Attention deficit disorder
Maybe it was the heat that made the Oct. 5 Portland City Council meeting one of the most contentious in recent memory. It was muggy in Council Chambers, and when someone opened a west-facing window, it did little other than make the recorded screech of avian distress calls – the city’s bird-brained tactic to dissuade pigeons from nesting at City Hall — more audible in the crowded room.
There was the usual sniping between councilors Karen Geraghty and Cheryl Leeman, but then Councilor Will Gorham – interrupted during his aggressive questioning of a housing developer — got into it with Mayor Jill Duson, and the mayor had another testy exchange with City Councilor Peter O’Donnell – she was giving him “the look,” he said.
As childish as this stuff is, what really bugged me about the meeting wasn’t councilors being inconsiderate to one another. It was councilors being rude and inattentive to the citizens speaking before them.
One of the first items before the council that night was an order designating the stone monument and benches at the intersection of Cumberland Avenue and Franklin Arterial “Armenian Plaza.” This is an example of city government at its most heartwarming. Several Portlanders of Armenian descent stepped to the podium and spoke of how their forefathers fled the genocide in Armenia at the start of the 20th century and settled in Portland, where they worked hard and helped build the city that welcomed them in trying times.
Every councilor gave the speakers their full attention, except one, Councilor Geraghty, whose eyes were fixed on the laptop screen before her nearly the entire time. What was she doing? Checking the Sox score? Reading The Bollard? Who knows, and who cares? The point is, she was not paying attention to the matter at hand, and this was hardly the first time, nor would it be the last before the meeting was over. The people of Portland, Armenian and otherwise, deserve better.
During the public comment period preceding the council’s vote to give the Portland Pirates a rent subsidy in city-owned office space (see this week’s Briefs), a considerably less-endearing speaker stepped to the podium: council watchdog Steven Scharf. Scharf’s persistent criticism of council decisions large and small, and the smug tone he usually takes when delivering that criticism, clearly make the councilors’ skin crawl. But Scharf deserves respect for being one of a small handful of people who pay close attention to city government and speak up when they smell a rat, imaginary though that rat may often be.
I too glimpsed the swish of a scaly tail in this deal. The city hasn’t tried to find a paying tenant for its Free Street office space in five years. Since then, real estate in this part of the Arts District has gotten more valuable, and it’s poised to be more lucrative still once the major “artist condo” and retail development is completed nearby on Brown Street.
But here was City Councilor Jim Cloutier, chair of the Community Development Committee that worked out this sweetheart deal (worth over $60,000 during its five-year term), handing the space to a minor league pro hockey franchise whose behavior would get them banned from our city if they were any other type of business.
Hockey: the only professional sport where athletes can routinely stop playing the game and start punching each other in the face without incurring suspension, fines, or any serious reprimand from league officials. Face it: Pro hockey is withering from a lack of star players and fan interest, and fistfights are now its biggest draw. It’s sickening to watch little kids cheer this violence on along with their parents.
The Civic Center is an entertainment venue that serves beer. So is Headliners, a bar and dance club on Wharf Street. The city just went through a six-and-a-half-hour hearing before state liquor officials in an effort to yank Headliners’ liquor license because there’ve been a few fights there. The Pirates? They get sixty grand in rent breaks to work, play, and beat the piss out of visiting teams in buildings that we, the citizens, own. Go figure.
Anyway, Scharf was criticizing this deal, and rightly so, but his comments fell on deaf ears, particularly the ears of Geraghty and O’Donnell. O’Donnell had missed most of the meeting, having arrived late because he’d been “studying chemistry for three hours” (the councilor, who is leaving city government this fall, is pursuing a medical degree). Now here he was on the other side of the room, talking and laughing with Geraghty like the two were at a cocktail party, rather than an official city meeting. Geraghty’s back was turned to Scharf so she could give O’Donnell her full attention.
“It’d be nice if you all would listen to me, but I guess that’s not going to happen,” Scharf said midway through his comments.
Mayor Duson, the self-described “process queen” of the council (as she called herself during the exchange with Gorham), said nothing and did nothing when Scharf spoke up.
Shame on you, Mayor. And shame on Geraghty and O’Donnell.
Shame also on the media in this town, who either fail to pay attention to our council at all, or lack the courage to call councilors on their bad behavior.
Our city councilors can get away with this bullshit – ignoring speakers at the podium, skipping out on meetings – so long as reporters and editors are willing to look away or soft-peddle what they can see with their own eyes. Meanwhile, the public gets even less interested in the affairs of their local government. And who can blame them when their elected officials are portrayed in the media as emotionless robots speaking in sound bites?
Folks, these councilors are people just like you and me. They can be wise, funny, and compassionate (I’ve seen O’Donnell go out of his way many times to reach out to a citizen at a council meeting who needed help). They can also be rude, stupid, and just plain lazy. They’re human.
Just before last Wednesday’s meeting began, I was trying to get this point across to J.R. D’Alessandro, who runs the rock club Geno’s with his father, the club’s namesake (the club’s license was renewed that night). It’s touching, in a Norman Rockwell kind of way, to see people like J.R. — who can handle the meanest street drunk that wanders through his door – get nervous at the prospect of speaking before his city council. You hear it in the quavering voices of other citizens, like the Armenians who spoke so emotionally that night of their grandparents, and it makes you feel like this democracy is a just and beautiful thing. To see it disrespected like it was Wednesday night is enraging.
“They’re just people,” I told J.R. “Look at the mayor.”
Duson was, as usual, struggling with the sequence of council business, the city clerk whispering lines to her before and after every item like a script coach stage left.
“Even she doesn’t know what she’s doing,” I told J.R. This didn’t seem to ease his nerves.
If the “process queen” can’t control the council’s process, maybe we need to call Nanny 911.
The “process nanny” could’ve spoken up when Cloutier cited the fact that most cities with AHL teams provide them with free rent. “If the other cities with AHL teams jumped off a cliff, would you, Jim?” she could ask.
She could take Councilor O’Donnell to task for his tardiness: “Now, Peter, it’s good that you did your homework, but don’t neglect your civic duties.”
And she could pin Councilor Geraghty with this tried-and-true threat: “Miss Geraghty, if you can’t use your laptop responsibly, I’ll take all the councilors’ laptop privileges away. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
It’d be nice if the councilors would listen to this editorial, but I suspect that just as Scharf said, “that’s not going to happen.”
— Chris Busby
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.