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.

Portland Chases Another Dream

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that Portland is one of seven cities still in the running for a $50 million grant as part of DOT’s “Smart Cities” challenge. Portland is proposing to build “smarter streets” that talk to self-driving cars and to develop an app that will decrease reliance on private automobiles.

This is not a joke, and it’s not another episode of Portlandia. There are actually federal bureaucrats who think that putting sensors in streets to talk with computerized cars is important, and that Portland is capable of running such a system.

Apparently, they are unaware that Portland’s street system is so run down that the city could be the film location for a Mad Max movie.

And given the region’s obsession with 19th century street cars that move more slowly than pedestrians, why would anyone think Portland is capable of being a national leader in 21st century roads?

This is a city that tried to prevent car-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft from legally operating here last year. No fancy street sensors were required; the necessary smart phones were already in the hands of potential customers. All the City Council needed to do was get out of the way, and even that was too complicated for them.

We should let Google worry about autonomous cars. Portland should stick to something simple, like filling potholes.

Uber and Portland: “The Future and Its Enemies” Clash in the Rose City

The Portland City Council has voted 3-2 to let ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft operate permanently in the city. The normally “progressive” council members’ split decision revealed a conflict of visions that does not fall along ideological lines as much as it falls along lines revealing how they view the future.

Author Virginia Postrel wrote a book in 1998 that virtually foresaw the conflict Portlanders and others around the world are wrestling with in the new sharing/app economy – an economy that didn’t even exist until 2008. In The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Postrel argued that the opposing world views of “stasis” and “dynamism” are replacing “left” and “right” as we struggle to define our cultural and political debate in the twenty-first century.

Many large cities, including Portland, have regulated the taxicab industry for over 100 years. Regulating prices and limiting the number of taxis on the road has resulted in a small group of crony capitalist companies benefitting at the expense of their passengers, and often at the expense of their own drivers.

It got so bad in Portland, that for over twenty years beginning in 1976 not one new taxi company was allowed to enter the market. And regulators wouldn’t even let one new cab on the streets unless an owner could prove the demand existed for that vehicle; something that was almost impossible to do even as the city’s population grew.

In 1998, Cascade Policy Institute helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants win approval from the city to start Green Cab, the first new Portland cab company allowed in more than two decades. Regulators agreed, not because the proposal made sense (which it did), but likely because they knew that the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice would go to federal court to protect the economic liberty rights of those wanting to earn an honest living by providing transportation services to consumers.

Once smartphone apps emerged in 2008, the “stasis” of the transportation marketplace began giving way to the “dynamic” future that Uber pioneered in 2010. Thanks to the mobile devices most of us now carry in our pockets, the future of transportation and many other fields are quickly changing for the better…at least in the minds of the dynamists.

Once Uber entered Portland without city approval on December 5, 2014 and thousands of Portlanders put the app on their smartphones, city officials may have realized that most of these folks were also voters. They struck a temporary deal with Uber and agreed to develop new rules that would let it operate permanently in the city.

Even the city commissioner once seen as Uber’s biggest foe, Steve Novick, now says he never understood why the city should have a limited-entry system in which a small number of taxi companies were given a sharply restricted number of permits to operate cabs. He says the taxi companies had a sense of “entitlement” after being treated like a city utility for the past century. After being given authority for taxi regulation by the Mayor, Novick ended the strict limits on taxi permits, and the city increased the number of permits by 64 percent.

Novick set up a Task Force to suggest rules for both taxi companies and ridesharing firms like Uber. Traditional taxi drivers quickly became disappointed that “The Future” wasn’t going to include protections for them and strict limits on their new competitors. On December 2, 2015 Novick joined two other commissioners in voting Yes for dynamism, while two voted to keep the stasis that is quickly becoming transportation’s past.

The foremost opponent of the plan to let Uber operate permanently was commissioner Amanda Fritz. She prepared and read a ten-minute statement before voting No. She delineated several issues she believed were unfair to existing taxi companies and that could be harmful to Portlanders, including relatively low insurance limits for ridesharing drivers when passengers aren’t in their cars. One part of her statement clearly puts her on the side of “stasis” and denies the liberating power that the free market and technology provide for drivers and passengers alike:

“New taxi companies will no longer be scrutinized by the grueling public vetting and approval by City Council in an open public hearing. I feel so sad for my friends in Union Cab, supported by the Communication Workers of America Local 7901. You worked so hard to win approval. You offer dozens of immigrant families not only a chance at the American Dream, but an opportunity to belong to an American union, part of the united American Federation of Labor movement. You achieved the dream, in winning approval of your franchise. And now the majority of Council is telling you you’re an expendable casualty in the free market – the free market that is grinding the working class and the middle class into the servants of the billionaire corporations.”

