Permitting turf war between commissioners in Portland


Staff member
Apr 16, 2023
Permitting reform has not only been in the national news lately but is also generating headlines in some local jurisdictions as well. In Portland, how to reform the City's broken permitting system has been the subject of a contentious debate between two of the City's commissioners. As reported by Willamette Week (see "Permitting War Between Rubio and Mapps Drags On"), the two commissioners - Commissioner Mapps and Commissioner Rubio - both have political ambitions for the City's mayoral office and both have very different proposals for how to change the City's permitting system. Permitting reform is a hot topic in Portland right now because of its implications for relieving the City's housing shortage and homelessness problems.

It makes sense for politicians to target permitting reform because succeeding allows you to demonstrate very clearly to voters that you are effective at improving government. In the words of Chris Koski, a professor at Reed College, “being able to say you streamlined government is a really popular thing to say” (as quoted in this article).

The plans couldn't be more different. Commissioner Rubio's plan would reorganize City permitting departments in order to consolidate all permitting staff under a new office. In contrast, Commissioner Mapps' plan would focus on clarifying ambiguities in the City's code without making any structural changes to the City's bureaucracy. Commissioner Rubio has the support of eleven business and industry groups whereas Commissioner Mapps has support of four City bureau directors.

As an outsider looking in, I'm inclined to side with Commissioner Rubio on this, given the support she's received from actual stakeholders (i.e., she surveyed developers and builders when formulating her plan), as opposed to Commissioner Mapps' reliance on support from City employees. It seems unsurprising that the government workers who would be directly affected by Rubio's streamlining are not enthusiastic about her plan. It also seems somewhat inappropriate that City staff and bureau directors have even taken a position on an issue like this that could involve their personal self-interest.

But there could be factors I'm not aware of/considering here. I'm getting my perspective so far only from a few local news articles that crossed my radar 🤷‍♂️. On the surface at least, Commissioner Rubio appears to have the public interest more in mind but, whoever prevails, I'll remain hopeful that the City is able to enact meaningful reforms. I'm not a Portland or Oregon resident, but I'll be interested to see how this all plays out.
Portland, Oregon, United States
This seems to be a common trend now for permit processes to be reformed all over the US. Could it be that the processes are antiquated and we have those in the system who aren't tech savvy, so they aren't utilizing tech as much as they could be to streamline things? That's just a guess, having gone to request permits in the past and seeing an older lady pull out a paper form and a paper receipt.

Having 50 states in the US can be an amazing thing, but it also means that a lot of government agencies are not coordinated in how they do things from one area to the next.