Margaret Strachan socks it to City Council

  • Posted on: 31 January 2007
  • By: Amanda Fritz

Anyone who starts their Communication to Portland City Council with, "Dear Sirs - and unfortunately it is all Sirs" captures my attention and good wishes right away. Former City Commissioner Margaret Strachan not only made a good swing on the first pitch, she hit a home run with the rest of her remarks to Council this morning. My guess in "Up Next at City Council", that she might talk about Charter Reform, was incorrect. Instead, her focus was,

"Who is planning Portland?"

Commissioner Strachan said she was prompted to talk with Council when she heard news that the Bureau of Planning is updating the Central City Plan. She cited three main themes:

1. Who is coordinating all the planning efforts? She noted many bureaus, and the Portland Development Commission, are working on planning and implementation downtown. "Does everyone know who's on first? Does anyone know who's on first?", she asked.

2. Cost - how will the planning efforts be financed and implemented? Will it be worth the time and effort, or will the new plans sit on a shelf, was the gist of this point.

3. Citizen Involvement. "We are resting on our laurels of planning," she said. As one example, she said that "the Linnton Plan was undercut by the Planning Bureau and rejected by City Council." She described the new Central City Plan update as "a top-down process", in contrast to the original plan which was citizen-driven and won an award for citizen involvement. "The citizens ran that plan from beginning to end", she said.

"These are just a few examples of citizen neglect and planning hubris", she concluded. "Any questions?"

Mayor Potter did have one question. "Would you please leave us a copy of your remarks, if you have one?"

"You have one in your briefing package", was the answer.

I did not know the content of former Commissioner Strachan's Communication, when I posted "Leaving People out of Planning" yesterday. I still have only my scribbled notes from watching cable TV this morning, and I hope someone will comment if you find a link to her full text. My opinions match her insights. To take just one example, the Linnton Plan - the fact that the Council rejected the neighborhood's proposal was not the essential issue to me. Except for the Charter Review Commission, no citizen group has an unrealistic expectation that elected officials will adopt their recommendations verbatim.

But Margaret Strachan touched on two serious procedural problems with the Linnton Plan. One, that "the Bureau of Planning undercut" the plan approved by the Planning Commission. Once the Planning Commission sends a recommendation, the Bureau of Planning is supposed to act as staff to the Planning Commission, advocating for adoption of their recommendations by Council. Starting with the tram and most recently with Linnton, for the last 5 - 7 years the Planning Bureau has increasingly acted independently of the Planning Commission. And the second process problem with Linnton was that neighbors were encouraged to invest huge amounts of time and energy into producing a plan that apparently had no chance of passing. The fuel tanks and jobs issues were not surprise new information. Yet as with the tram, neighbors were given the impression that their participation might make a difference. City Council is elected to make decisions, and we all know that. At the very least, citizens expect them not to waste our time.

And at the most, we would like to be involved in making important decisions. Not just in fuzzy Visioning. Not just in smiling genially at presentations during the "How are the children doing?" segment preceding Wednesday morning at Council - although to their credit, the trio presenting from one of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods today did an exceptional job. Rather than the usual "our program is great" speeches, they came with a list of things they need from the city. "We would like better playground equipment because ours is in really bad shape, and we would like the graffiti cleaned up". Gosh, how unreasonable! No response from the Council.

How about we involve citizens young and old, in neighborhoods all over the city not just downtown and along potential new light rail and streetcar lines, in finding ways to implement improvements in all neighborhoods, rather than starting another top-down talking exercise for the Central City?

And as with Commissioner Strachan's text having been submitted ahead of time - How about we use the information we need to know, which is already there? It's in the record, and it's in the hearts and minds of people living and thinking in neighborhoods all over the city.

It's time to stop reinventing new government structures, new plans, new administrative ladders in the bureaus, and go back to what made Portland the great place it is today: planning and implementation with citizens meaningfully involved every step of the way.