Contrary to Fritz’s charges, the free market is liberating people worldwide from grinding poverty. In Portland it is allowing several thousand people to work for themselves as full- or part-time Uber and Lyft drivers. It is giving passengers new, cheaper, and quicker options to travel around the city.

The free market and technology are combining to help mold a dynamic future. Those trying to stop this future, including city commissioners who voted against it, are clinging to a stasis that cannot and should not prevail. “The Future and Its Enemies” is playing out right now in the City of Roses. Thankfully, The Future is winning.

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

 

Steve was interviewed about this topic on KUIK’s The Jayne Carroll Show on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. You can listen to his interview here.

Portland Worries About Homelessness, While Metro Makes Housing Less Affordable

The Portland City Council has decided to allocate $20 million to solve a perceived crisis with “homelessness” and another $67 million to subsidize “affordable housing.”

As usual with Portland spending, these numbers were pulled out of thin air; they have no connection to an actual strategy. If the Council had done some thinking, it might have realized that Portland’s housing crisis is the result of many factors, including ongoing government policies that are making things worse.

First and foremost is excessive government regulation. Any private investor trying to build more housing faces a gauntlet of barriers, including planning requirements, inspections, density mandates, parking restrictions, environmental overlays, and punitive fees. Many of these interventions serve no purpose other than to ensure that top-down mandates of planners replace market preferences. All of them impose delays and add costs to construction.

To make matters worse, Metro is recommending that no new land be added to the regional Urban Growth Boundary. When this recommendation is finalized next month, it will ensure that the already-high price of buildable land continues to increase.

Government is not the sole cause of the housing crisis; poor decision-making also causes many individuals to become homeless. But deliberately creating a shortage of buildable land through government regulation guarantees that the affordable housing crisis will get worse.

 

Portland Rideshare Drivers Praise “The Land of Opportunity”

Call it the smartphone/mobile app economy. Call it the Free World of Ridesharing. Call it the future. Whatever you call it, Uber, Lyft, and a host of smaller innovative companies are quickly transforming the century-long, highly government-regulated transportation market in Portland and around the world. And this is just a subset of a much broader technology-enabled transformation process that paints a vivid picture of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called the essential fact of capitalism: “creative destruction.”

By far the largest of the new ridesharing companies, Uber entered the Portland market uninvited in December 2014 and then stepped back to allow the city government time to revamp its antiquated taxi regulations. In April, the city enacted a four-month pilot program that basically let Uber and its smaller rival Lyft enter the Portland market and removed many regulations from the existing taxi companies.

Now, half-way through the pilot period, the City Council received an interim report on the program’s initial results and held a public hearing on July 15. Nearly 70 taxi and ridesharing drivers were given two minutes each to either praise their newfound opportunities to make a living, or bemoan the cuts in their incomes due to competition they felt was unfair.

While the interim report was full of statistics, it was the driver testimony that really personalized the issues before the Council. Time after time, rideshare drivers explained how upset their passengers had become with traditional taxi service, because of either long wait times or poor service.

Once seen as ridesharing’s staunchest opponent on the Council, Commissioner Steve Novick noted that he thought the report showed that “the experiment was working pretty well for consumers,” but that he wanted to hear more about the impact on drivers. He specifically asked drivers to say whether they preferred to be treated as employees subject to minimum wage law, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance—or do they prefer to be treated as independent contractors?

Novick’s question to drivers was in the context of a recent decision by the California Bureau of Labor that one specific Uber driver should be considered an employee even though ridesharing companies treat all their drivers as independent contractors who are able to set their own hours, use their own vehicles, etc. Uber has appealed the ruling, and has already prevailed in at least five other states in keeping its definition of drivers as independent contractors.

The way Novick phrased his question, it seemed he was hoping to hear many drivers testify that, sure, they would prefer all the guarantees and benefits afforded to employees over being independent contractors. Not one driver gave him that response. Time after time, rideshare drivers made obviously heartfelt statements about how thankful they were for the flexibility that being an independent contractor afforded them and their families.

