Questions for Portland City Council Candidate Loretta Smith

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith receives a Labor Partner Award at the Northwest Oregon Labor Council’s May 2017 appreciation dinner. With her from left, are Labor Council president and UFCW Local 555 secretary-treasurer Jeff Anderson, Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Bob Tackett, and Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council executive secretary-treasurer Willy Myers.
Loretta Smith, a former longtime aide to Senator Ron Wyden, has been Multnomah County Commissioner for the last eight years. Campaigning for City Council, she’s calling for all-union project labor agreements on all City construction projects. Her labor support is strongest among building trades unions. She’s endorsed by Northwest Oregon Labor Council, UFCW Local 555, the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, Boilermakers Local 104, IBEW Local 48, Insulators Local 36, Painters District Council 5, Iron Workers Local 29, Plasterers Local 82, Cement Masons Local 555, Roofers Local 49, Plumbers Local 290. Among candidates vying for City Council this year, Smith may have the closest personal ties to labor. Her mother and grandfather were members of United Auto Workers. One of her aunts is a member of SEIU Local 49 at Legacy; other aunts are members of UFCW Local 555. She serves on the board of workforce nonprofit Worksystems Inc. alongside Northwest Oregon Labor Council executive secretary-treasurer Bob Tackett, and her chief of staff at the county is former Bureau of Labor and Industries legislative director Elizabeth Mazzara-Myers, who’s married to Building Trades executive secretary-treasurer Willy Myers.  Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with her by phone about her background and ideas for City Council. 

What do you think is at stake for working people at City Council?

I think it’s jobs. There’s a lot of conversation everywhere I go about housing and homelessness, and people talk about we need to have affordable and acceptable housing. But how we deal with affordability is having a good paying job. And that goes as well for gentrification. And that’s one of the things I like about labor: There are negotiated terms and people have a living wage and benefits. And I think that’s where we are missing a lot of things.

I’m sure if somebody gave you a magic wand, you would wave it and give everybody good paying jobs, but barring that, what would you do specifically to promote jobs?

You’ve got to change the climate. One of the things I would do is: There are 989 brownfield sites in the City of Portland, and people haven’t cleaned up these properties, and haven’t developed them because they know it comes at a cost. They’re not sure what the environmental cost is going to be. [Editor’s note: A brownfield is a term used by the Environment al Protection Agency to refer to a site where redevelopment is complicated by the presence of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants.] But we do have a brownfield program, and I’d expand that program so more property owners could redevelop their property, so we could have mixed-use development with affordable housing, middle income and market rate. We’re not going to be pushing back the Urban Growth Boundary, so we need to figure out how to use the existing land that we have to its fullest ability.

And the second piece is that I’d take $25 million of the $50 million that we spend at Multnomah County on top of existing services, and I’d start buying up multiplexes and start repairing. And I’d get them up to speed. And then we’d take a certain portion of it and build, affordable, middle income and market rate housing for rental and purchase.

So do you mean public housing?

Yeah, like multiplexes. We need to build that kind of housing. It costs between $250,000 and $750,000 a door, but we have to build more of it. And as we’re building more, we’re hiring more. At the County, you know, and at the City, I think we need to have a PLA on every contract. [Editor’s note: A PLA, or Project Labor Agreement, is an agreement to use union labor on a construction project. Recent local PLAs have also set goals for participation of minority and women as workers and contractors.] We put 1 percent aside to help with technical assistance on all our infrastructure projects. [Editor’s note: The 1 percent refers to a fund to help minority contractors become more competitive, and to help pre-apprenticeship groups get more women and minorities to enter the building trades.] That’s a big deal because that has never been done before. So it takes leadership to put those kinds of strategies forward to make sure everybody’s getting a fair shake.

I think you may be the only candidate in this race to be advocating a PLA on each contract.

I haven’t heard anybody else talk about it.

Just so I’m clear, a PLA would require that the work be done union but it also opens up union hiring halls to satisfy goals for women and minority hiring. Is that how you understand it as well?

Exactly.

If you could get three ordinances passed at City Council, what would they be?

I’d have to take a closer look to see, because there’s so much out there that I don’t know. I don’t want to, when I first start looking at things, say something that there may be other priorities.

But here are some issues I’m really concerned about as it relates to the city.

I think we need to process our permitting and streamline that process. You know, at this point it takes anywhere from four to six years to build out a new project from predevelopment to design, design overlay. I’d like to be able to process these applications a lot quicker. We need to put more people in those departments. Because it’s my understanding that infrastructure is our book of business at the City. And if that’s our book of business, we need to make sure it’s more efficient. So that would be one thing.

