Earning Their Keep: Do Elected Officials in the Portland Region Show up for Meetings?

By Nick Pangares and John A. Charles, Jr.

Most elected officials who serve on school boards or city councils do not get paid for service. However, for at least five governing jurisdictions in the Portland metro region, councilors do receive compensation. Those jurisdictions are: the Commissions for Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties; the Portland City Council; and the Metro Council.

This research examined the attendance records for all regularly scheduled meetings for the five jurisdictions during 2014 and 2015. In some cases, there were also “board briefings” or “work sessions” to attend.

In general, most elected officials attended a high percentage of meetings, either by being present or by participating via telephone. Group participation rates usually exceeded 85%, on average.

Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski had the best attendance record of all elected officials over the two-year period – 100% for both years. Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack had the worst two-year record – 70% for board briefings, and 80% for board meetings. She is termed-out and not running for re-election.

Summaries of the attendance records for all elected officials are below. The numbers indicate the percent of meetings where the officials participated.

 

Clackamas County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Ludlow Savas Schrader Smith Bernard
2014 98% 100% 82% 89% 89%
2015 98% 95% 93% 93% 89%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
2014 100% 98% 88% 98% 86% 90% 83%
2015 n/a 92% 97% n/a 89% 95% 77%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Briefings

 

  Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
               
2014 100% 93% 83% 97% 94% 90% 70%
2015 n/a 100% 100% n/a 65% 90% 70%

 

 

Washington County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

  Duyck Malinowski Schouten Rogers Terry
           
2014 94% 100% 87% 87% 94%
2015 91% 100% 91% 88% 85%

 

 

Portland City Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hales Fish Fritz Novick Saltzman
           
2014 92% 83% 92% 94% 85%
2015 97% 92% 97% 92% 85%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 84% 97% 95% 97% 97% 97% 89%
2015 93% 98% 95% 98% 100% 98% 93%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Work Sessions

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 85% 94% 96% 96% 96% 96% 94%
2015 89% 93% 93% 95% 98% 91% 91%

 

While taxpayers probably expect officials to show up, does attendance really matter? That depends. Strictly speaking, yes. Each body must have a quorum of members present to conduct business. If too many officials skip meetings, decisions can’t be made. So even if individual commissioners are ineffective, a minimum number of them are needed at any given meeting.

Moreover, at most public meetings where agenda items will be voted on, public testimony will be taken. Constituents have a right to expect that when they take the trouble to show up with prepared testimony, elected officials will be there to listen.

However, attendance has little to do with influence or effectiveness. Public meetings are a form of street theatre; all the key decisions have been made ahead of time behind closed doors. So an elected official with a spotty attendance record could easily be the most important member of the body – it’s just that the heavy lifting is being done out of sight.

For example, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman had the lowest two-year record of attendance among all City Commissioners, but few observers would consider him ineffective. To the contrary, he may be the most influential member of the Council, especially with a Mayor who is not running for re-election.

Metro Presiding Officer Tom Hughes also had the worst attendance record among his peers. Yet any Council member hoping to advance new policy would hardly consider Councilor Hughes unimportant.

There are also extenuating circumstances. What we see may not reflect the whole story. According to Commissioner Malinowski:

“The issue of absences turns out to be apples and oranges most of the time. This is partially because 4 out of the 5 commissioners are part time, and most of the time the reason Commissioners miss meeting is because of prior obligations regarding outside County business. If you compare absences with the schedule of each commissioner, this is usually the case. However, meeting attendance and communication is critical, particularly when technical questions about County business need to be answered.”

When asked if there should be a required minimum participation rate for meetings, Commissioner Malinowski responded:

“Overall the honor system of attendance is working, and I don’t see a need for a minimum attendance rate requirement. Many times what happens is the Commission will cancel meetings if two or more Commissioners are going to be absent. This usually happens on Tuesday evening meetings.”

The value of attendance is ultimately determined by voters. Those who are satisfied with the performance of their representative may overlook a mediocre participation rate.

However, voters should remember two things. First, for the five jurisdictions featured in this report, elected officials get paid to show up. They are not volunteers.

Second, attendance does matter. If everyone takes a night off, no business gets transacted. And running a government entity is a business.

About the authors: Nick Pangares is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and also serves on the board of a rural water district in Clackamas County. Volunteer Bob Ludlum assisted with data gathering for this report.

Hotel Proposal Is Pouring Good Money After Bad

Last week the Metro Council unanimously approved two resolutions in favor of subsidizing a Headquarters Hotel near the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. The original idea behind the Convention Center was that with the right package of amenities, people would come to Portland and spend money eating and shopping when not attending meetings. When the Convention Center didn’t generate the hoped-for revenue, it was expanded. When occupancy rates still dropped, Portland officials started planning a hotel.

