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Mayoral candidates say they’d fire PBOT Director: Tom Miller responds – UPDATED

Posted by on March 16th, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Tom Miller in May 2011.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

According to The Oregonian’s City Hall reporter Beth Slovic, PBOT Director Tom Miller is not likely to keep his job if Charlie Hales or Eileen Brady win the mayoral election.

Both candidates made their intention to make the change in separate interviews with The Oregonian this week:

“I believe we need to change the leadership at the Transportation Bureau, and we need to do it on day one,” Brady said in an interview with The Oregonian on Wednesday about her priorities should she win.

“This isn’t personal,” he [Hales] said on Friday. “There are major issues in the bureau, and it needs a fresh and fully qualified leader.”

While The Oregonian story lacked context for the comments (it’s likely they are interviewing the candidates prior to making an official endorsement), to have candidates weigh in so directly on the fate of sitting bureau director is a bit shocking. However, given a string of stories critical Miller in The Oregonian and his close association with Mayor Sam Adams — the two have worked together since 2004 — it’s easy to see how he would get caught up in politics.

Miller has been the subject of significant scrutiny by The Oregonian since he took office. They’ve questioned his ethics when he stayed at a beach house owned by a local real estate developer, they’ve questioned the motivations behind his hiring and firing practices, and they’ve framed his appointment by Adams — which came with a pay raise and without a competitive, national search — as cronyism. (To that last point, Miller says other high profile positions like Police Chief Mike Reese, Water Bureau Director David Shaff, and Chief Administrative Officer of the Office of Management and Finance Jack Graham were made the same way.)

Reached for a response today about the comments by Hales and Brady, Miller said he finds it “interesting” that the candidates would make such statements because he has yet to sit and talk with either of them about the state of PBOT or the work he is doing. “Neither Charlie nor Eileen has been briefed on the budget or reached out to the bureau for information on how things are going in general.”

“If either candidate wants to see the bureau go towards more of a roads-first or motor vehicles first direction, I will gladly step aside. That’s not the mission of this organization… And I don’t think either candidate, given their records, thinks that’s the right direction.”

“The performance of every bureau director will be reviewed by the incoming mayor, and it will be judged based on their record. I’m confident my record will be judged based on facts when the time comes.” said Miller.

While The Oregonian has inaccurately framed PBOT’s 2013 budget and criticized the agency’s priorities, Miller proudly stands behind it. “It’s the most transparent and disciplined PBOT budget, probably ever… It’s based on a balanced five-year forecast and at the end of it we are well-positioned financially. That wasn’t easy to put together and I did it with no drama from my budget advisory committee.”

Miller also stands behind what he sees as the mission of PBOT: to be an agency that does not prioritize auto access at the expense of everything else.

“It’s a tough budget,” he went on to say, “and clearly there’s frustration with some of the outcomes. Let me be clear, I share that frustration, we all share that frustration; but it’s a question of resources. Our budget retains our commitment to a multi-modal future — that’s what we do at PBOT.”

He continued:

I suppose if either candidate wants to see the bureau go towards more of a roads-first or motor vehicles first direction, I will gladly step aside. That’s not the mission of this organization and that’s not the direction I want to take the organization… And I don’t think either candidate, given their records, thinks that’s the right direction.”

Miller, 39, has been in charge of PBOT for just over a year, being appointed to the position by Adams in January 2011. Adams hired Miller to run his campaign for City Commissioner back in 2004 and Miller followed Adams into the Mayor’s office in 2008 as his Chief of Staff. The two worked together through the extreme tumult of the Beau Breedlove scandal and two subsequent recall attempts.

Miller is aware that his relationship with Adams is likely coming into play with these comments by Hales and Brady. But he sounded confident that his record would stand up to any scrutiny.

“I should be judged based on my performance as PBOT’s director. As for my previous work relationship with Mayor Adams, how is that relevant to whether or not I’m qualified or capable of leading this bureau? Again, I’m confident I’ll be judged based on my record, not on Sam’s record: That’s what I deserve, that’s what every bureau director deserves… Anything less would be purely political in nature and that’s not good for the city.”

UPDATE: The Oregonian also reported that Jefferson Smith did not offer an opinion on Miller, saying he wasn’t in a position to judge.

UPDATED: Mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith posted this to his Facebook page this evening:

Yesterday I was asked if I would fire the head of the Transportation Bureau. My take is that it is generally premature to hire and fire bureau directors 10 months before taking office. (And months before final election). It can be good practice to ask generally for resignations of all at-will staff and then rehire. Beyond that, it feels premature to pick and choose among directors.

