By Jake Thomas, Staff Writer
In 2008, Amanda Fritz, a psychiatric nurse and neighborhood activist, became the first ever non-incumbent to win a seat on Portland City Council through Portland’s Voter-Owned Elections, which provided public campaign financing to qualifying candidates. Since then, she’s carefully scrutinized how the city spends its money, sometimes to the chagrin of other city commissioners, and hasn’t shied away from being the lone dissenting vote on the council. With Portland’s public campaign financing dismantled, Fritz now has to raise private funds to keep her seat, which is also being sought by State Rep. Mary Nolan and Teressa Raiford.
Jake Thomas: You’ve run as a publicly funded candidate in the past. Now you’re running with private funds. There’s a perception out there, true or not, that if you run with private funds you’re beholden to private interests. As someone who’s done both, what do you make of that perception? How much influence does private money have?
Amanda Fritz: I remember when someone gives me $5, and I would certainly remember if someone gave me $5,000. I’m actually continuing to run with public campaign financing. Even though we don’t have the system in Portland, we still have the $50 tax credit, which you can take straight off your taxes each year. So that’s the limit I’m taking. I’m not taking money from corporations or other groups. It’s been really meaningful. It’s been really important to me to be the publicly funded commissioner who has to consider every one of our taxpayers and ratepayers as constituents, and it’s not that my colleagues don’t do that. It’s just that I don’t want to have a situation where one of my big campaign donors wants special access. So all of my big campaign donors are the citizens of Portland and everyone gets access to me in this office.
J.T.: So you’re hoping to not even create that perception?
A.F.: Right. So the flip-side to that is I need 3,000 $50 donations to raise the $150,000 I had with public campaign financing. So I need a lot of people to step up and send me their donation. If they don’t have $50, I would be very honored to get a thousand donations of $5. I’ve had people come to me when I’m in office with that real sense of pride that they made a difference, which they did. If I get more than 3,000 people wanting to give me $50. I’m not setting a ceiling for my campaign fund raising. It’ll be a huge challenge to get 3,000. The decision will probably be made in May with the primary. So people are starting to think, it’s November of next year, I’ll give money in the summer. No, I need people to give now. I need people to go to my website and give right now, which is www.amanda2012.com.
J.T.: You were in charge of the Office of Human Relations, precursor to the newly created Office of Equity and Human Rights. What sort of success came out of it, and what lessons did you learn from it that you’re hoping to bring to the current office?
A.F.: So the Office of Human Relations was very much community oriented and had a community focus. This new office is different. It’s definitely a collaboration between the community and the city staff, but it’s very definitely a city bureau responsible to the commissioner. I think some of the major successes are the New Portlander Program, which Polo Catalani is in charge of. The whole office of Human Relations was started by Mayor Potter, and I feel a great responsibility to continue his legacy. The staff and the work of the office didn’t really do much in terms of helping
city bureaus understand much in terms of equity and human rights and what bureaus need to do differently.
We saw the State of Black Oregon Report and the Communities of Color Report showing the horrible disparity that we have in our community. The mayor and I recognized that we needed to do something different from what we’ve done in the past. Community leaders and bureau staff all agreed that we need to start looking internally at what the city does, how our employees operate, how we spend billions of dollars of our budget every year, and we need to start being intentional as to what our bureaus do rather than expecting four people in a remote office to change the world. It has to be a partnership. So that’s the difference, but it’s definitely building on the Office of Human Relations and making it more integrated.
J.T.: Are there any issues in particular that you’re hoping to tackle with the new office?
A.F.: We agreed to lead with race and ethnicity as our primary focus and also people with disabilities. The race and ethnicity work has been done in the community with the research and the data, so we have a very firm foundation of where we start from so that we will be able to set some measurable benchmarks of where we need to get on a year-by-year basis.
The Portland Commission on Disabilities, which started during my first year of office, has done tremendous work looking at what’s needed for their community, but they haven’t had the assistance of staff to establish the data quite as well. So for the disabilities piece, it’s very clear that the first thing we need to do is research.
On race and ethnicity, one of the first things we’ll start doing is establishing an equity lens tool for the City Council. When I first started there was a financial impact statement that established what this costs, who is paying for it, where was that money allocated and what are the expected costs moving forward. In the past two years we’ve added the Public Involvement Advisory Committee’s recommendation to have a public involvement advisory statement so that every time something comes to council, the bureaus are required to say what public outreach was done and if the input made a difference. It’s trying to make it easier for bureaus that haven’t been engaged in inclusive public outreach. It’s really not rocket science. We can establish a Portland equity lens that will ask the right questions.
