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Monday, August 11, 2008

Portland: The City That Pays People to Pretend To Listen While The Mayor's On Vacation

Posted by Matt Davis on Mon, Aug 11, 2008 at 12:24 PM

In a city where people are paid to listen, but the real power brokers never have to show up, let alone open their ears, you have the illusion of public involvement. It's an insult to all of us, and we should all speak out. Mayor Tom Potter can talk all he likes about "involving the community," but in my opinion, he's just the Portland Business Alliance's bitch on public safety issues. For some reason, the PBA's boosters have persuaded Potter that it's more than his job's worth to stand up for the homeless, or keep open an old convenience store that prevents them marketing a new branch of Brooks Brothers to Portland's would-be tourists.

Now this afternoon at 3pm, the mayor's Street Access For Everyone Oversight committee, at which Potter, personally, has not appeared one single time since its inception last year, is holding an official "listening session" for two hours, to hear about the community's response to the controversial sidewalk obstruction ordinance, at the First Presbyterian church on SW 12th. The session will be facilitated by the mayor's public advocate, Jeremy Van Keuren, who has been trained by Portland's facilitator extraordinaire , Judith Mowry, about whom I have written here, before. She's the person Portland government brings in after everything's fucked up, and it wants someone to pretend to listen while the disgruntled citizens blow off steam. She's a paid "listener." Whether it's public art, gentrification, street renaming, or hell, even what happened to New Orleans, Mowry's usually there with a flip pad, a talking piece, and a patronising holier-than-thou attitude. And until she was hired by the city, an invoice, too.

But not today. Fortunately, the dwindling mayor's office has decided that Van Keuren, who strikes me as a sincere person, not only because he showed up last Thursday night to the truth commission at Sisters of the Road cafe, should lead the discussion. Obviously Potter had a prior engagement. Yep, according to his schedule, he's on vacation.

There will most likely be no appearance this afternoon from the chief architect of the sit/lie ordinance, the Portland Business Alliance's vice president for downtown services, our city's private mayor, Mike Kuykendall. I say again: I would be surprised if he showed up. Because he doesn't get paid to listen to people complain, and from watching him over two years, push this ordinance through, I've rarely seen him do anything that didn't appear to be motivated by advocating on behalf of his paying constituents. So Van Keuren is paid to listen on not only Potter's, but also, Kuykendall's behalf.

Second prediction: This afternoon's "listening" session will be broken down into small groups, to avoid the possibility of confrontation. Never mind that the issue is inherently controversial, the deck is rigged against people expressing their outrage. Instead, small groups of already dis-empowered individuals will be required to say how bad they feel, while people take notes and later, "report back" to the group.

"What I'm hearing you say," Van Keuren will have to respond, "is that you think the ordinance is unfair and unconstitutional, that it targets homeless people for special treatment, and that you want it suspended."

"Yes," the reporter will say.

"Thanks for your input," Van Keuren will be paid to respond.

Then, we'll see a report back to council in September, where the reservations of the people affected by the ordinance will be "listened to" by a reverent council paid to pretend they care. Then Kuykendall will say how good the ordinance has been for downtown, and how, really, the sit/lie ordinance is good for Portland, and council will renew it. Because money talks louder than any man. Even in Portland, Oregon. For shame.

Well, I'm not listening. There's an article in this morning's Eugene Register Guard that challenges Oregonians to reconsider the Old West's rich history of boosterism with a new sense of reflection that moves beyond blind hubris. I'd encourage those involved in the SAFE process to read it. And think about what it might mean.

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