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  • Chris I March 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    While I would prefer to see someone who is more of a transit wonk with an engineering degree, management experience, and of course a positive view towards cycling, Miller seems like a pretty good asset to have at the head of PBOT. I would imagine that Hales and Brady would appoint a much less bike-friendly leader to the bureau.

    We need more innovative thinking at PBOT. We need someone that is willing to implement the latest technologies to manage road maintenance and collect revenue. I’m not sure that Miller has the right background for this, but at least his priorities are in the right place.

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  • John Mulvey March 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    It’s another indication of Miller’s arrogance that the minute anyone criticizes him or his boss, they become someone who “wants to see the bureau go towards more of a roads-first or motor vehicles first direction.”

    I’m undecided on the candidates, but frankly, Hales at least has way better alt-transportation bona fides that Miller or Adams does.

    It’s incredibly important that the bicycling community (whatever that is) does NOT buy into the idea that we need Tom Miller and Sam Adams in order for bicycling to be a priority in Portland.

    There will be a post-Sam City Hall, and we need to work with it. Widespread buy-in by bikers for Miller’s self-serving and simplistic analysis would be a very bad thing for biking around here.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      I agree that Miller can come off as overly confident (or “arrogant” in your words) sometimes. That’s part of his young and politically savvy persona that I know rubs some people the wrong way.

      But I think the job takes someone who’s not afraid to shake things up and it takes a very healthy ego to do that. Miller’s work on the budget and the other ideas he has put forward are positive in my opinion. I do have some ambivalence about how he uses the mechanisms of politics in a role that is usually held by someone with more of a wonky/manager background, but that’s another topic.

      I also think Miller is sort of in a box. Adams wants to be the main credit taker/figurehead of PBOT and because of that, it’s been hard for Miller to find his voice. Look at the situation in NYC, where you have a mayor who steers way clear of his DOT and the DOT director becomes a rock star. In the current situation, that could never happen here. I think we’d see a much more dynamic and effective Miller without Adams overseeing the bureau… But time will tell.

      My feeling now is that biking in this town transcends politics to some degree. We will have different battles depending on who is in those five City Council seats, but the war is long over. The power is really in the community. If enough people can mobilize and speak up, than I believe we can pretty much do anything. (Of course that’s much easier said than done!)

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    • Kristen March 19, 2012 at 9:16 am

      I don’t know how you got

      “the minute anyone criticizes him or his boss, they become someone who “wants to see the bureau go towards more of a roads-first or motor vehicles first direction.” ”

      from what he said:

      “I suppose if either candidate wants to see the bureau go towards more of a roads-first or motor vehicles first direction, I will gladly step aside.”

      You obviously didn’t read the first five words of the sentence. Totally took the quote out of context, John.

      What I got out of this article is that Mr Miller feels like he will be judged on his record, not his relationship with the mayor; and that his record will help him keep his job.

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      • John Mulvey March 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm

        I think your quote supports my point more than it rebuts it.

        Let’s say you asked me, “John, do you like Widmer or Full Sail?” And my response was something like “I’m a diehard Full Sail drinker, but if people want to roll back the progress we’ve made on equality and justice, they’re free to drink Widmer.”

        You’d quite rightly say I was trying to cynically manipulate the terms of the debate in such a way as to equate my opponents with a particular odious policy view. You might say, “Gee John, I know plenty of Widmer drinkers and they’re not like that at all.”

        You might even resent my implication that the sole litmus test of whether one cares about equality and justice depends on whether one agrees with my choice of beer. Or you might be offended that by making the specious argument I made, I am shortsightedly throwing the cause I claim to believe in under the bus for my own personal benefit.

        You’re free to support Miller’s style of doing business if you’d like, but those are the feelings I have toward Miller and the Mayor. Having interacted extensively with this City Hall, I think I’ve got more than enough basis for thinking the way I do. Once Miller and Adams move on, I hope that bicyclists and everybody else can have honest, good faith dealings with our city again. I don’t have a lot of hope in the short-term.

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  • John R March 16, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    This shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. The position is a desirable one and instead of doing a national search, a person with limited management and transportation experience was put in charge. Because why? The answer to that is politics, not Hales and Brady stating the obvious.