Some drivers were caregivers for family members and so needed to be home when required. Others had been laid off elsewhere and appreciated the flexibility of driving while having time to seek other employment. Some had other jobs and used driving for Uber and/or Lyft as a way to generate extra income to pay their mortgages and other bills.

One woman told the Council how driving for Uber let her get off food stamps and become more independent. More than one noted that they had been entrepreneurs who had fallen on hard financial times and saw driving as simply one more entrepreneurial activity affording them much needed income.

One driver urged the Council to continue allowing ridesharing, noting that “this is the land of opportunity.” Another said, “I don’t work for Uber. I work for myself!” Still another noted, “We must all adapt to the world around us….Dinosaurs did not adapt!”

When one traditional taxi driver told Novick that he, too, preferred to be an independent contractor because of the flexible hours, the Commissioner told him that employees could be offered flexible hours also. Even with that information, the driver said he would be neutral as to his employee status. Not one driver at the hearing said they clearly preferred employee status over working for themselves as independent contractors.

There surely are individuals who prefer the benefits and safeguards afforded to formal employees. But obviously, many recognize and value the opportunities and the freedom of being independent contractors, now better enabled by smartphone technology. Let’s hope that Portland City Commissioners and Oregon’s Labor Commissioner all recognize these preferences and are willing to protect them. Otherwise, we risk going backward to the government-protected monopoly taxi industry that stopped working for many passengers long ago.

Is It Possible to Power an Export Facility Entirely by Renewable Energy?

The Portland Sustainability Commission recently recommended that the City Council approve a $500 million propane export facility proposed by Pembina Pipeline Corporation. However, as part of its approval, the Commission is requiring that 100% of the electricity used at the export facility be generated by Oregon renewable energy sources.

This is an impossible standard to meet. We know it’s impossible because Portland has already tried it. In 2001, the City Council publicly committed that by 2010 all electricity consumed by city bureaus would come from renewable energy sources. Yet, despite great efforts, Portland never came close to meeting the goal by 2010.

Notwithstanding this failure, in 2009 the City pledged to meet the 100% goal by 2012, with a new aspiration of supplying 15% of the total electricity load from self-generated green power. By the end of 2012, the City had only reached 9% self-generation, and total green power reached just 14% of all consumption.

If Portland has consistently failed to meet the 100% goal over a 14-year period, it should not impose the same requirement on a private facility.

Portland Set to Approve Public Shaming of Building Owners

For members of the Portland City Council, the end always justifies the means.

Their current obsession is energy use in commercial buildings. On April 15 the Council likely will approve a regulation to require the owners of such buildings to: (1) monitor energy consumption; (2) calculate an “energy use intensity” score; and (3) file annual reports with the city.

Advocates claim that this will be good for building owners. It will give them information they would never get without prodding by bureaucrats, and provide market recognition for high-performing buildings.

In fact, this is just an effort to shame building owners and tenants into adjusting their behavior to conform to the political edicts of City Hall. Commercial buildings consuming “too much” energy will receive a Scarlet Letter and be harassed by bureaucrats and activists into expensive energy conservation retrofits, many of which will make no financial sense.

Energy consumption is a private matter. The Portland City Council should stand down on this proposal and leave people alone.

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No Wonder Portland Can’t Afford to Maintain Streets

The Portland City Council seems determined to raise taxes to pay for street maintenance. But the City doesn’t have a revenue shortage problem; it has a spending misallocation problem, which continues to grow.

The latest example is a proposal to begin collecting and publicizing energy consumption data from about 1,000 of the largest commercial buildings in the city. This is being proposed as part of the city’s Quixotic attempt to “fight climate change.” Proponents claim soothing words that the regulation would “provide market recognition to those who perform really well” on some arbitrary energy consumption scorecard.

In fact, this is just an effort to shame building owners, managers, and tenants into adjusting their behavior to conform to the political edicts of City Hall. Commercial buildings consuming “too much” energy will receive a Scarlet Letter and be harassed by bureaucrats and activist groups into expensive energy conservation retrofits, many of which will make no financial sense.

The cost of city oversight? At least one full-time employee. This is why city streets are falling apart. Too many bureaucrats are pushing papers for programs that are irrelevant to the core functions of government. The Council should kill this idea before it goes any further.

