Mayor Wheeler Shuffles Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Unpacking the Mayor's Recent Bureau Assignment Shifts

A month ago, Affordable Oregon suggested that if Mayor Ted Wheeler was serious about reforming housing policy in Portland he needed  to personally take control of the Bureau of Development Services Department. Clearly an avid reader of Affordable Oregon (probably not), Mayor Wheeler announced sweeping changes to bureau assignments among the City Council, most of which seem to be aimed at consolidating his ability to directly manage a housing development process that has charitably been characterized as “challenging” and more accurately described as a dumpster fire.

Shifts in bureau assignments of the City Commissioners is the most effective way (short of firing dozens of bureaucrats) a Mayor in Portland’s system of government (known as the “commission system”) can create change.  By allowing a new commissioner to manage a department or by taking the department into his own portfolio, the Mayor can theoretically create systemic changes that move a given department in a new direction.  The mayor made sweeping changes and they all serve as a signal of where the City is currently and where he wants it to go.

Moving The Bureau of Development Services from Commissioner Eudaly to the Mayor’s Own Portfolio

When Mayor Wheeler moved BDS out from under Queen of the NIMBY’s-Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the building industry rejoiced!  That is, until he announced he was replacing Fritz with the newest elected member of the Commission, political neophyte Chloe Eudaly.  Wheeler had simply replaced a hopelessly compromised Commissioner in Amanda Fritz with a massively over-matched replacement in Eudaly.  It was a head scratching move.  Of all the departments in the City of Portland, its arguable that BDS is the most complicated, boring animal in the zoo.  It has dozens of functions, all of which take years to fully understand and even an experienced Commissioner is at a direct disadvantage with a set of bureaucrats who are expert in the development process.  He basically threw Eudaly to the wolves and as you might expect, they ate her alive.

This latest announcement is an admission by Wheeler that no one on the council is capable of getting their hands around BDS and its problems.  Relieving Eudaly from the responsibility of reforming BDS was acknowledging a mistake and rectifying the problem.  Now, Wheeler and the building industry can get down to business examining why its taking 30 months and $80,000 per unit in administrative costs to get one new unit constructed in the city.  Wheeler’s next move should be to convene a group of industry experts to completely redesign and assess the entire department.  What Wheeler does with BDS will define his time as Mayor because the pressure of the housing crisis in Portland is directly impacted by what he does to make change within this department.

Keeping The Housing, Planning and Finance Department in The Mayor’s Portfolio

In addition to taking BDS from Eudaly, Mayor Wheeler kept every major department dealing with housing or development or the financing of either within his own portfolio.  The Mayor has essentially taken control of all housing related policy and staff for the entire city.  This may seem like a startling consolidation of power, but the fact is, it was long overdue.  These departments all need to be working together in order to move housing projects through the process in Portland.  Until yesterday, BDS was on its own, outside of the Mayor’s purview.  Now Wheeler can work across multiple departments free from interference from the other Commissioners.  This represents industry’s single best opportunity in decades to impact how Portland develops housing from initial planning to final occupancy.  Unless of course, Wheeler has plans that are counter to what the industry has been advocating for since the day he took office.  Only time will tell, but this is a good first step.

Mayor’s Bureau Assignments are a Slap in the Face to the Commissioners

Commissioner Nick Fish is an unabashed housing advocate who has made the cause of affordable housing central to each of his campaigns.  Wheeler has assigned him to run the Bureau of Environmental Services (WOO HOO SEWER AND STORMWATER BABY!) and the Parks and Rec Department.  These two departments can only tangentially effect housing policy, essentially putting Fish on the sidelines to watch and pine for a place to make an impact.

Commissioner Fritz wants nothing more than to run the Office of Civic and Community Life (aka the Neighborhood NIMBY Department) and the Parks and Rec Department.  Wheeler continues to show his complete lack of respect for her by putting her in charge of the Water Department (BOOOORING) and two of the most superfluous departments in Portland:  The Office of Equity and Human Rights and the Open and Accountable Elections Department.  One of the best parts of Mayor Wheeler’s reign as Mayor has been watching him brazenly marginalize Fritz as much as possible.

The corpse of Commissioner Saltzman was assigned all emergency related agencies.  Fora going away present, he gets to high five his bros at the Fire Department for another six months while also sleepwalking his way through managing 911 and the Office of Emergency Management.  Talk about going out with a whimper.  The Mayor further showed his potential confidence in whoever wins the Hardesty-Smith runoff for Saltzman’s seat by making it clear these assignments would be their prize for winning Saltzman’s seat. How exciting for the winner!

It might seem like Wheeler gave Commissioner Eudaly a big assignment with the Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT), but more likely he stuck Eudaly here so he could keep his fingers in the department through the one Commissioner he feels he has control over.  Wheeler has been careful to foster a good relationship with Eudaly and mentor her along as the new Commissioner.  That seems nice, but it is likely to his advantage to have a Commissioner he can push around a little when he needs too.  He certainly can’t do that with Fish or Fritz who at this point would probably rather do anything than help a Mayor who constantly devalues their contribution.

Bottom line, Wheeler’s bureau assignments are telling.  If its an important department to any critical issue currently affecting the City, its under the Mayor.  His autocratic actions say he believes he is the only person who can fix what ails the City currently.  Perhaps in another city this would be of concern but given the current state of the CIty of Portland, its a welcome change.  At least with Wheeler at the helm of every major housing department we know where the buck stops and who to blame.

So far, the Commissioners have been content to collect their checks, smile and grit their teeth.  How long until Fish, Fritz and either Hardesty or Eudaly decide its time to take control of their own destiny and turn on the Mayor?  Wheeler needs to work quickly and make systemic changes on housing and development policy, then reassign the bureaus again to prevent a revolt on the Commission.  Lets hope this all works, its definitely the best chance Portland has had to make a dent in a bureaucracy that has lost sight of the overall goal of creating affordable housing for everyone.