Tom Potter, Mayor of Portland
from January 2005 to December 2008. (Photo © Chris Woo, 2004*)

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Portland Mayor invites citizens
to join him on a 30-year journey

By Brian Baker

20 September 2007: For Tom Potter, Mayor of Portland (Oregon) since January 2005, it might have turned out all differently. Potter could have been on the American national scene but his uncompromising support for lesbian and gay rights proved to be an obstacle to his appointment to lead the roll out of community policing across the US in the 1990’s. The Clinton administration had approached him to head its Community Oriented Policing Service initiative which aimed to have 100,000 new officers regularly on foot patrol across the country but backed away from the appointment when some in Washington DC thought Potter may be too controversial.

1 January 2009: Sam Adams started his term as new Mayor of Portland.

On 12 September 2007, his 67th birthday, Tom Potter surprised some by announcing he would not seek a second term. He gave no clear explanation for his decision, which was apparently made during a family holiday earlier in the month. However, he may have been influenced by Portlander's rejection of a proposed charter change to allow a ' strong mayor' system in the spring of 2007. Potter backed the change whilst several City Council Commissioners did not. Some of those may have contested the 2008 election with Potter.

Tom Potter used to be the chief of police in Portland. He has lived in the Oregon city since he was seven and joined its police service in 1966. He won the mayoral election by an overwhelming majority in November 2004 and took office in January 2005. Since retiring from the police service in 1994 he had been active in public service but had begun his campaigning in 2003 as an outsider. That campaign built momentum from the local communities upwards and he won the primary round despite spending less money than opponents.

During his 27 years in the police department, four of them in charge, Tom Potter was an innovator, notably of community policing and of coming down hard on bias and prejudice, and he is taking a similar approach as mayor. In 2006 he said in his state of the city speech audience that “we must re-kindle the spirit of working together for the common good.”

As mayor, Potter’s initial focus has been on making the city departments and its 5,200-workforce serve the city’s half million citizens better. He has introduced an internal innovation called the Bureau Innovation Project. Launched last year this has currently 20 work groups. It is intended to engage the whole workforce. Potter says “I believe the best solutions come from those most familiar with the problem.”

He set the innovation project off in April 2005 with four goals. These were to create a workforce reflecting Portland’s cultural awareness and rich diversity; to make every customer the most important customer; to eliminate silos and build a collaborative workforce with shared goals; to be in a position to make citywide decisions based on shared goals.

Looking outwards from city hall, Tom Potter has initiated Vision PDX (a name using Portland’s airport code) a city supported community initiative, which is engaging with as many residents as want to be reached, along with other stakeholders. The initiative aims to develop a 30-year strategic plan for the city. The city council provides the human and financial resources to make the initiative function and facilitate neighborhood discussion and action and engagement with people from all of the diverse communities making up the city‘s population. The mayor told his staff he wanted 100,000 people to connect with Vision PDX in the next year. They are said to be somewhat daunted.

There is a top down agenda too though. Tom Potter says “I want to make Portland a much more ‘intentional’ city. I believe the community vision project will be the most important thing l do as mayor. For that to be so, the community must join me in owning the process and the outcome.”

The mayor came in to office wanting city government to become better focused on serving the citizens and communities and to manage taxpayers money more efficiently.

He told the audience at his 2006 State of the City speech event that this could be achieved in part by being more transparent and accountable but on the big picture issues, notably the economy and education, it also required Portland to partner much better with the rest of the metropolitan region.

Potter became chief of police in Portland in 1988. He began to change the approach to policing in Portland, creating a ‘Chief’s Forum’ which drew together police officers, residents and businesses within city areas and establishing a Family Services Division. He invited Portland citizens to help the service to respond better to their needs. He doubled the training budget and required all officers to undertake rigorous programmes to re-enforce his strategies, which notably included setting up a bias crimes unit.

Earlier, as a precinct captain, he had proved partnering worked when he took a long-term approach to drug and prostitution problems in a north Portland neighborhood by supporting solutions devised by residents.

During his time as police chief he made a point of always walking in uniform in the Portland annual gay and lesbian rights parade. Some organisations in the city were critical. His ethical stance is re-enforced by a family connection. One of his daughters was the first openly gay police officer in Portland.

In 1997 he was interim executive director of Oregon Public Safety Training and Standards, an academy, which trains every police, fire and dispatch officer in Oregon except the state police but which had become embroiled in allegations of anti-Semitism which were upheld. Potter restored its reputation before moving on to be executive director of New Avenues for Youth, a nonprofit organisation, which helps the young and homeless.

Mayor Potter’s experiences there made a deep impression on him and led to one of his initial initiatives after taking up office. He set up a project aimed at ending homelessness in 10 years in the city. The main mechanism is to focus all the agencies involved in working with homeless people on the provision of permanent housing. It want to end the depressing cycle of street to shelter to street again which characterises the lives of most people affected by homelessness in Portland.

In March 2006 Potter became the first mayor in the US to include a blog on his website. Though content is edited the blog enables the mayor to have two-way conversational flow with the citizenry.

The mayor and council established an independent commission of citizens in late 2005 tasked to review its charter, the first time it’s been done comprehensively in 80 years.

Tom Potter affords very high priority to reaching out to other jurisdictions and to addressing collaboratively key economic and education policies which are critical for the future of the city region but which largely lie outside the statutory powers of the mayor or council.

On 31 May 2006 he told an audience of public officials and business people that our goals could not be met without a strong public education system. “One of my primary goals is to work for stable and adequate funding for them,” he said.

The speech marked the latest phase of a successful intervention by the mayor and the Chair of Commissioners in Multnomah County to stave off a financial crisis amongst the school boards serving the city. Potter and Commissioner Linn identified short-term sources of finance to ensure that children’s education was not affected by budget cuts in 2006/7. The shortfall was caused by the insufficiently robust funding system operated by the state.

It’s not just their education. Mayor Potter believes that the health and wellbeing of the city’s children is the primary benchmark of Portland’s progress and he is a prominent advocate of children’s rights.

Better co-operation with the other mayors in the metropolitan region has been a keynote of Mayor Potter’s first 18 months in office. He went to see his counterpart in Vancouver, Washington, the second largest city in the metropolitan region, during his first week in the job. Now, he is widening this approach by inviting all Oregon mayors to work together to effect changes at state level to benefit all cities.

Tom Potter intends to spend his final 16 months in office focussed on institutionalizing several of his initiatives and preparing effective transitions for others. One of his final new initiatives will be a series of events and classes aimed at equiping more citizens for contesting public office re-inforcing his central tenet that it is important to stimulate people to engage with the process of governance than with project based activism.

*The photo of Tom Potter was taken by Christopher Woo in downtown Portland in Janaury 2004.

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