TENANT ACTIVISTS BERATED BY PORTLAND CITY COUNCIL
Four organizers with Tenant Rights Project used their alloted 3 minute time slots at this week's Wednesday morning Portland City Council meeting to criticize a local slumlord housing corporation and housing commissioner Nick Fish. The council objected to the "harsh rhetoric" of tenants.
Four organizers with PSU Progressive Student Union's TRP (Tenant Rights Project) talked at Portland City Council's regular Wednesday council meeting, protesting the lack of accountability by local landlord (a 'nonprofit') Central City Concern, and housing commissioner Nick Fish, one of this landlord's biggest boosters in the city. (Fish spoke at CCC's Nov. 2008 fundraiser at the Governor Hotel, helping to raise $400,000 and asking donors to 'dig deep' to fund this landlord corporation).
Joe Pierce, who is a CCC tenant (for almost 20 years) spoke first, criticizing Central City for transferring, instead of firing, a building manager, Greg Green, who was accused (in a written statement given to council members, and against whom a police report was filed) of sexually harassing a Biltmore tenant, Anthony Anderson (who had previously testified, last March, before City Council, against CCC mismanagement!). Joe compared Central City's transfer of this manager to priests who get transferred by the Catholic Church for pedophilia, rather than being terminated.
Nick Fish immediately interrupted Joe's talk (after 30 seconds), suggesting that this might be slander (Fish says he used to be an organizer and was a civil rights attorney). Joe said he would use the First Amendment and continued with his critique of the landlord.
The three other tenant organizers who spoke (a) backed up Joe's criticism of Central City Concern over the 'transfer' of former Biltmore manager Greg Green, (b) about housing problems that Central City creates for tenants, and (c) the history of Central City and Nick Fish stonewalling against meeting with, or addressing, tenant concerns.
Tenant Rights Project started organizing CCC tenants in the fall of 2008. CCC is a $33,000,000 annual budget nonprofit, with 23 buildings and 1400 tenants. There are persistent pest control (cockroaches, mice and bedbugs) problems in several buildings, crime (drugs, prostitution, sex harassment) that has moved into some of the buildings (aided and abetted by CCC managers in some buildings), and lack of transparency: the CCC board of directors has an 'oral preference' that tenants aren't allowed to attend board meetings or to speak at board meetings. Tenants are also forbidden to get copies of board minutes -- a practice that Community Alliance of Tenants (which TRP has been talking with since November, 2008) says may be illegal, under Oregon Attorney General John Kroger rules regarding transparency and nonprofits.
The response of the five city council members, on this issue, was both typical and interesting.
[Later, much to the city council's credit, during the business part of the agenda, the council expanded the free bus pass subsidy for Portland high school students from three schools to all 10 Portland high schools. (When PSU-PSU organizers go back to city council in two weeks, to talk on TriMet and Trasnit Rider Union issues, we will thank them for expanding the free high school bus pass program)].
But, in terms of tenant rights, Sam Adams, as mayor, says that he will not consider switching the housing bureau assignment from Nick Fish to Amanda Fritz, something suggested by one organizer who had already talked with Michael Mills, city Ombudsman. Mills had said that while the city Ombuds office can't 'investigate' the city council members, tenants could run a candidate against Fish in the next election, or, the mayor can reassign bureaus, like housing, to different council members.
Tenant Rights Project organizers had talked to Portland City Council re Central City Concern landlord practices in March, 2009, At that time, Nick Fish interrupted one speaker to say he had already met with two CCC managers and had a three-point plan to 'deal with' these issues. Like the CCC board meetings, tenants were excluded from that meeting, with CCC CEO Ed Blackburn, CCC COO Tracy Manning, and Fish. Tenants have said the 'issues' have not been addressed, so far.
At this week's Aug. 26 city council meeting, tenants criticized Fish's refusal, for six months now, to meet with tenant organizers on these issues. Fish said nothing in response to this complaint. Instead, Fish launched into a long talk about people misusing the First Amendment, likening tenant protesters to the conservative protesters against Obama's health plan proposal. Fish deplored the lack of civility in public discourse, and suggested tenant organizers should "alter their delivery" and use 'less harsh' rhetoric, etc.
Dan Saltzman, in response to the tenant presentation, had nothing to say.
