Harvest Century September 22nd

Guest Opinion: Job description for new PBOT leader isn’t bold enough

Posted by on April 4th, 2019 at 11:14 am

Jillian Detweiler is the executive director of The Street Trust.

“The successful candidate should value all modes of transportation.”

So reads the disappointing job description for the next leader of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

The Street Trust hoped the recruitment would elevate the exciting and pressing challenge that awaits the new PBOT Director: leading and accelerating significant improvements in alternatives to driving alone. That certainly was the consensus of transportation activists invited to meet with a City Human Resources representative who gathered stakeholder input prior to producing the job description.

In that stakeholder meeting I heard “bold” repeatedly. “Bold” did not make the job description. Neither did “bicycle” or “bus.” A “b” word that made it, though, is “balance” as in “balance the competing uses” of our transportation system. Balance? That’s the code word that prevents real changes to high crash corridors that could save the lives of pedestrians and cyclists. Balance is the excuse that leaves thousands of bus riders stuck in traffic. We hope potential applicants, and those who will vet those applicants, recognize that our transportation system is wildly out of balance in favor of cars.

Sure, there are hints that leading PBOT could be an interesting and rewarding job. The position description calls for understanding the racial and socio-economic impacts of access to transportation. It says the candidate should have experience and knowledge addressing population growth and climate change. Yet, there’s nothing that suggests the urgency of these matters and that our City Council has adopted a body of policy that needs action now.

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The Street Trust is concerned this uninspired job description won’t attract the creative, accomplished, bold leader who will help Portland stop spinning her wheels on plans and platitudes and instead make the decisions that will dramatically expand use of alternatives to driving. There are exciting initiatives underway in Portland and this region that could attract the cream of the crop. There’s a plan to improve access in the Central City and we are beginning to expand the greenway network in East Portland. TriMet has significant new money to expand transit service. Metro has declared its intent to bring a transportation package to the voters in 2020.

If this recruitment is not attracting leaders in transportation, we urge Commissioner Eudaly and the City’s Bureau of Human Resources to reframe this opportunity to communicate the challenge and rewards that it offers. And it’s not too late to implement the recommendation from transportation activists to engage experts like Jeff Tumlin, Janette Sadik-Khan or Gabe Klein in the recruitment and vetting process.

The Street Trust will participate in interviews with finalists for the job. We welcome your thoughts on the experience and abilities we should be looking for.

— Jillian Detweiler, The Street Trust

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

41 Comments
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    David Hampsten April 4, 2019 at 11:50 am

    I served on the interview panel for the last PBOT director hiring, the one that ultimately hired Leah Treat, our #2 candidate (#1 was a highly dynamic and inspired white male who decided to keep his present job; had Leah turned us down, #3 was a black male highway engineer, not very dynamic nor inspiring, but a very good track record on getting jobs for his employees as they were layed off due to budget cuts.)

    I don’t disagree with your editorial at all, but I will point out a few issues we “discovered” during the last hiring process:
    – The PBOT director isn’t a director in the usual national sense in that they can hire and fire employees at will, control their budgets, and only report to their city manager. The PBOT director has none of those powers. Instead, she/he is the captain of the PBOT cheerleading squad, chiefly acting as the chief PR person to city council and to the public. Their power is very limited – real power rests with the 4 or so agency chiefs who are “classified employees” who can’t be easily fired and their yellow pill-shaped minions.
    – Most people who match the description “creative, accomplished, bold leader” in the application process will be, by and large, white males in their 40s and 50s, both from within PBOT and from outside of it, hence the need to make sure that the most qualified females, visible minorities, and people with disabilities are also interviewed. It’s not their aren’t that many females, minorities, and people with disabilities who don’t qualify, but it’s more a fact that those people often won’t apply to Portland as they already have good jobs they like elsewhere, in communities that value them more, both financially and for who they are.
    – The budget for PBOT, as for most DOTs, is over 80% prescribed 5 years in advance (due to grants, long-term contracts, and paying salaries), so the director will only be able to manipulate less than 20% of their budget, which isn’t much when you are trying to control both the expenditure of a DOT for a city of 650,000 and trying to get SOV share below 50%.