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  • Esther March 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    I haven’t yet decided on whom to vote for, and I have a great deal of respect for both Hales and Brady. Still, this makes me lose respect for them. I can’t imagine mayoral candidates having spoken that way about Sue Keil (former PBOT director), nor can I recall mayoral candidates having spoken such way about former police chiefs, etc.

    Also, I strongly question the COMPLETE lack of context in the Oregonian article. WAiting for more clarification from Ms. Slovic or Brady or Hales themselves…

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    • k. March 19, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Don’t hold your breath for context from the Oregonian. They and Beth Slovic have proven once again what a rag that paper is. Editorials, thinly disguised as ‘news’, is what any piece they write about the City, or government in general is. Just read the comments section of…well just about any article of theirs, to see the average intellect of their audience is.

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  • NF March 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Don’t forget Jefferson Smith!

    Has he made any comments about staffing of PBOT?

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson March 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    My only regret is that Sam waited so long to give Tom the job. But remember the mayor before Sam, Tom ???, sacked the then PBOT director with nary a kind word. That may have been due to the Tram…one of the best things PBOT every did for transportation options and economic development.

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  • dwainedibbly March 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    I don’t know if I should be upset at these candidates for making these comments at this point in the campaign (not having talked to Miller, yet) or if I should be more upset with the whOregonian for baiting them into making the statements.

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  • Tom M March 17, 2012 at 5:52 am

    Why is it that only Smith figured out that making such a decision now is rather like placing the cart in front of the horse?

    This decision is getting mighty easy…

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  • arturo March 17, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Miller and Adams sacked Miller’s predecessor at PBOT. Adams had promised PBOT to Miller long ago and Miller decided he’d waited long enough. Few within the City will be sad to see him go, and that includes those for whom bikes are a central concern. Come on, people. Don’t make the same mistake we all made about Sam years ago, giving him credit for being smarter than he really is. As another poster said, things will move forward in a better, more genuine way once some of these folks are gone. Well, unless we make the mistake of electing Smith, that is.

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  • paul March 18, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    You usually have good journalistic instincts, Jonathan, so why are you giving Miller a pass on this statement?

    “Miller says other high profile positions like Police Chief Mike Reese, Water Bureau Director David Shaff, and Chief Administrative Officer of the Office of Management and Finance Jack Graham were made the same way.”

    Mike Reese began as a MultCo deputy in 1989, has specific educational training related to criminal justice, and has served the county and city continuously for 21 years before being appointed chief. Previously, he’d been commander of the Central and East Precincts for five years.

    David Shaff worked for 25 years in the Dept. of Human Resources, rising to the level of labor relations manager before serving on Leonard’s staff in 2004. He was interim administrator for one year before getting the permanent position.

    Jack Graham had 23 years of administrative and management experience, led an agency with a $200 million budget, later an agency with a $450 million budget. H’ed been director of the Fire Bureau budget for 10 years prior to his appointment.

    Tom Miller? Volunteered in 2004 on Adams’s first council campaign. Served as Adams chief of staff in his term as council, and moved with his boss when Adams was elected Mayor. After 6 years, he moved to a position overseeing 750 employees and a $250 million budget.

    He insults these fine public servants by comparing his crony appointment with theirs. Brady and Hales aren’t taking on any other agency heads. Perhaps the nature of the appointment here is the reason?

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    • k. March 20, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Paul, as with all political appointments, Sam has great latitude here. The risk in that is just what may happen here; if the choice is perceived as a poor one (for what ever reason) then Sam and/or the Director suffers the political fall out from that. There’s no bar here for experience of appointees as you imply. Obviously the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. Tom’s got a chance to show what he can (or can’t) do over the time he’s there. Let’s let that speak for itself before passing too harsh a judgement.

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  • Joe March 19, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    This is all just another waste of our time due to shoddy O-rag reporting.

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  • The Snapper March 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Tom may or may not be the right choice for heading PBOT. But the bike community needs to understand that there never has been a PBOT Director that is a True Bike Believer like Tom. That he truly believes bikes are a significant and important part of a multi-modal Portland is beyond question (please compare to Sue Kiel, old school dinosaur). And he has the chutzpah to boldly articulate his vision and take the flak that inevitably comes with it.

    He’s had a tumultuous tenure for sure, and it sounds like he can be tone-deaf, myopic and may lack the political skills to further the cause (and keep his job). But these valid concerns are not addressed by Beth Slovic’s repeated biased hit pieces on him. The Big O is just embarrassing itself on this one.

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