For Potter, success is doing by not doing

from The Oregonian, by Anna Griffin

The election night scene at businessman Harold Williams’ North Portland storefront typified Mayor Tom Potter’s first term.

The crowd last week was as diverse as Portland –neighborhood activists mingled with big-money developers, twentysomethings and AARP members bobbed their heads to Marvin Gaye. Potter stood quietly in the center of it all, the man who brought them all together and then sat back to watch them work. None of his City Council colleagues showed.

When Potter finally rose to speak, he announced that though three reforms he’d pushed had passed, the one in which he’d invested the most –changing the form of government –had failed by 3-to-1. Yet he claimed mission accomplished. So what if the result wasn’t a resounding win? He fulfilled his promise to put the change to voters. The process itself was a victory.

Since the day he took office, when he cut short his inaugural so everyone could make it to City Commissioner Sam Adams’ swearing-in on time, Potter has been a different kind of mayor with a different set of priorities.

More than any single policy, he promised to increase opportunities for Portlanders to get involved. After 12 years under Vera Katz, a sharp-tongued whirlwind whose to-do list was taller than she was, Potter offered himself as a straight-talking stoic more interested in building relationships than esplanades.

As a result, according to interviews with elected officials, neighborhood activists, business leaders and city staff, his tenure has been a mix of half-finished reform and frequent political infighting, lots of talk and less action. Yet in recent polls, the mayor’s approval rating has topped 70 percent –suggesting his popularity with the public has grown since 2004.

Supporters note that Potter has done exactly what he said he would: create a culture of civic engagement, include people who’d never been part of a civic debate, make city government nicer.

Critics say his resume is light on tangible accomplishments, the kind of concrete “Here’s what I did” stuff that makes a mayor’s legacy.

The Potter approach to problem-solving goes like this: Rather than govern by mayoral dictate, bring together people from different, often opposite, sides of an issue and let them craft a solution.

He’s had some success with that model: The City Council avoided a nasty labor dispute last year by promising short-term concessions in exchange for long-term help cutting health care costs. Other cities are already calling for information about a new plan for cleaning up downtown, written by business owners, homelessness advocates and police.

But beyond downtown safety, the mayor struggled last week to come up with other examples of significant, substantive results from the 27 committees he’s named in his first 29 months.

“There are many examples,” he said. “I just don’t happen to have them here right here.”

To be fair, the timing of the question stank. Potter was less than 48 hours removed from election night, when voters refused to strengthen the mayor’s office and make commissioners legislators only. In fact, city commissioners now enjoy new freedom to fire upper managers and more control over the Portland Development Commission budget.

In addition to that defeat, Potter has been dogged by a sinus infection that left him sleepless and stuffy-headed, his voice scratchy and his hands with a noticeable tremor.

He professed to be proud of the city’s progress. Yet most of the marquee successes under his watch have come off other people’s agendas: Commissioner Erik Sten pushed to end homelessness long before Potter took office. Commissioner Dan Saltzman championed fire and police pension and disability reforms well before Potter helped pass changes. The mayor opposed Adams’ plan to lower the business income tax, though he later voted for it.

Potter’s personal victories have been tempered.

He helped persuade voters to pass a temporary property-tax for Portland Public Schools, but only after failing to find support for a regional tax and then unveiling and quickly abandoning a plan for a citywide income tax. He’s tried to build relations with leaders in other parts of the state, but hasn’t used those alliances to win the tax restructuring he wants. He replaced the leadership at the Portland Police Bureau with community policing fans, but got the chance only because of Chief Derrick Foxworth’s sex scandal.

At times, Potter and his team’s lack of political experience has hurt: When he began his visioning project, Potter hoped to survey 100,000 Portlanders to craft a plan for the city’s future. Instead, his staff talked to 15,000, and the project is behind schedule and over budget.

School funding is a priority, yet he was admittedly stunned by opposition to his school tax idea. He’s made restoring community trust in police a mantra, yet aides waited five days last summer before interrupting his vacation to report the death of a mentally ill man, James Chasse, in police custody.

Although an aide took the blame, critics and even some friends wondered how a mayor could go a week without checking on things back home. Katz, they note, rarely even left the city limits.

Potter, however, has never claimed to be like Katz.

“It’s not bricks and mortar with him. It’s not the esplanade or Pioneer Courthouse Square or the streetcar,” said Austin Raglione, his chief of staff. “I hear people say, ‘He hasn’t done anything,’ and I wonder, ‘What do they want him to do?’ “

“They,” an increasing and increasingly diverse chorus of developers and citizen activists, want firm action and clear policy on issues such as the future of the industrial district on the Willamette River’s east bank, urban renewal in neighborhoods such as Cully and far East Portland, a strategy for making city government more cost-effective. Instead, Potter has given those kinds of debates to other commissioners or study committees.

Metro Council President David Bragdon, who says he is not running for mayor despite gossip to the contrary, dodged the question when asked whether Potter has done a good job: “I think he’s a good man and a good person.”

Complaints about Potter take on a familiar refrain: The times call for action, not conversation.

“He’s let the rest of the City Council take advantage of him and control the agenda,” developer Homer Williams said.

Potter counters that he allows the public to control the agenda. He pledged to change the tone of city government. Foes and friends agree he’s done that.

“Sure, he could be a little tougher,” said Bernie Foster, founder of The Skanner newspaper and a supporter of Potter’s opponent Jim Francesconi in 2004. “But he’s sincere, and he’s out in the community.”

But to what end?

“It’s really hard to point to any one thing and say, ‘This is what the mayor has done,’ ” said Potter supporter JoAnn Bowman, a former state representative. “The pieces haven’t come together yet.”

The mayor is waiting until September, when he turns 67, to decide whether to run again. He said last week’s election had no impact.

Still, history suggests he might be content to hang up the suits and go back to travel and volunteering: He spent just 32 months as police chief, 11 months as executive director of New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit that works with homeless youths, and five months as interim director of the state’s public safety training academy.

Potter says he will decide on a second term by deciding whether he’s done what he wanted. He can and often does wax long and loud about his philosophy toward governing, about his commitment to “building our human infrastructure.”

Last week, however, his personal list of tasks undone took less than one minute to recite: visioning, more community policing, “creating a more inclusive society.”

Maybe he was tired or desperately in need of the European vacation he began Friday. Either way, he offered no goals for a second term and no new ideas for the last 18 months of this one.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “The question is whether it still needs my hand.”

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