Why one Portland city councilor is not a piece of toast

Politically speaking, Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who’s seeking another three-year term this fall, should be toast. I’m specifically picturing a thin slice of bland white bread, lightly browned and unbuttered, served next to a steaming pile of scrambled eggs liberally laden with American cheese.

Suslovic is one of the councilors who allowed Congress Square Park to slide into squalor, then voted to sell most of it to an out-of-state investment firm that will privatize this precious parcel of public open space. I’m already on record calling for every councilor responsible for this travesty to be tossed out of office.

But it gets worse.

A couple years ago, the city decided to sell the former Nathan Clifford Elementary School in Suslovic’s neighborhood. One of the two developers who responded to a request for proposals proposed to convert the school into 60 units of much-needed affordable housing for “working families,” while maintaining space for a small park and playground. The other pitched a plan to create only 22 apartments (with the option to build two duplexes elsewhere on the grounds) for yuppies and retirees, who’d pay market rates that amount to upwards of $2,400 per month for about 1,400 square feet of living space.

The task force charged with evaluating the bids rejected the affordable-housing plan, in part because the city’s zoning code prohibits such high-density development in residential neighborhoods like the one around Clifford, where single-family homes with nice yards predominate. Of course, the city routinely makes exceptions to zoning rules when doing so suits the interests of the wealthy. For example, I’m pretty sure ballrooms for tourists are not a permitted use inside public parks, but that’s exactly what’s being allowed in Congress Square.

Suslovic claims to be a proponent of affordable housing, but his advocacy apparently ends when subsidized units are proposed near his own backyard. This past Monday night, he and his fellow councilors chose the pricey market-rate proposal instead and nixed that developer’s plan to build the duplexes.

Speaking of duplicity, in doing so, the council also declined the developer’s offer to pay $200,000 for the 1.5-acre property and its historic school, which was designed by renowned architect John Calvin Stevens. In exchange for forgoing the duplexes, the city reduced the sale price to $1 — essentially giving it away — so the amount of open space on the property can be tripled, from 6,000 to 18,000 square feet.

An astute political challenger would pounce on this deal, pointing out that Suslovic is willing to sell public open space downtown — where poor, elderly and disabled residents, cooped up in high-density apartment buildings, can enjoy a little fresh air — and give away valuable public property off the peninsula so wealthier Portlanders can have more room to frolic on the grass.

In fact, an astute political challenger did nail Suslovic on this point at the council meeting this week: John Eder, a staunch defender of Congress Square, who beat Suslovic in a state legislative race in 2004.

Problem is, Eder isn’t running against Suslovic this year. A political newbie named Greg Blouin is. And though Blouin says he would have opposed the sale of Congress Square, he doesn’t know what to think of the Clifford sale because, as he told me this week, “I don’t even know where the Nathan Clifford school is.”

On second thought, cancel that order of toast. I’m not that hungry for Suslovic’s downfall.

Straight-talking political outsiders like Blouin, a 40-year-old factory worker, are appealing to voters turned off by politicians who bury their positions in policy-speak and seem removed from the everyday concerns of mom and pop. And Suslovic, 53, may be the wonkiest councilor ever to pontificate inside council chambers. But there’s a difference between charming naïveté and stunning ignorance, and Blouin falls a good distance on the wrong side of that line.

Aside from somehow lowering fees for participation in adult recreation programs, Blouin’s platform is basically blank. For example, on the subject of property taxes, Blouin’s got no idea how the city can raise revenues or cut spending. If elected, he said he’d go to Portland’s public access TV station, buy three months’ worth of taped council meetings, and watch them to get up to speed on local issues — oblivious to the very real danger that if he did so, he could slip into a boredom-induced coma and die.

Suslovic has taken aim at the Portland Fire Department’s budget, which he seems to have memorized, as a way to spend city tax dollars more efficiently. Blouin wanted to make sure I gave a “shout out” to Portland’s firefighters for the great work they do.

OK: Holla.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.