Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Erik Sten Interview: Part Two

If you read the first part of our talk with Portland Council candidate Erik Sten, welcome back for more. If you missed it, or if you want to remember where he left off, it's clickable just a few words ago. The caffeine had begun to kick in and Sten began parsing his words less, clearly enjoying the opportunity to put up his side, and speaking in almost conspirital tones at times, as if to say "here's something for you" (he did actually come through with some unpublished info on the tram and VOE, as you'll see).

When we left Erik, he was telling us about Jim Francesconi trying to BS the Lair Hill residents that the tram was a win-win for them. Sensing that his long twitch mental muscles needed the workout, I now tried to bog him down in the budget. Mayor Potter's 10 page proposal summary had been out for a couple of days, and I asked him what he thought of it. Remember, this is what detail-challenged Sten is supposed to suck at:
If all I was afforded was an up down vote, I'd be an enthusiastic up. [Potter] took almost all the recommendations that Randy and I made from our team. There are a couple of things that are real sticklers for me on the Fire Bureau. I'm not willing to wait on opening Station 27. I made a budget proposal for PDC's budget. Randy and I reviewed PDC's budget and I made 5 or 6 things, what for me are really critical proposals, and he hasn't released PDC's budget yet, so to me that's the big one.

I'd like to see some money from PDC for schools. PDC's about to put $6 million into a relatively high end condo project where Jasmine Tree is, around 4th and Lincoln. I want to cancel that project and put it into saving a couple of the Clay Towers, which are very affordable units about to be sold on the market over by Portland State. I've got some PDC issues; general fund I think is generally on track.
He then speaks directly to the charge of a detail deficit, when I ask him about people who point to things like the Water Bureau as a dysfunction of managerial attention:
I think people who disagree with your priorities tend to go after your vision, and they sort of work a logically false argument that if you are interested in major systems change and new models like publicly owned utilities, that you therefore aren't paying attention to the details. I don't think that holds up to scrutiny. In my case because I was in charge of the Water billing system, there's a great political argument: "he's trying to make big change at PGE, and that's why they messed up the water billing system." And that's not true.
Before asking some specific budget questions, I asked Sten how he felt about the new budget review process, where two 'uninvolved' commissioners hold a line by line hearing with Bureau managers, and then make recommendations to the mayor. It was frankly one of the few practical ideas I'd seen implemented by a Potter administration, and I thought it helped identify trimmable areas when times were bad financially. Sten agreed:
I was skeptical, because Randy was pitching it as a legislative model, and I haven't seen much good coming out of Salem. But I actually think it's a huge improvement, and here's why: I do generally like the commission form of government; I'm not particularly an ideologue on form of government. I think you make forms work. It has fixed what I found to be the most difficult flaw--not flaw--but one of the most difficult setups in our government, which is: during budget time you have to be both the watchdog for your bureaus and the advocate for them. It's difficult to be both.

This setup allows you to have two of your colleagues scrutinize the bureau--not that you don't look at it hard--but they scrutinize it. What we're seeing is more things being cut by the two than any commissioner in charge ever did, more of the hard cuts, and then the commissioner in charge is able to come back in and say, I've concurred with all the cuts that were beyond what I proposed.
An underreported part of Sten's profile (considering he only has two Bureaus) is the Fire Bureau, a major part of the City's budget at over $100 million including Fire's part of the Disability and Pension programs. Sten talked about how the bureau, beset by cuts in 9 of the last 11 years, would fare in fiscal 2007:
The Saltzman add [from his budget review--ed] in this proposal is not to open [Station 27, in the far west of the city] until January 1st which saves basically 100 grand a month, so it's about a $600,000 savings. I'm saying no. People have been waiting a long time up there for a fire station. It's the one place in town where I think truthfully property and lives are at risk because of potentially delayed response. I just can't support keeping that station empty.

The mayor's resisting, it's just a nuts and bolts budget, but if I can't convince him I'm going to go in for three votes and he's left to try and get em. He's left $2.7 million of the one time money unspent in his proposed budget, and that's because he wants to keep a reserve and that's prudent. That's beyond our city reserves, we have a 10% reserve, and if we can't come up with a way to fund it [the station], I'm going to try and get two other votes to just get it out of that---it's not the reserves, it's just the unspent money. [What about Station 45, on the opposite side of the city and shared half the year with Gresham?] That's all permanently funded. There's an increase in fire inspection fees by about 40 bucks that will get plowed all back into the bureau, and primarily fund our apparatus and other things. So it's a good budget for Fire.