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      Todd Boulanger April 4, 2019 at 2:18 pm

      David, thanks for the great insight. (Perhaps one of the best “non crash/ injury” BP comments I have read on an institutional topic in a long time.)

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      curly April 4, 2019 at 2:18 pm

      “real power rests with the 4 or so agency chiefs who are “classified employees” who can’t be easily fired”.

      And this means the City Of Portland will continue the cycle and we will continue to struggle to meet the transportation goals put forth by city council for “mode share splits” and “emission reductions”. Probably why we have no director now, and the lack of opportunity to make significant changes within the bureau will discourage the best, and brightest candidates.

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        David Hampsten April 4, 2019 at 9:59 pm

        You’ll still get a certain number of good candidates, but it does depend to a certain uncomfortable extent on Portland’s unearned reputation as a “Platinum Bike City” and it being one of the smallest cities in the US with most transit users being “choice riders” (rather than “captured”), versus all other cities and opportunities in the rest of the country. In general, most candidates will be using a Portland gig as a high-profile stepping stone to a more important gig elsewhere, either for a larger city, a state DOT, a job with the feds under a Democrat president, or a lucrative job with a private engineering/planning company. They know their position is temporary, most likely until the next mayor is elected; if they are lucky (or very unlucky), maybe even longer than that. And you need to know that their position is temporary, too.

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          Paul Cone April 5, 2019 at 11:40 am

          IIRC Leah survived two mayors (doling out bureaus) and three commissioners (heading the bureau), and left of her own accord.

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    SilkySlim April 4, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    A new epic high (low?) in PBOT bashing, attacking a the job listing when there isn’t a scapegoat yet to go after.

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 4, 2019 at 12:18 pm

      SilkySlim,

      I might agree with you more if this wasn’t happening in a context of timidity that clouds around PBOT these days. The agency has lacked the willingness to be bold and execute on its big plans for almost a decade now and this is just the latest illustration. And I agree with Jillian that the words they use to sell the position matter (especially given the fact that they had input to the contrary and appear to have jettisoned it).

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        silkyslim April 4, 2019 at 12:28 pm

        Appreciate the response Jonathan.

        But I still put this in the bucket of nit picking. I get job listings emailed to me daily (LinkedIn, GlassDoor, etc.), and it just isn’t the style of that communication to expound upon the most virtuous aspects of the work.

        Instead it is: here are the responsibilities, here is the type of company, now you apply and tell us how your forward thinking ideas will build upon the past and take us to the new future. And then maybe you get the job!

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        Racer X April 4, 2019 at 3:23 pm

        Jonathan – perhaps to get PDoT out of this timidity it will take the likes of The Street Trust to “sue” PDoT to take actions for safety and accessibility among other things…when the correct decision is put off into the future or watered drown design wise.

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    Zach April 4, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    Can you imagine what Janette Sadik-Khan could do in Portland?? She *revolutionized* streets in NYC, one of the most difficult US cities to navigate politically. Portland would be a comparative walk in the park.

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      curly April 4, 2019 at 2:25 pm

      JSK had the “political backing” needed to make changes. Portland doesn’t appear as appealing as NYC because of the lack of political will, and no desire to change the status quo.

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      Todd Boulanger April 4, 2019 at 2:33 pm

      Zach – I disagree with your opinion of what a “JSK” or similar could do in Portland at PBoT. It is no longer a situation of DoTs not knowing or understanding the power of all of these placemaking or complete streets traffic safety tools (as it was in the 1980-2010 period)…as NACTO / and our colleges* have fixed that…but its still a leadership issue for most communities until we hit a collective crisis.

