PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland is about to switch to an entirely new form of government, following a charter reform plan that voters approved last November. The transformation won't happen in earnest until January 2025, when the winners of the November 2024 election take office as the first mayor and city councilors under the new system. But there's an enormous amount of preparation that must take place first, and it falls to the city's current mayor and commissioners to oversee that work.
Commissioner Dan Ryan was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk to discuss that process, as well as his thoughts on the decision to end the city's sole-source contract with the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and the city's ongoing efforts to resolve its homelessness crisis through projects like Safe Rest Villages and mass sanctioned campsites.
Ryan currently oversees Portland Parks and Recreation, along with the Office of Community and Civic Life, the Office of Equity and Human Rights and the Portland Children's Levy. He marked his third year in office this week; he was elected in 2020 to serve out the remainder the the late Commissioner Nick Fish's term and won a new four-year term in 2022, although that term will be cut short by the government transition that Portlanders approved in the same election.
Ryan's fellow commissioner Mingus Mapps was a guest on Straight Talk last week, in part to discuss his recently-announced campaign for the Portland mayor's office in 2024. Rumors have suggested that Ryan could be weighing a similar move, but when asked about it this week, he said he hasn't ruled it out but it's too soon to make a decision.
"I am 100% committed to being a public servant that's completely focused on the work right now," he said. "I think it's so important that as the city battles with, I would say, multiple urgencies that have us in a state of emergency, we need to act like it. So for me, it's about staying focused on the new work. Since we don't have a primary in this new form of government, I don't see the reason for campaign season to start this early. So I will make my decision right away in January of 2024."
New government structure
Portland Chief Administrative Office Michael Jordan released a draft plan this week outlining in detail how the new city government will be organized and function. The plan will be submitted to the current council for approval in October following a public feedback period.
Ryan praised the work of Jordan and other city staff to develop the plan, but said he was concerned that three of the five designated work areas in the plan — finance, operations and public works — would function better if they were consolidated down to two. He also argued that some other areas need greater attention, and said he'd work with the other commissioners to try to amend the plan.
"I do think that we're missing out on parks and arts and the children's levy," he added. "I think that those external children-and-family-focused activities should be in their own work area. It's very important that the city really focuses on families — it's going to be really important for the city to stay strong and rebound and be a significant, relevant city in the future. Once you lose your family population, it's really hard to bring a city back."
Ryan was previously in charge of developing Portland's Safe Rest Villages, offering temporary tiny houses for homeless Portlanders, and he expressed pride that the villages are up and running, declaring that he didn't want to "keep adding more policy that won't be implemented." The village program has continued to function alongside Mayor Ted Wheeler's more recent initiative to create larger sanctioned campsites.
"What we're seeing is some great early results," he said. "One, we have over 500 people that are safely sleeping tonight, when you combine the seven Safe Rest Villages — one more than promised — coupled with the sites that the mayor and I co-sponsored, which will probably be under the same umbrella eventually."
Early results are showing that more than 50% of people who stay in the villages eventually land in permanent housing, he said, with an average stay of between six and nine months.
He also talked about being in charge of the Bureau of Development Services earlier in his term, where he focused on trying to streamline and speed up Portland's permitting system, often cited as a roadblock to building more housing in the city. He said those early efforts helped lay the groundwork for a new plan to consolidate permitting under a single office next year.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.