One of the things I’ve noticed from being on the council for almost three years is I think like a woman, I think like a nurse, I think like a mother. I’m the seventh woman on the City Council in 162 years, and it’s not that my colleagues on the council don’t want to consider issues the way I think about them, it’s just not what pops into their heads. But the more I start asking the questions, others are starting to ask these questions as well, in fact, taking the lead in some cases. We’ve only had two people of color on the council in 162 years, and it’s not that those of us who count ourselves as white allies want to ignore the questions that would be asked by communities of color, it’s just that we don’t naturally think about them, but we can be trained to do so. It’s not as concrete as some would like.
The State of Black Oregon showed that for African Americans, things are worse than they were 16 years ago. We’re not making any progress. We need to do things differently. We need to do things intentionally. We need to involve the community so we can find out what that means.
J.T.: The Portland Business Alliance questionnaire came out recently. You said you would consider a downtown urban renewal area. What criteria would you use to assess the creation of such an urban renewal area?
A.F.: Who pays, who benefits and is that fair. And is this going to be a wise use of taxpayer money? There’s no magic money created in an urban renewal district because it’s an agreement to use money that would go to other things to create development that in the long run will spur economic development that pays back. I’m waiting to see what’s being proposed. We don’t have that much land for urban renewal, so we have to be strategic. I’m definitely open to urban renewal districts. We are getting a lot more property taxes because we have a vibrant downtown, and there’s also work that needs to be done in the neighborhoods.
J.T.: How would you assess how urban renewal has been used in the past?
A.F.: I’ve asked for a comprehensive report on that. The auditor recently came out with a fiscal sustainability audit that questioned the amount of debt that the city has taken out for urban renewal that is paid back by current taxpayers. I asked at that work session for what the benefits have been. We had an assessment when we made the Airport Way urban renewal area. The numbers on that showed that a huge amount of property taxes were coming into the general fund because we made the investments there. But it’s very clear with Airport Way what we intended to do and what the outcome has been.
In government in general, we need to be much clearer about closing the loop and doing the report, doing the evaluation to find out if something worked. I ran three years ago promising to spend taxpayers’ money wisely, and that’s still the first thing I do when I look at anything on the council’s agenda. In order to be able to asses if they are spending taxpayer money wisely, I need to have all the information to make that decision.
J.T.: The affordable housing inventory in the city’s core continues to shrink despite a promise to preserve those units. Meanwhile, the waiting list for a low-income apartment remains very long or closed. What are your ideas to increase the amount of affordable housing for the lowest-income households in Portland?
A.F.: I’m actually working with Commissioner Nick Fish, County Chair Jeff Cogen and Commissioner Deborah Kafoury from the county. We’re looking at the issue of tax abatements and affordable housing. It’s a project called The Big Look, and we just had one of our sessions this afternoon. We talked about how everything in outer Southeast is pretty much zoned multifamily, but if we’re looking at creating entire communities we probably need to look at that zoning, and we also have to puzzle through the challenges of the East Portland school districts and the complexities of the larger units and the smaller units and the challenges of having these larger units with more kids and a smaller tax base and how that’s going to work out. This is the first step of refining taxes so they’re more clearly targeted toward what we want. I think that there’s a definite need to look at preservation of affordable housing. We shouldn’t be looking to build more because new stuff is more expensive than preserving old stuff in many ways. I opposed the Oregon Sustainability Center because it’s proposing to change land that is zoned residential for commercial and office spaces, and, as you say, we have a no net loss of housing policy. There’s no indication of how that’s going to be met. We shouldn’t be making decisions one at a time as if they don’t matter or don’t have a connection to the whole. So I voted against that because we need to understand how we’re going to save the housing units right now rather than somewhere down the line.
I don’t have particular suggestions for how to do that. If you have a particular bureau, you don’t have all the staff to advise on something like affordable housing. I know that Commissioner Nick Fish is working on that, and he is the expert on affordable housing. So I’ve definitely been one of Nick Fish’s most supportive partners on the council and been a dependable vote for him on affordable housing things he’s brought forward. But my role on the council at this time is different. So I would consider my role to be supportive. Commissioner Fish has been very congenial and collaborative about inviting me to work on planning and zoning issues, which have been my area of expertise.