I'll never get any credit because everybody likes Fire, but I'm proud of the work with Fire. I think we've done a great job on labor-management. I think that morale matters, I think we've gotten people focused, we're getting better performance with the same amount of dollars, we've built support for more dollars, and we're pushing for what's in the next round. We haven't had any challenges like the billing system, but I think my time there when you dig into it is going to show that I've actually been doing the work that people claim I don't do.
With Fire seemingly under smooth control (and him having brought up the "billing system challenge,") I asked whether his performance with Fire was enough to fairly contrast with perceptions about the Water Bureau episode:
What I try to do with Water as much as I can is tell the full story of what happened while I was there. I took full responsibility for the mistakes, fired the director which wasn't fun because he is a good man, and made sure that I was always on every news station as a spokesperson...which I don't think too many political people would have done, because I owned it. The six years I ran the water bureau, including the years after the mess, the average residential increase was 1.9%, less than inflation. We recovered the 7 million from the computer company, we apologized to everyone, we gave a 20% discount to folks who experienced inconvenience, charged no interest, and the 28 million that's always described as a loss was unpaid bills that Portlanders didn't pay. The actual costs we got back from the company.

I don't say that to be defensive, but to say that there's a lot of fact and myth out there about that one. We collected about 450 million in billing during the time period that we lost the 28; that's 6 or 7 percent loss of revenue because of a major computer debacle. We cut 40 positions and didn't pass that on. PGE spent 100 million on failed political computer systems. Now they didn't turn it on, so they didn't have the customer relations problem that we had because we turned it on.
Switching gears, but staying on top of Sten for things he has endured heavy criticism for, I asked what he thought of "voter-owned elections" at the end of the primary round, and what changes he'd support:
I would be comfortable going to registered voters. I would be comfortable providing whatever the most logical proof of payment for the $5 would be. We [the Sten campaign] kept close receipts on everything, and we sent everybody a thank-you letter.

The thing is with this investigation [into possible signature gathering violations], they'll know within a half hour of looking at their books whether or not the $5 was collected. To some extent I think the argument "[Boyles] gamed the system" is running out of juice. It's going to haunt her the rest of her life. It's a terrible mistake that she made. I think the auditor's office should have not qualified her. If the things that are alleged prove to be true, they should have caught those before they qualified her...I might want to revise it and say that it's possible they shouldn't have qualified, let's wait and see what the facts are. They will be scrutinizing it very closely.

I think it's actually a mistake that only the opponents can complain. I couldn't see anything...but only myself and the other candidates were allowed to challenge the petition, and I think that was a mistake. I think there's a fair amount of things that can be tuned up.
I asked how VOE may have changed the way he campaigns:
Well we wouldn't be talking, I'd be raising money. There's no way we would spend an hour talking issues. I spent the last couple evenings, last couple nights calling voters, going to events. It's better than I expected, and I know people would expect me to say that like I'm selling it, but I really mean that.

There's a large chunk of the population who pays attention to issues, that are completely turned off to politics because they correctly think the system is broken. They're sort of rightfully cynical about everything. And I think a pretty big chunk of those folks are willing to take a look at this. The thing that blew me away, that I'm really happy about and proud of, is I collected about 1,300 $5 contributions. I signed a letter to every single person, and I didn't recognize 800 of the names. In every other race I've ever run, I knew everybody who gives me 50 bucks, up to 15 thousand. So people are getting involved in this that were not involved. I met a guy who runs a hostel in Northwest, said "I sent the 5 bucks in, I love this and I want to be on your list of business supporters."

It's engaging people that were not engaged. Anybody who tells you that they're running for office raising huge money, and they're not worried about trying to explain themselves in a way that doesn't piss off big funders, is lying. I no longer have a calculation anywhere in there. People are scared to be honest that campaign contributions affect their thinking, but of course they do. It's like saying your boss's preferences don't affect what you're doing at work. The other thing that happens is that when you spend all your time raising money, you start thinking the issues that people who give checks are concerned about, are more important than they are.
Erik had more to say about VOE and Ginny Burdick's attacks on him for it, a deal on the tram undone by a fellow commissioner, the role of Council in City schools, and his old foil Vera Katz. All that and free puppies for everyone under 10, on Friday...