      NYC under Bloomberg (like Chicago under Daley #2 etc.) could empower a “JSK” DoT leader because they were in a “Strong Mayor” system AND they were powerful enough (or independent from provincial party politics) to have the latitude to make a lot of entrenched folks unhappy until the benefits of their disruptive projects could be known by voters, business types and administrators. Portland for better or worse is 180 degrees contra to this.

      *For example, when I wanted to study bike and pedestrian facility design in 1991-1994 at the graduate level the then new ITE Planning & Engineering manuals only had 1 to 2 pages on bicycle and pedestrian facility design out of hundreds of pages…so we had to look elsewhere…often European manuals or oddly enough some US (state and Federal) manuals from the first ecological crisis: mid 1960s to late 1970s (until the Reagan Revolution).

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      Todd Boulanger April 4, 2019 at 3:21 pm

      The current version of the PBoT leader job description is 100% appropriate for a Ted Wheeler administration. What more can anyone say?

      The job description – as written – is not seeking a visionary leader focused on mobility or even traffic safety (curbing crisis level pedestrian deaths) as the lead outcome but the priority is to deal with other legacy issues un-dealt with for 70 years. I too would have hoped the job description would have focused on Vision Zero & the transition to post auto mobility with a growing city population BUT implemented so that the resources, impacts and outcomes would be done with equity in mind.

      I thank Jillian for writing this post and sharing her/ tST’s concern openly to the public and its members. BUT if tST is truly concerned about what candidates this description will attract then I would recommend that tST go out a directly recruit “their” ideal candidate nationally/ internationally. That is what the freight/ business lobby or the “highwaymen” will do …

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        Paul Cone April 5, 2019 at 11:42 am

        Except Ted Wheeler is not the commissioner for Transportation.

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          David Hampsten April 5, 2019 at 11:53 am

          He still retains and wields veto power on hiring or firing all bureau directors, so he is in fact the most directly concerned, as was Hales when we hired Treat. However, whoever does get hired will work most closely with the transportation commissioner rather than with the mayor.

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            Paul Cone April 5, 2019 at 1:49 pm

            David, I’m not sure that’s true, and you’ve already made an incorrect guess here about someone’s job classification (which I’m not sure is relevant to this conversation anyway), so please be careful about getting into specifics about individual people, and in general what you are putting out there unless you can cite City code.

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              David Hampsten April 5, 2019 at 3:58 pm

              Paul, no offense, but I was there when we discussed the interview process directly with Hales and his chief-of-staff, just after we had the 6 final candidates (of which Leah was one). The question from then-Mayor Hales was whether the six were qualified or if there needed to be another call for candidates (his call). We collectively felt the top 3 were fully qualified, Leah included. Novick was not there at the time, but one of his aides was. It may be that the process has changed since, but I rather doubt it. I represented the public on the interview panel, so I have a certain freedom of speech that the others might not have, and the statute of limitations is long expired.

              What are you alluding to on “specifics on individual people”? My understanding is that Roger is a classified employee, one of thousands who work for the city, and I have seen his position listed under a classified section on publicly-available budget documentation from 5 years ago; has it changed since? Leah Treat eventually moved on, left PBOT voluntarily as far as I know, and now works for a corporate engineering firm, very much like many of her predecessors, though several others retired or took jobs elsewhere.

              I don’t intentionally lie, though I’m human enough to make errors, and I’ll even admit to them once in a while.

              I have yet to see any city fully operate within its own city code on the hiring and removal of “at will” executive employees, so your code citation thing is beyond silly. You look it up, if you like.

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                Paul Cone April 5, 2019 at 4:17 pm

                Again, I fail to see how discussing specific employees and their classification beyond that of the director (see: title of post) is relevant here.

