Monday, February 13, 2006

Interview With Amanda Fritz for Portland Council (Pt 1)

In my piece on Portland City Council candidates working towards receiving full public funding, I noted that the first to qualify was Amanda Fritz, a British-born psychiatric nurse from Southwest. Having seen favorable but relatively brief pieces in the Willamette Week and Mercury that concentrated mostly on her novelty status, I wanted to find out a little more about what she was actually running for.

I admit a personal bias against Commissioner Saltzman, her chief opponent for Position 3. I think he tries to slow things down in chambers, and brings up tentatively researched questions that make him look 'involved' but only seem to irritate the people he's asking. His profile on Council is the guy who has no profile. So naturally, I had some interest to see whether this was mostly an anger vote ("not Saltzman,") or a more principled campaign. During the course of exchanged questions and answers via email*, and a followup visit that shut down the local Peet's (OK, we did get there an hour before close on a Sunday evening), one of the first questions I asked was "why Saltzman and not Sten?"
There were a number of factors in the choice. Sten and Saltzman are the only two up for election in May, and I believe the time is now to add someone like me to diversify the makeup of the Council. Although we don't elect our Commissioners by district or for particular bureau assignments, I believe there's value in keeping a range of life situations and skills in the group of five. Saltzman lives in SW and his educational background is in environmental engineering; I live in SW and mine is in biological sciences, so we're both science-oriented. Erik lives in NE and has experience in affordable housing I can't match. Plus, Erik was one of the main proponents of Voter Owned Elections, and it was clear he truly supports it.

In terms of management style, Saltzman’s management fiasco with attempting to reorganize Neighborhood Associations without a basic understanding of what they do and how they operate, and the policy choice of proposing to cap the reservoirs with inadequate public input, are part of the reason I chose to run for Commissioner # 3.
Well, from that answer it's clear she's not running as the vendetta candidate. Her holistic view of the council body was revealing, and it doesn't hurt that Sten supports her use of public money, and Saltzman doesn't.

I asked Amanda to be more specific about the ONI problems. Part of Saltzman's bureau bailiwick was once the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, a coalition of city quadrant groups that coordinate nearby neighborhood associations. (Mayor Potter oversees it now.) As 'bureaus' go, however, ONI has a unique position: drawn into districts, a majority of coalitions are funded and run by non-profit organizations, one is funded by the city but controlled by a non-profit. It's a bottom-up organization by design, allowing the information about residents' concerns to be collected and conveyed in a coordinated manner to Council. In a somewhat bizarre power grab of sorts, Saltzman attemped a paradigm shift and requested district offices to "re-apply," as if the City had some say over their governance. For long time activists like Fritz who see the neighborhood associations as crucial tools for citizen governance, Saltzman's structural misunderstanding of the issues rankled.

Portland is a place rife with community activists; it is both part of the positive vibe and charm of the city, and a source of humor sometimes at the eagerness with which Stumptowners will discuss and rediscuss something for years, without getting the project done. I'd wager few have been as dilligent and ultimately successful in their area of focus as has Fritz. A union steward and member of a successful OHSU nursing strike, her list of off-duty accomplishments is even more impressive. From working for the establishment of several local parks and unspoiled areas, to mentoring and volunteering at Markham Elementary (including grant writing and the establishment of an annual World's Fair at the school), you'd think there was no time left for the Salvation Army and leading a prayer group--but apparently so.

Clearly then, if anyone was up to the challenge of soliciting action from 1,000 residents of the city it was Fritz. But in an indication of how high Council set the bar for qualification, even Fritz found the process difficult to achieve:
The process of collecting the 1000 contributions reminded me how dependent we are on each other. I could not have done it by myself. About 100 people helped solicit donations, and we collected from 90 of the 95 neighborhoods, from Linnton and St Johns to Pleasant Valley, and from Wilkes and Russell to Far Southwest and Ashcreek. It helped me realize how much support I have from all areas of our city, and how much citizens can accomplish when we work together.
I asked whether the experience had taught her anything about herself, or the people she talked to in order to get the signatures and contributions:
One of the advantages of being a 47 year old mom, who had plenty of time to think while walking the picket line for 56 days outside OHSU, is that I already know what I stand for. Over the course of seven years on the Planning Commission and over 15 years as a neighborhood activist, I've seen how often “regular folks” are left out of the benefits the city can bestow. So I know I stand for neighborhoods, and children, and parks, schools, and all the other things that can make life in Portland wonderful if accessible or miserable if not. And I decided before running, that I'm not going to change who I am or what I stand for in order to entice more people to vote for me.

