Mayor Sam Adams reflects on his time at City Hall and Portland’s future

by Israel Bayer, Staff Writer

Mayor Sam Adams has spent the majority of his life serving the City of Portland. Love him or not, Adams has helped build a foundation for Portland that will last well into the future. Street Roots recently sat down with Mayor Sam Adams for an in-depth, hour-long discussion about his leadership style, technology, poverty, cycling, the police and the future of the city we love.

Israel Bayer: What more are you working on through the end of your term?

Sam Adams: There is a lot. What probably is less known to most folks is that a lot of the projects that my team and I work on take years to come to fruition. Between now and the end of the year there is a lot on the docket because there has been a lot in the hopper for the past three or four years. This includes everything from coming up with a good, solid, meaningful plan to improve the Portland Police Bureau with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division findings, to getting council approval to make it exponentially cheaper for folks who live on gravel or dirt roads in the city to be able to pave their streets. Those are two bookends, but they are big issues, and there is a lot in between.

I.B.: Portland continues to reinvent itself. Where do you see Portland in the next 50-years?

S.A.: We’ve had a chance to put our fingerprints on the next 25 years with the Portland Plan. Portland has to become more prosperous. The strength of our economy does not match, for example, our quality of life. We have to become a more successful and stronger economy.

In the four years that I’ve been mayor, we went from losing 25,000 jobs a month in the region to being declared by Forbes Magazine, two weeks ago, as one of the top 10 hottest places for job creation. We still have a long way to go.

In the next 50 years we have to be one of the best-educated cities on the planet. For the same reason we need to be scrappier and economically viable, we need to be the inventors of products and services that people want to buy around the globe. You don’t have to go to college, but you do have to have a skill that people find valuable enough to pay you for.

We have to be healthier. This is a city, if you look at the numbers, that has the top-strata of Portlanders who are healthier than the nation as a whole. The bottom half is sicker than the average ill person in the United States. We have two cities when we talk about health.

We have to become a global city concerning equal opportunity. For several reasons, not only is it the moral and ethical thing to do, it matches our stated values to be a city that is equitable.

Right now, compared to Seattleites of color and San Franciscans of color, Portlanders of color are in a worse place today than they were 10 years ago, economically. We have made improvements in education, but economically, things have gotten worse.

If the issue of equity doesn’t move people on a moral basis, it should move you on an economic basis. We have to be one of the smallest, scrappiest cities in the nation to be successful. We are the 29th largest city in the United States. We have to fight above our weight class. We doubled our exports in the last 10 years. We are going to double our international exports in the next five years. No one is going to think of us an international city if Portlanders of color continue to fare so poorly. There are both great moral and economic reasons for us to be an equitable city.

The creation of the Office of Equity and Human Relations is one example. Twenty years ago, we had some of the worst air quality in the nation. We didn’t recycle, and we weren’t a bicycle city. We had some of the most numerous air quality violations. We put a plan together and we got to the Office of Sustainable Development. Twenty years later, we are leaders in the nation. We reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent in the last four years while we’ve become a hot place at creating jobs.

Budgeting and equity are one area that we are set up to do good things. For the first time, we’ve mapped geographically where they city’s money goes. Where we need it the most is the continued push on the equity front. We need to see equity brought to fruition, especially around race. It’s holding the city’s potential back. We have the Office of Equity and an initial strategy, but we are nowhere near being the city of equality that we can be. There are so many symptoms of inequality — poverty is suffered too greatly on the shoulders of folks in East Portland and of Portlanders of color. The fact that no city across the nation, much less Portland, has figured out ways to improve neighborhoods without gentrifying them is a challenge. Portland has never focused on equity in any serious, methodical, planned, accountable way. I would say that whomever is elected mayor, needs to focus on and strengthen the equity agenda. It will take care of many of the things we’re talking about here today.

So those are the four goals: prosperity, education, health and equity. They go together and they need to be worked together. The Portland Plan is how to get there. Build on it. There’s plenty of work to do, and plenty of space for new ideas to problems we have not solved.

I.B: What are the biggest challenges for the incoming mayor?

S.A.: The fundamental challenge is fewer resources than demand for programs and services. After that, it’s the fact that the city remains to have too great of a degree of an inequity of opportunity. That is why I focused on education. We don’t run the schools, but I made huge investments in education on behalf of the city. Even though we don’t run it, education is one of the great equalizers in our society.

I.B.: Talk to us about how you think social media and technology can be used for the common good as a public servant.

S.A.: What’s interesting right now, according to what I read, is the technology gap on text message availability. The economic gap, the race gap, around a piece of technology, which is text messaging and basic cell phones, has never been smaller. There is opportunity in that. It’s still tough and a big challenge.

