June 16, 2005

Council Hears Testimony On PDC, Part One

Remarks By Randy Leonard And Don Mazziotti

First off, the headline of today's Oregonian piece seems at least slightly disingenous. "Leonard sidelines plan to abolish PDC," it reads, despite Commissioner Leonard having repeatedly characterized it as a sort of bomb-throwing conversation starter, and not as a cut-and-dried proposal of something we should be doing right here and now.

That said, while we sit around waiting to hear back about why we awoke this morning to find that Communique headquarters was without water, it's time to go through our rather dense notes of last night's Council hearing on the Portland Development Commission, prompted by the Leonard resolution to refer to voters the chance to abolish the agency in favor of an Economic Development Bureau.

But before we get into the more or less chronological rundown, we feel we should point out something said by current PDC executive director Don Mazziotti, but left out of today's Oregonian story.

While that article reports that Mazziotti did admit that misakes were made, and offerred his apologies, the longer form of one of his statements is this: "We've made mistakes [and] I'm sure there will be more that will be reported."

Make of that what you will. Now on to the rest.

Commissioner Leonard

"The purpose of tonight's hearing is to listen," said Leonard at the start. "I'm not going to ask the Council to vote on this resolution tonight because I think there has been a lot of good discussion in the community of late."

For his part, Leonard said that in his opinion, the PDC "has lost its way". He said that whatever the reasons for creating the agency as a semi-autonomous one, it had "evolved into an entity that is not ... accountable to the City Council." He said that when responding to people asking him why he had proposed changing the City Charter to bring PDC's functions into the purview of a new City bureau, Leonard explained that during hsi tenure at City Hall it had become clear to him that PDC needed a "cultural overhaul".

However, he added that more recently "my explanation has been muffled by the PDC making the case for me."

Leonard detailed a litany of his complaints against the agency, most of which he said were drawn from his own experience since coming to Council. They included claims that PDC never provided to himself and Commissioenr Saltzman a written budget during the recent City budget process, resistence encountered over the last two years as Leonard has tried to create language restricting the use of tax abatements, and a sense that PDC staffers "have not been cleared to answer questions" without first going through their superiors.

Leonard also recounted the latter sent by Council members to PDC asking the agency to open up its processes regarding the Burnside Bridgehead project to include more public participation, saying that they had been concerned that not only had not enough public involvement ocurred, but that much of it happened over the holidays when many people couldn't participate.

While the agency did appoint an evaluation committee for the Bridgehead proposals, Leonard said, whn they committee came back with a recommendation for one developer, the PDC ignored that and chose another one instead.

"That kind of activity," Leonard charged, "creates more cynicism among the citizenry than any other thing we can do."

Ultimately, Leonard said he was concerned that if he was having such difficulties in dealing with PDC as an elected official, "how must other people be treated?"

Leonard also cautioned against what we might call being overly wonkish when discussing PDC. "It cannot be lost on us that the everyday citizen is unaware of the nuance of the Charter that makes PDC a separate entity from the City," he said, explaining that if the PDC is "viewed by the public as wasteful, arrogant, and unaccountable" then by extension "so is the entire City."

That dynamic, he argued, can create a dynamic wherein citizens lose faith in government as a whole, and therefore are unwilling to support levies for things such as schools or parks.

"With this resolution," Leonard said, "I intend to set the stage for the City Council to answer the question one way or the other." Whatever the route towards reform, he said the outcome was not negotiable: "PDC will get on board with a citizen-centric approach."

Before turning the hearing over to testimony, Leonard stressed that his criticisms were not directed at PDC staff. "I commend the frontline staff of PDC," he said, crediting the work they do "on behalf of citizens every day". He added: "Where the PDC has been blamed for problems not of their making, I have not hesitated to defend them."

Don Mazziotti

When outgoing executive director Don Mazziotti rose to make some remarks before the hearing opened for public testimony, he invited Mark Rosenbaum (appointed to the PDC just last week) to join him. "I'll talk after I hear what the rest of the community has to say," Rosenbaum replied from the audience.

"By my appearance," Mazziotti said, "I'm not necessarily agreeing to what you've laid out." But he said that it was a "discussion worth having" and expected that it would continue into the forthcoming process to review the entire City Charter. He said he waned to first address the current environment at PDC, and then the specific proposal to abolish the agency.

Weeks of news coverage over contracting practices at PDC (or, "concerning a contract issue" as he put it) have caused "anxiety within and loss of credibility without".

"What it clear to me is that mistake were made," Mazziotti said, "and to the extent that the errors were due to poor management [or] inadequate controls ... I acknowledge that mistakes were made." (Note: That ellipsis is there because Mazziotti listed a third option after management and controls, but we missed what it was.)

As for those under his direct control, he said that he would "face them squarely and take responsibility for them." He apologized both for those mistakes "and others that might occur".

In what struck us, personally, as language that might have been lifted from one of those management consultants PDC has been gettingi n trouble for, he added: "Having said that, it's important to know that mistakes are opportunities in disguise." Past errors can be corrected, he said, and "having discovered the mistakes, we have taken steps."

(It should perhaps be noted here that PDC did not "discover" the mistakes, they got caught making mistakes by outlets such as The Oregonian and Willamette Week.)

"Our commission and PDC management are committed to finding and fixing the problems which have been written about," Mazziotti said. "We take the need for our crediiblity very seriously." The current environment, he said, impairs PDC's ability to do its work.

On the resolution itself, Mazziotti said: "I have a different view." He cited recent moves by the City Club of Portland to back his position. "The City Club, who I think by all accounts is an in-depth critic of the PDC," he said, "recently voted to reverse its 1971 position that the PDC be abolished."

Maziotti said that PDC's nature as a semi-autonomous agency "allows it to make good judgements based on the financial merits of the proposals."

He also cited PDC's relationship with other local and regional entities, saying that they consult with taxing jurisidctions before making any decisions to create or extend urban renewal areas "each of whom returns a portion of the valuation" on which urban renewal bonds are floated.

He said that when PDC asked such jurisdictions about creating a new urban renewal area, they said yes, and that when asked about extending the lifespan of the Downtown Waterfront Urban Renewal Area, they said yes to that as well. "We hope we're following the direction of our taxing partners," he said.

Note: Transforming the notes from this meeting is taking so damnably long that we decided to break this report into segments. Our intention was to end this installment with the final part of Mazziotti's remarks to Council. However, it's time for us to head off to the chinwag at the farmer's market, so we're cutting short this first part. What little remains of Mazziotti's remarks will start off the second part, which will also include remarks from City Club and public testimony.

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Comments (1)

  1. The One True b!X on 16 Jun 2005

    FYI, part two is coming, but I'm not even halfway through my notes yet, so it's going to take some time. But my goal is to get this done before tomorrow, when the City Club forum on PDC happens.

Trackbacks (2)

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  2. Another hard drive cleaned off on 18 Jun 2005

    The Portland Development Commission's chief financial officer has quit. No reason was given. Perhaps the pending investigations of the PDC's scandalous contracting practices have something to do with it. At least she didn't go with "spend more time wit...