Scare Tactics Not Working in Road Tax Debates

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently issued a report describing the deteriorating condition of Oregon highways. The authors estimate that the cumulative cost to the state economy from poor roads will be $94 billion by 2035.

At the same time, the Portland City Council is considering a new local income tax to pay for road maintenance and safety, citing a lack of adequate funding.

While road maintenance is indeed a problem throughout Oregon, the public is unlikely to approve new road taxes. The primary reason is a lack of trust. During the past 15 years, Portland has squandered vast amounts of money on fads like streetcars, light rail, bioswales, and “road diets.” At the state level, ODOT spent nearly two decades and $180 million on a silly bridge-with-light-rail proposal to Vancouver, Washington that is now dead.

These projects were mostly aimed at getting people “out of their cars.” Yet the reality is, regardless of how people travel, more than 99% of all trips take place on a road. So road maintenance needs to be the top priority with existing transportation dollars.

New methods to pay for transportation infrastructure will eventually be needed, but politicians need to re-earn the public’s trust before that can happen.

The Portland Streetcar: Time to Reset the Vision

If some Portlanders are confused about why we have a 19th century trolley operating in a 21st century city, they are not alone. City leaders are confused as well.

According to the Streetcar Concept Plan adopted by the Portland City Council in 2009, there are three primary policy goals related to streetcar expansion: (1) help the city achieve its peak oil and sustainability strategies; (2) provide an organizing structure and catalyst for the city’s future growth along streetcar corridors; and (3) integrate streetcar corridors into the city’s existing neighborhoods.

Oddly, providing transit service is not an explicit priority, even though that’s the primary reason people ride. Instead we have a mishmash of peak oil mania―now a quaint artifact due to the shale oil and gas booms, coupled with advanced technology―and vague references to real estate development. Given that this plan was estimated to cost $750 million and the city is broke, perhaps we should rethink the objectives.

First, the fundamental purpose of any transit program is to move people. On this criterion, the trolley is a weak performer. It’s slow, it doesn’t go many places, and each car only has 30 seats. It has high costs and low capacity, when what we need is the exact opposite.

If a secondary purpose of the streetcar is to encourage development, there are much better ways to do so. Subsidizing the streetcar means that most property owners will never benefit, because the system is tiny―seven route-miles after two decades of planning. If the city were simply to streamline the permitting process and lower System Development Charges, we would incentivize far more development in all sectors of the city compared to laying another mile of track.

Advocates claim that streetcar lines are “permanent” and provide stability for nearby development, but thousands of miles of streetcar tracks in the United States were paved over when they became obsolete 80 years ago. More recently, the streetcar tracks in South Waterfront along Moody Avenue have been torn up three separate times since 2011 to accommodate light rail. Nothing is really permanent; and when change is needed, it’s a lot easier moving a bus line than it is ripping up streetcar tracks.

A Better Way

We should insist that the streetcar be treated as a transit expenditure and evaluated on those terms. If we do this, it’s clear that rubber-tired vehicles traveling on the existing road network make much more sense.

Of the bus options I’ve examined, the best one is the Metro Rapid in Los Angeles. This system relies on distinctive, low-floor CNG buses with red stripes providing fast, reliable transit service. It operates in general purpose traffic lanes and achieves relatively high speeds by having stops spaced 0.75 miles apart, on average.

Also, the Metro Rapid buses have the technical capacity to shorten a red light or extend a green light at intersections to improve travel time.

A summary of the key characteristics of this system compared with the Portland Streetcar is shown below:

LA Metro Rapid Bus

Portland Streetcar

Year opened

2000

2001

Annual boardings

72 million

4.1 million

System length

400 miles

7 miles

Capital cost/mile

$0.35 million

$29 million

Peak frequency of service

Every 3-10 minutes

Every 14-19 minutes

Average speed

14-30 MPH

7-12 MPH

The Portland Streetcar is 83 times more expensive to build than the Rapid Bus alternative. Is it 83 times better? No. In fact, it is not superior by a single metric. The Rapid Bus is cheaper, twice as fast, and has much greater coverage throughout the city. It’s an actual transit system, not a Disneyland ride.

We should stop further expansion of the streetcar and shift public resources to low-cost, higher-speed bus transit.

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

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