The other piece is, in terms of parks, that is probably one of our most precious assets that everybody can enjoy. I’d like to see where we put additional accessible playground equipment in all of our parks. Because it’s a very simple thing, but it’s not simple, because if it was simple it would be done. Because people who have kids with disabilities, they want to be able to take their kids to a local park and enjoy the same thing that everybody else can. But if they’re being prohibited because we don’t offer that kind of equipment on our parks, I think that’s something we should really look into. And I know that’s not a big ticket thing, but it’s really important.

And the other piece is transportation. We need to figure out how to increase public transportation for everybody, particularly past 82nd. I live in the Wilkes district, which is right next to Parkrose, and widening the sidewalks, those kinds of things, those are the kind of equity things that I’ll be looking to do to be supportive of.

Back to the streamlining permits idea: do you have any idea why it’s taking that long and how you’d go about changing that?

Well, I have to get in there and see where the actual bottleneck is.

And the third thing is: I have an idea about how to create more affordable housing, and that’s through the Multi program. Today the Multi program is only being used for new development. One of the first ordinances I’d like to pass is an ordinance where we use property tax incentives to existing multiplexes, giving them that same incentive through the tax abatement. Because we could actually change the landscape of the amount of affordable housing we have, immediately. So that would take a vote and ordinance change. That would take a vote from Multnomah County AND the City of Portland because you’d have to get the tax abatement like you do now with the regular Multi program from the county, and then you’d have to pass it through the City. So I think we have a real opportunity. And it’s not going to be one single thing that’s going to change housing affordability. But I think my multi program, that hits the ground running immediately.

I’m not familiar with the Multi program. That’s an existing program?

Yes, it’s the multifamily tax abatement plan for new development. So they can offset the cost of their project and they get the tax abatement for 20 years. It’s only for new development. My idea is to extend it to existing multiplexes so we get some of those folks to offer affordable housing, and in return they’ll get their taxes abated like the new developments do. That way owners aren’t losing any money.

What did you think of the renter relocation ordinance [Passed last year, it requires landlords — if they raise the rent 10 percent or more in a year — to pay tenants’ moving expenses equivalent to three months rent.] Would you have voted for that?

You know, that’s a very tricky thing, because I think it has been helpful to a lot of folks who wouldn’t ordinarily have an opportunity to get added resources to go and get a new place. But I think it’s causing landlords to not rent to people. So that’s a problem. I think it is really designed to make sure the rents aren’t rising double digits every year, because it’s not sustainable. I like the idea that we’re trying to protect our most vulnerable through this policy. So we’ll see. The jury is still out on how that’s going to go. People can still raise their rents up to 9 percent, and I don’t know if that actually goes far enough.

Well then, speaking of, what would be your position on rent control? [Oregon House Speaker] Tina Kotek has tried to get the Legislature to repeal the ban on local rent control ordinances. If it’s repealed, is that something you’d be in favor of in Portland?

I’d have to look at the language and see what it really says. But again this is another policy that is designed to help the most vulnerable, and I think we need to do everything that we can. We’ve got 45,000 people moving to this city every year the last four years, and all the poor people are being pushed out to the fringes. And they have to have some sort of protection to help them be able to live, work, and play in this city. It’s quickly becoming a city of the haves and the have nots, so I’m going to be supportive of policy that keeps equity in play and puts an equity lens on any bureau that I am responsible and not responsible for. I think a lot of this is: We’re working in silos, where the transportation department really needs to be working hand in hand with the housing bureau, because they’re so closely linked to different permits that you have to have to build.

How long have you been at the County Commission?

This is my eighth year.

What are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished?

I think what I’m proud of the most is the ability to have directed funding for communities of color that work with families and children, like the Promise Neighborhood and my summer jobs program. I created two programs that are in ongoing funding right now.

And one of them is called Promise?

It’s called the Promise Neighborhood, where it gives money to culturally specific organizations to help kids of color. I copied it from President Obama. How it came up was: People kept telling me about this abysmal high school graduation rate. It was in the 70s. And it still is. I listened to Latino Network, NAYA, SEI and some others at a board meeting give their synopsis of their program. And the data show that when kids and their families work with these organizations — and they offer wraparound support, and mentoring to the kids, and homework support — that those kids graduate from high school at a higher rate. So it was simple to me: I needed to get some money, because the County had totally taken away all the prevention dollars for youth programs. We were only funding two, where we had been funding numerous programs. So I said I need to figure out: How can these programs, who are model programs, get more money so they can get more students and their families into the program, so they can graduate? So I’m most proud of being able to decrease some of the disparity in education and in health. And my summer jobs program, because I started that summer jobs program when we didn’t have any paid summer internship for kids between the ages of 16 and 24. I championed that program, led the effort to increase its funding, and now we pay for 650 kids that wouldn’t ordinarily have had a summer job. They’re low-income kids, kids from underserved communities, so I’m very proud of that.