It was interesting to visit with people in houseparties all over the city, and hear issues come up over and over. I heard much more support for public power/public ownership of PGE than I'd expected, for example. In some ways, the process most clearly highlighted how much citizens want to engage in thoughtful debate on city matters, and that they are very capable of understanding complex issues if someone takes the time to visit where they are, and explain the pros and cons.
We talked a little further about voter-owned elections from a logistical perspective. Fritz took none of the potential $15,000 of 'seed money' available to her for collecting the 1,000/$5,000 in order to qualify, seeking to go the whole nine yards and not take any money beyond the qualifying $5 per person. It was truly retail--she calls it participatory--campaigning. It's the kind of effort burden that is expected to discourage clown candidates (my word, she hastened to point out as she read my notes upside-down) from getting public funds on a joke candidacy. She agreed that long term funding was a concern for VOE, and suggested soliciting extra or future donations available to feed an endowment for supporting candidates. But otherwise, she is a strong supporter of the program.

Given her sensitivity to the makeup of the Council, I asked about how she viewed the governing structure of the body, specifically what some call the "weak-mayor" system, where the mayor has no special voting or scheduling power over the other commissioners. I also asked what ideas of the others she admired and favored:
I don't agree entirely with your first statement that Mayor Potter is finding limitations in the "weak mayor" form of government. And even if he is, I think it's good that alliances and cooperation are necessary, especially if the Council has adequate representation for folks who haven't been and should be part of the decision-making process. Nobody has all the answers, and often a proposal gets better when augmented to please an opposing viewpoint. To answer your question, though (yes, evidently I'm new to politics – as I will actually answer the question):

Tom Potter - I'd love to help figure out how to involve more citizens in participating in government. I've been doing it successfully for 15 years with a wide variety of citizen groups and individuals. I bring the know-how to help ensure that participation occurs – and so do RESULTS.

Erik Sten - I've worked in inpatient psychiatry for 23 years. I want to help with the 10 Year Plan for homeless people, particularly in the realm of siting, staffing, and monitoring group homes in the community so they work better for both the residents and the neighbors.

Sam Adams - I appreciate the central role of small businesses in Portland, and like Sam, I will assign liaison responsibilities to the Neighborhood Business Associations from all my bureaus, and look for ways to promote and support small businesses. I'm especially interested in promoting closer collaboration between Business Associations and Neighborhood Associations.

Randy Leonard - Randy promised when he supported Dan Saltzman's cut in the utility franchise fees, that saved homeowners 10 cents a month while giving huge breaks to commercial users and resulted in a $3m cut to general fund programs including parks, that he would find a way to restore the revenue. I look forward to supporting him in implementing that promise.
Catch that last one? That's less an offer of assistance, more of a threatened accountability moment. And while there's no need to be nasty, an impetus for change is often best justified by the inadequacy of the current officeholder. So I tested Fritz's nose for the jugular, looking for her to back up some of the rhetoric: Your website describes you as someone who will represent neighborhood and citizen concerns, apparently in contrast to how you view the current Council. For the record, do you believe all five Commissioners are inadequately responsive to neighborhoods and individuals in Portland?
I think the current five commissioners try to be responsive to neighborhoods and individuals. That's part of the problem - they are responding, rather than knowing the issues from personal experience from the ground up. I want to be the citizen representative on the Council - the one who advocates for the neighborhood viewpoint after the testimony is closed. The one who's worked on neighborhood projects all over town and knows the challenges faced by citizens trying to participate in their government.

To give one simple example, on the Planning Commission I always asked the staff and other commissioners to schedule meetings in the evenings when we expected citizen testimony, because more citizens can attend meetings at 7 p.m. than at 2 p.m. A little thing, but it makes a big difference to who can participate. I just received a Spirit of Portland award, given by the Council to honor citizen volunteers. It was scheduled at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, so my husband had to take off work and I had to get my kids out of school early, in order for them to be able to attend. When I'm on the Council, I'll ask for more use of the evening sessions that seem to have dropped off the schedule.
Of course, many a populist's campaign has bred success, which breeds complacency and the eventual adoption of the previous culture. If Fritz's calling card and strength is her ear to the ground, how will she maintain that edge as a commissioner? Fritz pledged to continue going to neighborhood meetings on top of the rest of her scehdule; setting up email forums/bulletin boards on specific issues for citizen feedback; and the promotion of issue debates in an outreach fashion. Too often in the City currently, she says, input is solicited and received, but often not acted on. Fritz pledges to actually "do something with it."

[As you can tell, we found lots to talk about. In Part II, we discuss more of Amanda's specific policy recommendations, her thoughts on some recent issues before Council--yes, including the tram--and where she finds satisfaction in her adopted home.]

*emailed answers are reprinted verbatim and indented. Personal answers are best-effort paraphrased