Portland city agency rebuffs coalition's call to use 'responsible contractors'

Round one of a campaign to get more affordable housing built by "responsible contractors" ended in disappointment last month.

Building trades union leaders, church activists and low-income housing advocates felt they had nothing to show for six months of meetings with officials of the Portland Development Commission (PDC) when that agency's board voted Jan. 8 to pass their proposal to another public body.

PDC is the agency that oversees urban renewal plans, using a formula that pays for improvements to blighted areas by borrowing against expected future increases in property taxes. The labor-community committee - a subgroup of the recently formed Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG) - had proposed that the PDC increase the proportion of its budget it spends building affordable housing and commit to use only "responsible" contractors - contractors that pay area prevailing wages - so that PDC contracts don't undermine wages of other construction workers.

At the Jan. 8 meeting, the PDC board passed a watered-down commitment to increase affordable housing - a promise, if new sources of money are found, to increase by 30 percent the target of new units of housing affordable to people who earn slightly less than the median income. As for the responsible contractor policy, it passed the buck on to the Contract Coordinating Committee (known as C3), a city-county body chaired by Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff Sam Adams.

At C3's meeting Jan. 23, no MACG committee members were invited, and C3 heard the PDC's version of MACG's responsible contracting proposal, along with reasons it wasn't a good idea. Then on Feb. 3, at a meeting of an advisory board to C3, MACG committee member Barbara Byrd was given five minutes to defend the proposal, during which time she was repeatedly interrupted by Adams.

Unsurprisingly, the MACG committee has concluded further meetings with Adams' committee would be pointless.

"We see C3 as being this dark hole controlled by the mayor," said Mike Anderson, business representative of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16. "After dealing with PDC for six months, we really didn't feel enthused about getting tangled up in another government bureaucracy."

Instead, MACG committee members say they will be taking the campaign back to community leaders for advice and help. They want to consult with minority and women contractors to develop a proposal, so that opponents of a "responsible contractor" policy can't hide behind a commitment to fairness in contracting.

PDC staff had argued that requiring contractors to paying prevailing wages would make it harder to award contracts to minority and women business owners - and would make projects more expensive. MACG disputed that claim, saying there's no reason minority contractors can't pay prevailing wages, and that workers who earn the prevailing wage are worth the extra pay for their better quality work, higher productivity and fewer injuries.

PDC is governed by a group of commissioners who report directly to Mayor Katz. The commission chair is John Russell, president of Russell Development Company, Inc. The PDC secretary is Doug Blomgren, an attorney with Preston Gates Ellis. Other commissioners include Noell Webb, president of Webb & Associates, Inc. and Temporary Staffing, Inc.; Matt Hennessee, CEO of Quiktrak, Inc.; and Janice Wilson, retired senior vice president and division manager of Wells Fargo Bank.

February 21, 2003 issue

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