We are trying to take advantage of that. Everyone in Portland is so wired up and very active on social media. I love it. I’ve worked in City Hall long enough to know that this is a bubble. What a great way to peak outside of the bubble and for others to connect with me as mayor by using social media. All of the social media I do, I do it in a two-way conversation.

“The Oregonian” likes to criticize me because they think that if I am active on social media I am too frenetic and I am not focused. That is the old-school media criticizing my direct relationship with my constituents. We are able to learn things real time about our city through social media.

I’ve been piloting using social media and before I leave, it will be the expectation of all the bureaus. For example, you will see us roll out much more robust Twitter expectations for individual police officers and the police bureau.

Too many politicians use technology and social media as just another way t push information out. I love the conversation with Portlanders.

I.B.: The technology world appears to be taking off in Portland…

S.A.: Yes, Portland competes not only on innovation in technology today, but also on values. We’ve done surveys, and yes it’s important for the tech companies and people to be successful and make money, but just as important is what they are developing for the common good. It’s a win-win to have real innovation being conducted by value-laden groups. We are cheaper, faster and for such a relatively small industry here, we have it all. We have the complete eco-system, especially for software technology and app-technology. We’ve worked on it, and it has been a targeted industry of ours. We have a strategy around it, it is a public-private partnership, and we are doing great things. I couldn’t be happier on this front.

I.B.: Watching the critics in the public denounce city government for strategically putting money into the cycling infrastructure, I think back to when the City of Portland decided to maintain Forrest Park instead of developing it. Seems like an investment in the future generations that will last for years to come.

S.A.: Yes, I can only imagine the debates that took place during that time. (Laughing).

Bicycling is strategic. I back cycling because it makes sense for the individual Portlander and for the city as a whole. Even if you never plan on getting on a bike, it makes sense for you as well. It’s less congestion for folks that have to, or want to, use a car. It’s less wear and tear on the road, which means that gas tax dollars go further because the roads will stay better, longer. It keeps people healthier, which has a positive impact on our health care premiums, if we are lucky enough to have health care.

On the an individual basis, it is oftentimes the fastest way to get from point A to point B.

That aside, I have made safety of all modes my top priority for the Department of Transportation. Despite all of the flash points and “Oregonian” critiques against bikes, by far most of our expenditures are going to the automobile-related aspects of our transportation system. My goal is to take a common sense approach with safety in mind.

That all being said, there is also the fact that, according to CEOs for Cities, which did an analysis of transportation costs for families in about a dozen cities across the United States. Portland families spent 20 percent less on transportation costs than comparable cities. Now that’s money that stays in individual families pockets. Not every trip is going to work for every person on pedestrian, bike or even transit. But the more people that it does work for, the less they have to pay on transportation for their individual households, which makes their household budgets, which are under stress now, more secure.

I.B.: Talk to Street Roots readers about police reform and the directions you see the bureau going in the next decade.

S.A.: Fully embracing the fact that whether we control it or not, whether folks on the bureau like it or not, the Portland Police Bureau needs to be viewed as part of the treatment system for folks that are suffering from mental illnesses or addictions.

We know that having so many people who are suffering on the streets is beyond the ureau’s control. We have to step up, both the police commissioner and a bureau and be more effective. We have to continue to help lead the community discussion to do better with the inadequate resources that currently exist for addiction, mental health and homelessness. We have to do better in fighting for more resources.

I am very optimistic with health care reform coming to fruition in the Tri-County area and with the Combined Care Organization strategy being led by Governor Kitzhaber and President Obama. It’s now called Health Share Oregon. These are the hospitals and health care providers; it is the county and now the city, with our fire and police, and first responders of AMR ambulances and others who are coming together under health care reform and creating a system, including the police bureau, that are considered a part of the treatment system. We have 28,000 mental health calls a year, thousands that are so serious that we have to take a person against their will to the hospital because they are a threat to themselves or to others. We need to do that in a way with less force.

I.B.: The city of Portland and Multnomah County offer more money than any other government body towards creating and maintaining affordable housing and offering services for people experiencing poverty in the region, or the state. What’s it going to take for the region and the state of Oregon to change the way they do business on the poverty front?

S.A.: Having a regional and statewide approach to the issues of affordable housing, access to housing, mass transit, mixed income neighborhoods and homelessness is critical. It has to be on a regional basis.

The fact is 40 percent of the population in Multnomah County and the City of Portland are spending 80 percent (twice the number of local dollars than we should be based on population). I have to admit that its frustrating when well-intentioned advocates for affordable housing and the homeless population, which I am a big advocate, only beat up on the City of Portland. I don’t mind them beating up on the City of Portland, that’s advocacy. Saying that, when was the last time advocacy groups put together a successful campaign and advocated in Washington, Clackamas, Clark County Commissioners, or Oregon City, Wilsonville, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Vancouver, Washington? Those communities have chosen not to spend local money on housing and homelessness. The money is there, it is just being spent on other things.