Is there anything different you would do in collective bargaining with city employees?

One thing simply needs to change. I think HR and the legal department have so much oversight that electeds need to take a more active role. My experience at Multnomah County: You’ve got to know what you’re bargaining for. Sometimes at the bargaining table, our HR said that we wouldn’t do certain things, and that simply was not true. And how we got $15 an hour is because Deirdre Mahoney [then president of AFSCME Local 88] had the great sense to come and talk to the commissioners individually and say, “This is what we want. They’re saying that you don’t want it.” And I was floored because I was like, “No that’s not what I’ve ever said. They haven’t brought it back to me.” So I had a nice conversation with our HR department and I said, “You get my sign-off, because there’s one vote per commissioner. This is not done at the chair’s level, because we all have to vote on it. So you need to bring it back to me so I can tell you what I support. Because I don’t want you bargaining on my behalf without asking me first. And I don’t want to be caught flat-footed like I was when Deirdre came and started talking to me.” I didn’t know anything about it. So I think really understanding what it is that our HR department is bargaining and what language to use and being sure that they’re bargaining fairly would be one thing I’d insist on.

There’s a short list of topics I want to see if you’d weigh in on. One is Uber and Lyft. a few years ago there was a vote to allow them to operate in the city. Do you think you would have voted for that? Any opinion?

I don’t know all the ins and outs, but it seemed there were folks that were getting information that others were not, and I just don’t like to do that kind of thing. I like to have daylight on stuff and be transparent. So I support bringing all the information in the board room. And I’m not supportive of having closed door conversations with folks. [Editor’s note: Presumably, she was referring to a private meeting between then-Mayor Charlie Hales and then-City Commissioner Steve Novick with political campaign manager Mark Wiener, who had gone to work for Uber. (He’s now managing the City Council campaign of Andrea Valderrama.)] I hate to see any industry — like the taxi industry — got hit pretty hard. I’m small business. I want commerce to flow. But I think we’ve got to have information and be transparent.

So you’re okay with Uber and Lyft operating the way they’re currently operating?

No, I’m not. There are some issues I’m concerned about. There’s a lot of unintended consequences. It is our job as legislators to figure out how to level the playing field. I think we have the opportunity to do that. We did get kind of bum rushed by that ride share model. And I think things can be done where everybody can have the same piece of the pie. Do you know what I mean?

No I don’t, really. Right now there’s a limit on the number of taxis, but Uber can come in unlimited, and on more favorable terms.

That’s why it’s disproportionate. The taxis that are here, the unintended consequence is they’ve had a large portion of their industry taken away from them. I think we have the opportunity in government to level that laying field so there are no unintended consequences like what happened with the industry in this ride share industry, and it’s not just happening in Portland, it is also happening in most other big cities.

There was an ordinance that opposed new fossil fuel infrastructure in the city. Would you have voted for that?

I’ve already voted on this. This was the Climate Action change, I already vote on that at the County.

What was your vote?

I voted yes.

So you oppose new development of coal or LNG export facilities?

Maybe I’m not thinking about the right one. We in our climate action pan we voted to support cuts in emissions by 2030.

This is different. This was a city ordinance that passed a couple years ago, that said you could not install new fossil fuel infrastructure. It didn’t include gas stations, but if you wanted to have a terminal to export liquid natural gas, or coal, Portland City Council was opposed to that happening.

I probably would have been opposed to that, most definitely.

This doesn’t pertain to City Council, but I ask it of every candidate, because maybe you’ll end up in Congress some day: What’s your opinion about NAFTA and all the NAFTA-copycat trade treaties?

I support trade with the U.S. and I think we’re getting dinged in some places because of it. And NAFTA … I worked for Senator Wyden when that happened.

Yeah, he was in Congress, and he voted for it.

I know he voted for it, and as we look at it now, I think that’s why he got pushed for additional trade reform. But for us, I think we’ve got to make sure that we keep our jobs in the United States. I had the chance to go over to Vietnam a few years ago with the Portland Business Alliance, and you know, some of the environmental and work conditions that we are really proud of here, they didn’t have over there, and that was unfortunate. I understood we were in a different culture and different system, but I think we know more now and I don’t think a trade bill like the first NAFTA would go over well after we’ve seen the evidence of job loss.

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