J.T.: What ideas do you have for securing sustainable revenue for housing and homeless services for years to come?
A.F.: I would be supportive of a number of different options. I’m disappointed that the legislature hasn’t stepped up on the real estate transfer tax [that would generate money for affordable housing]. That was just a start, but it seems to me that when people sell their home that’s an opportunity to start building a significant amount of money that can be put into affordable housing. I’d consider a bond measure after the recession. Now is not the time to raise taxes or fees on pretty much anything. People are barely making ends meet.
There are a few silver linings to the recession. People have had to work together with these partnerships because we’ve discovered that by doing that we leverage each others’ strengths and support each other. We’ve also increased our volunteering and our understanding that we are all in this together.
I would like to be a part of the process that thinks big. Our city form of government tends to make each commissioner look out for their bureaus. We ought to be assessing the needs of each bureau and each program while asking about public priorities.
J.T.: How will you work with county and state to develop a better strategy for addressing the needs of people experiencing poverty?
A.F.: I have been very collaborative with the county, in particular. The particular piece of that for me has been working with people with disabilities, 50 percent of whom live below the poverty line, and in particular working with people experiencing mental illnesses, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed and impoverished.
I’ve started working with the police, the 911 system, the county and Cascade Behavioral Health on how we can take care of people experiencing mental health crises, so that police aren’t the first responders and when police are the first responders we can keep everyone safer, and we don’t have some of the tragic outcomes we’ve had in past years. The project is about halfway through, it’s a three-year project. We’ve made some changes in both police protocols and 911 protocols to begin dispatching people other than police to people feeling suicidal or homicidal, when it’s safe to do so. Of course it’s a very fine line. Keeping the public safe is probably the most fundamental priority of a city government. But then realizing that public safety and social services interact in a big way.
We in the city have provided funding for the county for both mental health professional services and also for law enforcement services through the county district attorney’s office so that when we have people on our streets who are needing services they can get them, and when we have people who are committing crimes against people, such as drug dealing and prostitution and other vice crimes that are really impacting people who live outside, there’s a reason for the police to make an arrest because there is going to be a consequence. Before we were funding those DA positions there was a decrease in the number of arrests and and an increase in the problems on the street especially in Old Town.
J.T.: What is the city doing right and what is it doing wrong in terms how it’s prioritizing the use of taxpayers money?
A.F.: I think we’re careful about cutting, but we’re not always as careful as we could be on what we spend. We’ve had a little bit of a surplus, and I would have preferred that we put it all away for the rainy day that has come around in just a year. We are not as careful as we should be in spending ratepayers’ money with Water Bureau and environmental services. That really has been one of my most significant challenges and most significant achievements in changing some of the policies.
But we need to do more. I think we have been strategic in things like the short-term rent assistance, which stops people from becoming homeless. We’ve been careful in continuing to provide money for community involvement, which again leverages volunteer time and dollars and helps people know that they’re not in this plight by themselves. It’s provided some community cohesion, which is hugely important. It also doesn’t show up on a balance sheet, but it will. One of my goals for my second term is that Portland becomes the number one volunteer city in America, we’re coming in two after Minneapolis. When Portlanders work together, and we show that we arec about each other that’s good for everybody, and that’s the kind of city we are. We also need to be able to show that in the budget.
J.T.: Every year public transportation gets more expensive and the free zone downtown gets chipped away steadily and is being threatened with elimination. What are you going to do to preserve the free rail zone?
A.F.: I did as much as I could. As you know, the city does not have any authority over TriMet. I went to testify when they were considering getting rid of the free rail zone and they had a transcriptionist there.
At the very least they should listen to how I think this is going to affect people; don’t give me a transcriptionist. I was very discouraged. The TriMet board is not elected; it’s appointed. I’d like to see some more accountability in TriMet and more accessibility so that people can feel part of the decision-making process. I will say that there’s been a degree of listening to people with disabilities who’ve been very concerned about the LIFT program. I recognize that TriMet has had
significant budget constraints. Because they rely on the payroll tax, I would like us to consider alternative funding for TriMet as one of the first things we do when we dig out of the recession. We’ve seen that during the recession that people rely more on public transit when they can’t run their car.