Other cities have tried this strategy, and it hasn’t worked. Subsidized convention hotels elsewhere have had disappointing results. Not only have they not increased convention business significantly, but they haven’t made their occupancy projections, either. Now those cities are saddled with money-losing convention centers and money-losing hotels.

In 2007, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) rejected the only hotel proposal that didn’t require government subsidies. The Grand Ronde Indian Tribe offered to build a hotel with private money if they could include a casino. After the PDC turned them down, a tribal spokesman said, “We refuse to raid taxpayer dollars for any project.”

The core functions of government are to protect our lives, liberty, and property, not to provide our entertainment and build convention venues. Instead of throwing more taxpayer money at the Convention Center, Portland officials should consider the advice of management guru Peter Drucker, who warned: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Is Driving Less a Good Thing?

Recently, the Metro Council received the results of a four-county household travel survey – the first such survey conducted by its staff since 1994. Among other things, the results showed that 81% of all regional commuters use a car to get to work, compared with 90% in 1994.

 

Metro Councilors were very excited by this apparent drop. They immediately took it as proof that the agency’s anti-car, pro-density policies are “working.” Council President Tom Hughes directed staff to quickly come up with a favorable “storyline” for the survey.

 

However, that may be a difficult task, because the evidence about regional travel patterns is more nuanced than it appears. For example, automobile commuting has dropped, but that has generally not translated into higher transit use. In fact, market share for transit in Portland has flat-lined for the past 12 years, as shown below. Travel is shifting to biking, walking, and telecommuting.

 

Mode Share for Weekday Commuting in Portland

1997-2012

 

Mode

1997

2000

2004

2008

2010

2012

Auto

80%

77%

80%

73%

69%

67%

Transit

10%

12%

11%

11%

12%

12%

Drive/transit

2%

2%

2%

4%

Bike

3%

3%

4%

8%

7%

7%

Walk

5%

5%

4%

4%

6%

7%

Other

7%

6%

                  Source: Portland Auditor’s Annual Community Surveys

 

This has caused a large mismatch between mode-shifting trends and public expenditures. Since 2000, we’ve opened a commuter rail line, created the Portland Streetcar, added four new light rail lines, approved construction of a new transit bridge over the Willamette River, and watched TriMet’s annual budget grow by 142%. Yet, the transit market share for commuting is stuck at 12%.

 

Even worse, transit share is actually declining in TriMet’s most natural market, downtown Portland. According to the Portland Business Alliance, between 2001 and 2010 the transit share of commuting travel for downtown workers dropped from 45% to 38%.

 

Other travel behavior metrics are equally puzzling. For instance, Metro regularly keeps track of daily vehicle miles traveled per-person (VMTPP) in the region. Since 2000 the VMTPP for Portland residents has declined by 4 percent, from 20 miles per day to 19.2. Yet the daily VMTPP for Vancouver travelers dropped by a much bigger margin, from 21.8 miles to 17.23 – a 21 percent change.

 

So if Metro Councilors hope that their staff will create a favorable “storyline” showing how regional land-use policies have led to reduced driving, they will also have to explain why the drop has been much greater north of the Columbia River.

 

But putting these conflicting trends aside, the biggest problem with Metro’s response to the survey is the agency’s worldview that driving is socially undesirable, so if we have less auto commuting, the region is automatically more “livable.” Not only is there nothing intrinsically wrong with driving, one easily could make a case that high levels of personal automobile use are indicators of an economically vibrant and socially dynamic region.

 

Increased driving is strongly correlated with higher incomes. In the Metro travel survey, transit mode share for households with less than $25,000 of family income was 9 percent, but only 2 percent for households with income greater than $75,000. How many people in the region would be unhappy if all households had incomes greater than $75,000 but transit use dropped as a result?

 

ODOT data shows that for every new job created, we should expect to see another 15,500 vehicle miles travelled each year. If total auto use went up because vast numbers of new jobs were created, would that make the region less livable?

 

And numerous studies have shown that access to a private automobile is critical to improving the economic wellbeing of low-income households, especially for those seeking employment. In fact, a growing number of progressive social service agencies (including at least one in Portland) are now running low-income car loan programs to help get poor people into private wheels. Should we discourage such programs because they cause transit use to drop?

 

Every trip has a purpose. If that purpose can be met best through a privately owned motor vehicle, then it does not make us better off to have politicians artificially discourage auto use by using parking meter revenues to pay for the streetcar, disallowing needed highway expansion, raising the TriMet payroll tax rate, subsidizing high-density projects with tax abatements, and cannibalizing scarce roadway capacity for light rail.

 

Instead of scheming to put a political spin on its new travel survey, Metro should use it to start a new conversation about how to define “livability.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.