I’m hopeful that Sam Chase is going to do a great job at Metro as helping to educate the region on these issue. The majority of folks who are suffering economically should have the services and options throughout our region and not just in Portland.

I.B.: Both you and Commissioner Amanda Fritz have managed to do what very few electived officials over the past decade have been able to do — strike a balance on Portland sidewalks related to issues of homelessness and poverty. Saying that, it is thought with a change of leadership in Portland that there will be a strong push for the city to crack down on people experiencing homelessness, specifically on sidewalks. Are we striking the right balance, and what’s your advice to avoid falling into the same trappings that have historically plagued the community working on this issue?

S.A.: A couple of thoughts: One, I think it has been very corrosive to businesses and retailers downtown, to human service organizations and efforts downtown to have a decade of putting something out there on sidewalk management that then is ruled unconstitutional (sit-lie laws). You feel good about it for four to six months and then you are back to the drawing board. Whatever your view on this issue is, I think a lack of stability on this issue does detract from the core problems. How do we always improve downtown Portland for retail and business, while also doing our best to take care of folks that are suffering from illness or are hitting tough times?

I think we struck a balance with what we had, more importantly, we got off this cycle of seesawing back and forth that I witnessed in City Hall and in the community. This constant seesawing between well-intentioned groups is more corrosive and harder to deal with. It is more corrosive for business and for the folks social service programs are helping. I have worked two decades on this issue. Does that mean what we have now can’t be improved upon? I am not saying that, but if anyone thinks that the courts are suddenly going to view any other get tough scheme any differently than they have in the past, which is to rule it as unconstitutional, then I would say those efforts are wishful thinking.

I.B.: There are many people who believe that the visible homeless curtail business downtown environments. What’s your honest opinion on these issues?

S.A.: It definitely can. A certain percentage of people visiting or new workers traveling to downtown and in our neighborhoods are folks from afar and come from the suburbs. It can be startling.

There are also people out there who shouldn’t be on the street. We try to manage that situation based on reality. It’s also a reality that the state and federal government and the counties have cut the hell out of basic health services for those who are mentally ill and poor.

There are virtually no affordable addiction or recovery services in the city of Portland. There are folks that are untreated in terms of mental illness and are untreated in terms of addiction. I believe in personal responsibility, but there is also a collective responsibility. Plenty of people want to make an effort to have a better life and to get off the street who are having tough times.

My approach to governing and leadership is radical common sense. I can be tough and supportive simultaneously. When it comes to mental illness, addiction and folks that are suffering tough times or bad luck, the biggest misnomer among the general public is that that’s exactly what they want to be doing. We don’t give people much of a glimpse of how it could be better because we have cut the hell out of social services. We have a lot of work to do on this front.

I.B.: I don’t think people understand the pressure it must take both physically and mentally running an entire city. Not to mention constantly being under a microscope, while balancing varying viewpoints and interests. How do you internalize the work you do day-in and day-out?

S.A.: I am wired to see opportunities. My boyfriend jokes that when we go to see something like a house that may be viewed as a dump, I say, “No this is an opportunity!” My brain is just wired to always be thinking about new ideas.

I surround myself with smart people who have their own ideas. I delegate a lot. And I feel this great sense of responsibility. I try to be very clear with people.

I got involved in the government because I saw my mom, a high school drop out with four kids, hardworking, smart who made some bad decisions and had some tough luck, but ultimately wanted to make her life better for her and her kids. I saw how important government was. Things like food stamps, subsidized housing, etc., it allowed her to earn her high school degree and college education while raising four kids in a troubled marriage and then on her own.

At the same time, I saw and valued at an early age how the government, nonprofits and the faith community can help. I also saw how hard it is for somebody who is trying to make his or her life and community better and how government with the best intentions can sometimes stand in the way.

I take each day and the work I do very seriously. My roots are a kid from Newport, Oregon. I’ve been very blessed in my life, but I also have had to stand in line for paper food stamps and hold the place for my mom. I will never forget that and I do my best to govern with my roots.

Saying all of that, yes, this job can be incredibly intense. To see Portlanders shot and lying dead in our city, it’s heartbreaking. You go from this environment some days straight to a speech or ribbon cuttings in a couple of hours. This job can eat you alive, or it can make you a screaming banshee. You have to constantly work at stress management.

I am lucky. I have served eight years as a elected official and 30 years of service. For 22 years, I was a staff person. I never set out to be an elected official. I view this job and will continue until the last day of my term, as a great opportunity to help people and to serve Portland. Even on the worst days, it’s still a great opportunity. I’m not going to waste a minute of it. Portland has high expectations and very involved people. It’s the people of Portland who are the raw materials that make are city great.

One response to “Mayor Sam Adams reflects on his time at City Hall and Portland’s future

  1. What the mayor didn’t mention is that Portland has also become one of the 10 most expensive cities to live in under his rule.

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