Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Jul 31

July 31, 2020

Posted on July 31, 2020 at 4:12 PM by Nicole Bernstein

 This last week of Council meetings before the summer break was packed with time-sensitive decisions.  The week opened, however, with reaction from another night of violence in our downtown last Saturday.  Chief Skinner, Councilor Evans and I all spoke at a Monday morning press conference.

Our message is this: we are aware that specific groups of people seek to hijack the legitimate, peaceful protests in support of Black Lives Matter through these violent, destructive rampages through our downtown.  We will continue to work with the peaceful protesters to address their concerns about police reform, equity and justice in our community; and we will continue to support our Chief and his department in their work to hold criminals accountable for their behavior.

It is critical at this time that we not blur the line between legitimate calls for reform and illegitimate vandalism and destruction.  I reiterate my statement on Monday:  we will not be deterred from doing the good work we need to do in addressing structural racism.  Our Police Chief will not be deterred from his commitment to protect our community, to reform police policies, and to learn from and improve the performance of his department in responding to destruction and the threat of violence.

I will summarize briefly the long list of actions in Council this week:

Council approved the proposed allocation of Federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) funding through the Community Development Block Grant program.  The lions-share of the almost $840,000 allocation will go to Housing Assistance, Homelessness Prevention, Direct Rent Assistance and Homeless Services ($720,000) to help people survive the profound impact of COVID on housing stability and support services to meet the needs of the homeless.

Council also approved its first allocation of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF), our local revenue stream supported by the Construction Excise Tax.  In July 2019, Council had directed this advisory committee to review and recommend where and how to dedicate the majority of these funds to direct assistance and homebuyers.  In the intervening year, we have had a pandemic that has deepened housing instability, but also received significant federal funds through the CARES Act to address that instability.  With this in mind, the AHTF advisory committee had recommended that funds should be directed for the purposes identified in the original CET ordinance – to help the city increase the supply of housing that people can afford.  In Monday’s meeting, Council opted for a middle path, directing $500,000 toward direct assistance to renters and homeowners at risk of losing their housing; and $300,000 toward investments in housing development.

Council also considered two possible levels of a continued local option levy to support library services.  The original five-year levy expires at the end of this year and was supported by voters to maintain and restore library services for which General Funds were insufficient.  Council opted for a levy amount that reflected the lower cost, lower level of program support out of concern that taxpayers are struggling in the economic recession.  The levy will appear on the November ballot.

After a robust Monday night forum in which 60 people signed up and about 45 had time to testify, Council voted on three additional items.  First, Council approved the four recommended nominees to the Police Commission.  These new commissioners bring welcome diversity to the commission and include Black and LatinX community members with an array of expertise and experience.

Second, as the Urban Renewal Agency, Council considered their options for adjusting how Urban Renewal revenue should be allocated to three projects: The Farmers’ Market, Park Blocks and the former LCC building at 1059 Willamette.  Council voted to shift funds in order to complete the Farmers’ Market project, including improvements to the plaza and construction of the year-round building; leave some funds available for minimal improvements to the Park Blocks, including restrooms; and the retain the potential for some capital improvements to several other downtown open spaces.  The City has applied for federal funds to support the Farmers’ Market project and if that is awarded it will free up Urban Renewal funds for the other projects.   The Farmers’ Market is a key element in our economic recovery plan.  The former LCC building was purchased by the City in April using federal CDBG funds in order to replace that building with an apartment building including both affordable and market rate housing.  The city expects other opportunities to fund that project will be available. 

Finally, on Monday night Council engaged in a late, long discussion of STAR voting.  Advocates for Score Then Automatic Runoff Voting (STAR) were frustrated in their effort to qualify to put their initiative on the ballot because of the number of disqualified signatures.  There is no recourse to contest that determination; and they asked Council to refer the initiative to the ballot on their behalf instead. The proposal would apply to city elections for Mayor and Council only.  Staff provided insight into the implications and costs.  Council’s discussion revolved solely around whether or not they were willing to refer this to the ballot – there was little discussion about whether council supported this potential charter change in how local officials are elected.  It was a tie that I broke in opposing referral to the ballot.  My reasoning is this:  Council is a policy making body; and when necessary and appropriate, we refer our proposed policies to the ballot.  When we do so, it is because the majority of councilors endorses it.  We don’t refer measures to the ballot on which we are either neutral or that we oppose.  In this case, Council did not at any point indicate support for the charter change itself.  I don’t believe it is an appropriate use of our role as policy makers to refer something to the ballot which we are unable, unwilling or simply haven’t taken the time to endorse.

And the week was not yet over.  We had a joint meeting with the County Commissioners on Tuesday to review the TAC Homeless Services Assessment and Shelter Feasibility Study in light of lessons learned through COVID and the changing landscape.  In sum, the numbers of homeless are larger due both to COVID and the shift to a by-name count than those numbers used in the TAC study; and our concerns about immediate shelter now and going into the winter also call on us to look at the whole demand for emergency, alternative and transitional options beyond the scope of the TAC report.  The humanitarian crisis is clear to all of us; and new opportunities are opening because of local activism, state and federal investment, and legislative authority for siting.  There will be a lot of action on this issue even through Council’s break.

Closing out our week, on Wednesday, Council approved the details of the City Manager’s contract; reviewed the status of the franchise agreement negotiations with NW Natural; and approved the Climate Action Plan 2.0.

The only contentious issue of these three was the NW Natural franchise discussion.  Council voted 6-2 to extend the current franchise by another six months in order to give staff time to try to come closer to agreement.