Charter reform story from Oregonian

This story mentions the Mt. Tabor land sale in the context of a proposed reform in the structure of Portland government. This story illustrates the importance of the pre-disposition aspect of the project.

Opponents put land in Potter’s hands
Charter – Fliers erroneously say the mayor unilaterally could sell surplus city land if government were changed

Tuesday, May 8, 2007, by Anna Griffin

If Portlanders decide May 15 to change the form of government, the mayor will enjoy a host of new powers.

Yet the one proving the most controversial may not actually exist.

In their mailings and campaign appearances, opponents of Measure 26-91, which would centralize executive power under the mayor, paint a bleak picture of life under a new, stronger mayor system.

It’s right there, for example, in the latest flier to hit mailboxes from Portlanders for Accountability, one of two anti-change groups: “The mayor . . . would even be able to unilaterally sell parkland and other city property without a vote of the City Council.”

“That has to be a mistake,” said former Mayor Bud Clark. “They cannot have seriously meant to give the mayor that power.”

It’s not a mistake. But it’s also, supporters of the new charter language say, nowhere near as big a deal or sweeping a change as the other side would have you believe.

Here are the facts: Right now, the City Council must vote twice to dispose of property. First, a majority of the five-member board must declare land surplus. Then, four members must vote on the actual details of any sale.

Under the new form of government supported by Mayor Tom Potter, that second vote would no longer be required. Once the City Council deems land “no longer needed for public use,” the mayor would have the freedom to negotiate terms of a sale — including who the buyer will be and how much they’ll pay.

“The other side has polled on this, and obviously they scored big when they suggested that the mayor could just arbitrarily sell off parkland,” Potter said at a recent forum. “But it’s not accurate. You would still need three votes to declare land eligible for a sale. The majority would still rule.”

The debate over who can sell land may seem wonky, but it gets at the heart of the conversation over Portland’s government:
Opponents of the current system, in which city commissioners and the mayor share executive authority, say it is messy, convoluted and filled with redundancies. Why, for example, should the City Council have to vote twice to get rid of property they’re not using anymore? By allowing the mayor to negotiate a deal, supporters say, you take politics out of the equation.

“You can have the appropriate checks and balances without taking away the mayor’s ability to lead,” said Robert Ball, a real estate developer and one of the leading spokesmen for the charter change.

Supporters say there’s a method to the mess: That extra vote on property sales provides an added layer of protection for the city’s thousands of acres, vital in a place so devoted to its greenspace — and so hot with real-estate developers. Beyond the potential for public retribution at re-election time, what’s to keep a mayor from giving away city land, or trying to turn the parks and other public spaces into a profit center? Once the City Council has declared land surplus, it’s ceded control over what to do with that land to the mayor.

“I don’t worry about what Tom Potter would do with this power,” said Chris Smith, a neighborhood activist who is running one of two anti-change campaigns. “But we don’t know who is going to be mayor a few years from now.”

Few decisions the City Council makes are as controversial as whether to sell land that’s not being used. Last summer, for example, Mount Tabor neighborhood activists launched an all-out campaign against the Parks Bureau when they discovered that city managers were negotiating selling part of the old Mount Tabor Yard maintenance facility to Warner Pacific College.

Neighbors found out about the negotiations only after parks managers and college administrators had signed a memorandum of understanding and set a tentative date for the sale’s completion.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the city’s parks, nixed the idea of a sale after neighbors objected and fellow Commissioner Randy Leonard noted that some of the land in question might actually belong to his Water Bureau. The conflict revealed that both bureaus were studying multimillion-dollar plans to address separate maintenance issues that in some cases share land, such as at Mount Tabor.

In the charter debate, both sides have pointed to the Mount Tabor situation as proof that they’re right.

The argument for change: Confusion among the bureaus about who owns land and who decides its best use would disappear if the mayor and a chief administrative officer were in charge of every city agency and had control of all city land.

The argument against: Neighbors would be less likely to find out about controversial land deals in time to stop them if power — and, presumably information — were centralized.

PDF version of this story


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