I stand with Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling. I applaud Strimling’s bold leadership and deeply appreciate his passionate defense of Portland’s most vulnerable citizens.
Yes, I’ve been a vocal critic of Strimling’s professional and personal conduct since he took office last December. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that what I’ll characterize here as his “missteps” have diminished his standing and influence among his colleagues on the City Council and the public.
But that doesn’t mean the mayor is wrong about everything. And in the debate over whether to close the city-run public health clinic on India Street, Strimling is right on both practical and moral grounds to oppose the closure.
As I noted in last week’s column, Portland City Manager Jon Jennings is pushing to shutter the India Street clinic and transfer its thousand-plus patients to a privately owned and operated clinic headquartered on Park Avenue. Jennings is promoting this idea despite the fact there is no plan to guide the transition and ensure patients are not left without access to life-saving services. Furthermore, data related to a previous consolidation effort, by which patients at a city-run health clinic were directed to the Park Avenue facility, clearly indicate that services dramatically declined as a result.
Last Monday night, Strimling stood on the dais in Council Chambers and delivered a speech that strongly criticized elements of the budget Jennings submitted, which would strip funding for public health and focus instead on public works projects, like fixing sidewalks and filling potholes. After the speech, Councilors Jill Duson and Jon Hinck took what I believe is the unprecedented step of leaving their seats and walking to the podium reserved for public comment to object to the mayor’s criticism of the city manager’s budget proposal.
That’s when it became clear that Strimling’s missteps are coming back to bite him in the behind. Duson criticized Strimling for failing to mention in his speech that the same budget includes $64,000 for a special assistant to the mayor, hired earlier this month to perform many of the duties voters assumed Strimling would be handling when they elected him last November.
In a follow-up article, the Portland Press Herald reported that “virtually every other city councilor, including those who supported Strimling’s bid to unseat former Mayor Michael Brennan, criticized the mayor’s remarks and supported Jennings and city staff.”
There’s no doubt that Strimling’s criticism of Jennings’ budget priorities is undercut by the pricey perks he’s accepted courtesy of the same city manager, which include a new office in addition to the assistant.
But that doesn’t change the facts at hand, including the fact the city has no idea where the needle-exchange program run at the India Street clinic would be housed if the clinic were closed, and the fact there is no guarantee the Park Avenue clinic will get the federal grant money it would need to treat patients with HIV who currently receive treatment at India Street.
The council’s Finance Committee, which endorsed Jennings’ budget last week, didn’t answer those questions. They merely kicked the can down the road, assuming someone will figure out the answers later.
In a short and snarky retort to Strimling’s speech sent to the media (another unprecedented action, in my experience), Jennings defended his budget by saying, “My position requires me to make tough decisions on a daily basis that some may disagree with. That is called leadership.”
If slashing public-health services without a coherent plan to ensure patients don’t die as a result is Jennings’ idea of “leadership,” he should quit his job at City Hall and vie for a position in Ted Cruz’s administration.
Jennings brings his own baggage to this debate. Earlier this decade, he was a principal member of the development team that proposed a $100 million development on Thompson’s Point, replete with office buildings, a hotel, an events center, restaurants, etc. He and his well-heeled associates convinced the City Council to grant them a property tax break worth over $31 million over the next three decades to make the project a success.
Five years later, the Thompson’s Point project has proven to be an abject failure. Pretty much nothing Jennings and his wealthy pals proposed has been built, and there’s no indication the project they pitched ever will be. So when this fearless “leader” effectively says, “Trust me — we’ll find the money and figure it out later,” Portlanders have very good reason to be fearful.