In fairness to Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, the state legislator I criticized last week for wasting time on federal issues, she’s hardly the only local lawmaker misrepresenting her constituents this way. The Portland City Council does it all the time.
For example, in 2007, the council tied itself into knots debating a resolution calling for the investigation and eventual impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. That resolution failed by a vote of 4-2, with two councilors absent and a third, Cheryl Leeman, the lone Republican on the council, having left the chamber in protest prior to the vote.
Bush and Cheney had apparently been unswayed by a resolution the council passed in 2003 opposing the invasion of Iraq. That one passed, 8-1, with Leeman opposed. The council’s 2010 resolution opposing additional funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan also seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Last year, the council shifted its focus from United States foreign policy to federal campaign finance law, passing a resolution, 6-2, that called for a constitutional amendment limiting corporate spending on elections. Councilor John Coyne joined Leeman in a futile effort to block that futile resolution.
And last week, the council weighed in on an international issue with global implications: The possibility that tar sands oil in Canada might someday be pumped through a pipeline in the vicinity of our city. After hours of public testimony and debate, the council voted 7-2 to express its “concern” about that possibility.
Portland Mayor Mike Brennan was reportedly furious that the toothless resolution was watered down from one expressing opposition to tar sands oil to one that merely conveyed a sense of worry — as if the symbolic opposition of a municipal government with zero jurisdiction or authority in this hypothetical matter could have any influence whatsoever in its potential outcome.
“If we’re not opposed to tar sands, we should be opposed to the process” of extracting the oil, Brennan was quoted as saying at that meeting.
Actually, Mr. Mayor, you and the councilors should not be using the mandate or the money we’ve given you to run this city to weigh in on the pros and cons of energy extraction methods being employed in other parts of the planet. I’m sure you have strong feelings about coal mining in West Virginia and uranium mining on Navajo land, too, but we’ve got more pressing local issues that demand your attention.
How about using some tar sands to fill the potholes around town? If you’re concerned about global warming, perhaps the city shouldn’t be burning fossil fuels to blow leaves around the parks every fall or to drive fire engines to the supermarket and to the scenes of medical emergencies where there is no fire.
Leeman has usually been the lone voice of reason when these sorts of resolutions have come before the council in the past. “I’m not elected to Congress. I’m elected to the City Council to deal with city issues,” she said during the campaign finance debate last year. Leeman’s former day job, in which she relayed constituents’ concerns to Sen. Olympia Snowe, undoubtedly informed her position on such matters: If you want to influence federal policy, contact the lawmakers who make federal policy.
During the tar sands debate, Leeman’s opposition was based more on the fact she didn’t know all the facts, and that’s part of the problem, too. Councilors and city staff on the public payroll spent untold hours and dollars researching every facet of tar sands oil extraction, transportation and combustion in an effort to craft a resolution destined to have no practical effect on reality. That’s money and time not spent on the real issues directly affecting the city.
Furthermore, the Portland City Council does not speak for the citizens of Portland on national and international issues. If the mayor and councilors want to claim they represent our views on foreign policy matters, they should campaign on those issues and see where it gets them. (“Re-elect Mike Brennan: Justice for the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka at last!”)
These resolutions rarely originate from the councilors themselves. They’re usually pushed by special interest groups and adopted by small-time politicians with their eyes on higher office.
In that spirit, I have a resolution for the council to adopt: a binding resolution by which the council resolves to reject all future resolutions pertaining to matters beyond their immediate purview. Any takers?