Amanda Fritz very quietly said one sentence about Nick Fish recently getting an award from the Community Alliance of Tenants (which, like Central City Concern, also gets funding from -- the City of Portland). Fritz didn't mention that the City was helping to fund both Central City Concern and the Community Alliance of Tenants. [Fritz has been the most helpful, however, of these five city council members, on Progressive Student Union projects -- except for housing -- so far, in 2009].
Randy Leonard and Sam Adams both had a lot to say, but not about tenant rights and housing, per se. Leonard referred to his recent cussing out of a pro-Recall organizer at City Hall, covered by corporate media, and also told a long, five minute story about Richard Harris 30 years ago (Harris was the founding director of CCC), and Mother Theresa. Leonard and Adams seemed to agree about the 'harsh rhetoric' that some protesters seemed to be using these days. Leonard, Fish and Adams all praised Central City Concern, without commenting on any of the following: persistent pest control problems re cockroaches, mice and bedbugs; crime including drugs, prostitution and sex harassment in the buildings; lack of transparency and accountability by the CCC board of directors re tenants not being allowed to attend or speak at CCC board meetings, nor the CCC board minutes being secret.
Randy Leonard did assert, however, that there is always going to be bureaucracies, and that any complaints about Central City Concern as a landlord are simply typical bureaucratic issues, and that this is normal.
None of the five city council members had anything to say about Nick Fish's refusal to meet with Tenant Rights Project organizers over the past six months, since the last time TRP organizers talked to the council.
Most of Fish's comments were about alleged misuse of the First Amendment. Yet, Fish failed to address that by not meeting with tenant organizers, and refusing to do so when we went to his office, several times, that would seem to violate the First Amendment, as well. Or at least, constitute stonewalling against open communication and transparency to voters, taxpayers, and activists (a bit like Central City itself). [In Michael Moore's films, he often tries to talk to CEO of corporations that are laying off workers, and they refuse to see him. But in this case, Portland City Council members are elected by voters, and, Fish, specifically, is supposed to be in charge of housing for the city].
Tenant organizers noted, after the city council meeting, that the 3-minute rule for speakers also seems to be contra-indicated vis-a-vis so-called free speech and the First Amendment. The format of city council is people can do their 3 minute blurbs, and the council can interrupt or respond at length afterward as long as they want -- but in that part of the agenda, people aren't allowed to ask questions or go beyond the 3 minutes; there is no debate or an ongoing forum (half hour or an hour) to actually explore, debate and discuss the actual issue raised: in this case, Tenant Rights and Housing.
Moreover, tenant organizers noted afterward that each city council member gets paid, by taxpayers, about $100,000 per year to be on the council. Since there are five of them, that's actually half a million dollars sitting up at the front of the room. As Fish (as housing commissioner) has refused to meet with these tenant organizers for half a year, Fish seems to be falling down, not just in support of the First Amendment and free speech (since he says he was an organizer and a civil rights attorney), but taxpayers don't seem to be getting their moneysworth re the 'paid speech' by and from the five city council members. In other words, people who testify with the 3-minute rule are volunteers in this process, while the city council itself is actually getting paid to listen to people who take the time (on a weekday morning) to talk to council. So, in one respect, it is paid speech for the politicians, and volunteer speech for people who are trying to get the council to provide oversight to a City of Portland contractor, in this case, the large 'nonprofit' housing corporation, Central City Concern.
Randy Leonard did compare CCC to Mother Theresa, but because there is no free speech, or an exchange in this segment or process, tenant organizers weren't able to suggest Randy read the book which is critical of Mother Theresa by Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position.
There was also an element of 'class war' or 'class distinction' in this exchange on tenant rights at city council. Most of the audience appeared to be in suits, people doing business with the city or there for airport noise or northwest parking lot controversies. The Tenant Rights Project organizers appeared to be the only attendees arguing about social justice for poor people, and for enforcement of Oregon's Landlord Tenant Law (specifically the habitability and livability statutes).
The Portland City Council is supposed to be, generally, liberal and progressive. And while Fish and Fritz both voted against the soccer deal, it would seem the three 'old boys network' of male, Anglo politicians (in this case, Fish, Leonard and Adams) -- rather than respond to an issue put before it (and a landlord which is funded in the millions of dollars by the Portland City Council), these commissioners, at least, so far, were content to spin homilies and extol the limits of the First Amendment, while also limiting/curtailing/deactivating the First Amendment in practice.
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