Portland's premature bid for a resilience officer: Editorial Agenda 2014
30 Sep 2014
Portland Commissioner Steve Novick oversees the Bureau of Emergency Management and takes seriously the city's disaster preparedness. (Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian )
"Free" money is always a temptation. What could be better than a $1 million foundation grant to help ensure Portland has the know-how to recover swiftly from a natural disaster such as an earthquake? The grant would be from The Rockefeller Foundation, to whom a city bureau has submitted an application, and it would support a new position at City Hall: chief resilience officer.
The smart notion of the foundation is that American cities are increasingly complex and large, throwing challenges at bureaucratic governments to get it right and to show adroitness in the aftermath of crisis. A resilience officer would skip across and unite the silos of bureaucracy to ensure, if you will, that the left hand of government knows what the right hand is doing and vice versa — in real time, under duress, while helping neighborhoods regain their footing.
But there are several unanswered questions posed by Portland's application for the money. The City Council has not yet approved the application and must, after open deliberation about Portland government's accommodation of the position, decide whether having a resilience officer would address a challenge that city government should be tending to anyway. Then, it must decide whether to back the application retroactively or to tell The Rockefeller Foundation: Sorry, we made our move too soon, didn't mean it.
This is no way to do business, even in the public sector.
The matter of the city's application is on Wednesday's City Council agenda as a consent item, meaning it's supposed to sail by the council without discussion. That's plainly ridiculous. The council must delay any approval and discuss this unformed and potentially expensive idea, keeping in mind the scale and cost of government going forward.
The council must delay approval and discuss this unformed and potentially expensive idea, keeping in mind the scale and cost of government ahead.
The math seems easy at first: $1 million pays a man or woman's salary, with benefits, for several years. But is the officer shunted into some office only to surface with reports and advisories? Or would the officer be integrated within existing agencies of the city's government, which includes a Bureau of Emergency Management, and have open access to city resources to get the job done? Done right, the job would certainly require the latter, which could get expensive. Then again, might the fully supported officer lead a new, distinct city bureau with its own mission and budget?
San Francisco's resilience officer — the world's first, according to The Rockefeller Foundation — provides insight. Patrick Otellini, San Francisco's former director of earthquake safety, told an interviewer for The Rockefeller Foundation: "The grant pays for only one salary. If a city isn't willing to support their (chief resilience officer) with the staff they need, (the) CRO will be conflicted between sitting at their desk and going into the community. ... I believe it's important for me, as CRO, to get my hands dirty and be involved in policy creation, as well as coordinating bigger picture issues. The responsibilities of CRO are too much work for one person. We're hoping our arrangement here in San Francisco is able to provide an example to other cities for how to give a CRO the support they need to set them up for success."
What price success?
The Rockefeller Foundation has a compelling and generous program going that seeks to help American cities swiftly recover from calamity. That's a tall order, as it involves restoration of infrastructure and business while ensuring neighborhoods have basic needs and are communicative. Theoretically, a resilience officer would help. But Portland needs to know how a resilience officer would fit into its government and succeed, while Portlanders need to know how much having such a person, properly supported, would really cost.
The City Council must engage openly on this subject, which quite possibly involves the expansion of government and more operating overhead down the line. Nothing's ever "free," least of all when money's involved. Even the most promising ideas can, in time, be complicated and costly.