the council decide how to spend the roughly $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds coming to Fairview over the next two years. Midgely got 60 survey responses. He recommends we plow most of the money back into the city budget to restore business income tax and other revenue lost to COVID and to help provide pandemic-related public services. So it is not likely we’ll use the money to improve parks or public health or otherwise “build back better.” We just want to try and break even.
· We had a discussion about the flood risk around Fairview Lake over last weekend due to torrential rain. Why? Because houseless people have camped around a pump station on City of Portland property off Marine Drive for more than a year. Their cars and belongings have blocked an access road used by the Multnomah County Drainage District (MCDD) to bring in a dump truck and back hoe needed to operate the pump – which sucks water out of the Columbia Slough and prevents Fairview Lake from flooding. (The equipment is needed to clear garbage and debris from the pump when it's in operation). Despite months of MCDD requests to Portland’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, which sits under Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, the camps were not cleared. (More on that later). Until this weekend, after local officials, including Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, intervened. Luckily, only one homeowner on Fairview Lake experienced flooding - a wet basement. Now the site is clear and the pumps are working and the council is furious there was a flood risk at all. We directed the city manager to write on our behalf to Wheeler, requesting that the area around Pump 4 remain clear in the future.
But the most disturbing part of the discussion, for me, arrived at the end of the meeting.
In February, the council voted on a set of priorities for this fiscal year, which runs March 2021 to March 2022. One of the “high” priorities we approved was to “start the conversation and explore ways to service our community in a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive way by working with a qualified consultant.” (See my old blog post).
Yet Mayor Brian Cooper, and some of his supporters on the council, have scuttled several attempts since March to hire a consultant, saying they either a) didn’t want to spend the money b) didn’t want to conduct the session over Zoom c) disagreed with the consultant selected or d) didn't want to deal with the issue at this time.
Excuse after excuse, delay after delay, for nearly eight months.
On Wednesday, we had a presentation from Fairview resident Mike Abatte (see more about Mike here) who submitted a proposal to lead an introductory conversation with the council on how we might better serve our community in a diverse, equitable, and inclusive way. He would have charged $6,500 – a substantially smaller amount than an original bid of $20,000 from another consultant.
As a business owner, former Portland and Gresham parks director, PlayEast! board member, trained mediator on issues of race, and a diversity consultant to our neighbors in Wood Village, Mike has over 100 hours of training and facilitation work over the course of his career. And as a resident, and frequent design consultant for the city, he has the well-earned respect of a lot of Fairview residents and councilors.
Abatte did not get the job. After heated discussion, the council voted 3-3 and the proposal died. Brian Cooper, Steve Marker, and Steve Owen voted against hiring Abatte. I, along with Darren Riordan and Keith Kudrna, voted in favor. Balwant Bhullar – who I believe may the first and only person of color to be elected to the Fairview City Council – left the meeting before the vote.
So there we are. We cannot even begin to have a conversation about race and equity and inclusion on your elected city council. We are faced with big spending choices – and how to manage a sharp increase in crime and the number of people living on the streets - with paltry public input.
We have more than 10,000 people living in our 3.5 square miles yet we rarely effectively engage the public in how their money is spent and how their city is being run. Surveys go unanswered. Meetings go unattended. I can count on two hands the number of residents who’ve attended a council session since I was sworn in back in January. A news reporter has ever been in attendance this year – not once in more than 20 meetings.
So in Fairview, there is very little engagement and very little accountability.
We’re all to blame. Ask councilors why we don’t do more community outreach, and you’ll be told we try and try and no one shows up. Yet we are also to blame. I had a call this week with a man who’s lived in the same house in historic Fairview for over 40 years and has contacted city staff and councilors many times over the years to ask for neighborhood improvements – only to get stonewalled or ignored. It seems as if we’ve given up on one another, the city and the people it serves, the way unhappily married couples do. You blame each other, clam up, and expect nothing will change. And sometimes, you leave. I got an email this week from a long-time resident, someone very concerned about crime who actually did attend Wednesday’s meeting. She told me that she knows a few Fairview residents who grew so tired of the tough times, and the inaction, that they’ve moved out.
I’m not moving. And I’m not giving up. I hope you don’t either.
Fairview needs you – your ideas, your concerns, your questions. Please tune in to the work being done on your behalf. Give your elected leaders feedback and direction – and hold us accountable. We can’t do the will of the people unless we know the will of the people.
And please be kind to us and to each other. We are all struggling right now – to make ends meet, to endure the pain and injustice around us, to stay positive about today and hopeful about tomorrow. As we approach Thanksgiving, may goodwill prevail.