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                David Hampsten April 5, 2019 at 5:00 pm

                Ah, now I think I get your question. It stems from a discussion of what powers a director or Mayor has on dealing with their yellow pill-shaped classified minions (Bob, Kevin, & Stewart, all of whom I’ve worked with or for at PBOT) versus those who are “at will”. A Portland bureau’s director (for any bureau) powers are very limited, while in other jurisdictions they have a lot more power in hiring, firing, and managing employees, with or without the consent of the city manager. Since Portland doesn’t operate under a city manager, but instead gives the Mayor most of those powers (with the usual rubber-stamp approval of the 4 commissioners, who more or less act as assistant city managers), the Mayor has a lot of leeway on who gets hired and who gets encouraged to leave as far as “at will” executive employees. However, most Portland mayors then leave each city commissioner to manage each director under their care.

                As for getting rid of or firing the yellow pill-shaped classified minions, you know better than I do how hard it is to get rid of incompetent and otherwise useless employees. You can’t fire them unless they are caught in an on-the-job criminal act (very rare, but it has happened). So you end up assigning them to dead-end tasks, to undesirable workplaces, or to work under equally dreadful managers, until the employee either quits, takes a job elsewhere, or retires. But harassing them is a definite no-no, as they can file a grievance.

                And of course once an undesirable yellow pill-shaped classified minion leaves, people like me, they they are never hired again. So we take the liberty of criticizing PBOT with reckless insider abandon, serving on various influential committees, causing more trouble.

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      B. Carfree April 4, 2019 at 7:22 pm

      Sure I can imagine what JSK could accomplish here. Unfortunately, I think it would be much like what she accomplished in NYC: a lot of PR and very few new people riding bikes.

      I know, that sounds like blasphemy, but look at the numbers. When JSK took over in 2007, 0.7% of NYC commuters used bikes. Four years later, in 2011, it had risen all the way to 0.8%. Good grief, this is hard to distinguish from the national average at the time (0.6%). In 2014, the year after he departure, the bicycle commuters were still only 1.1%, hardly something to write home about. Also, walking to work actually declined.

      The most generous way to look at it is to say that cycling saw a good multiplier from a very low participation rate to a low participation rate during JSK’s tenure. I’m awfully unimpressed with her results.

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    joan April 4, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    I am loving what we are seeing from The Street Trust these days!

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      PDXCyclist April 5, 2019 at 12:26 am

      I came here to say this. I am much more supportive of TST nowadays when they take firm, bold stances instead of being wishy-washy. I was never inclined to donate either but now I am (and did). We need to push hard to move the window on what people think is “reasonable” so when we do settle for something, it’s much closer to our ideal

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      • Hello, Kitty
        Hello, Kitty April 5, 2019 at 3:13 am

        Before we get to gushy, let’s see what happens next week, next month, next year.

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          Middle of the Road Guy April 5, 2019 at 9:23 am

          Stop being so cynical!

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      nuovorecord April 5, 2019 at 9:24 am

      Strongly worded letters aren’t exactly something to excited about.

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    bikeninja April 4, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    In addition, a little more truth in advertising might be needed. For instance the add might read, ” experience needed in reinventing a management structure that allowed minority employees to be hogged tied with duct tape and tortured with home made air guns.*

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    • Hello, Kitty
      Hello, Kitty April 4, 2019 at 2:36 pm

      I agree. No employees, regardless of race, should be deprived of being hogtied and shot at with air guns. I hope a new manager will let everyone have their turn.

      https://www.wweek.com/news/2017/05/31/portland-city-employees-were-subjected-to-hazing-violence-and-bigotry-senior-officials-shrugged/

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        David Hampsten April 4, 2019 at 9:38 pm

        When I worked at PBOT in the early 2000s at the Portlandia Building, being assigned to work at the Maintenance shops was considered to be a “hardship” duty for technical and engineering staff, as the work environment there had a reputation of being “rougher and blue-collar”. Aside from the story above (which I quite believe), more employees smoked on the job, swore regularly, and used sexist language at a rate that wasn’t tolerated downtown.

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    Jim Lee April 4, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Todd Boulanger
    David, thanks for the great insight. (Perhaps one of the best “non crash/ injury” BP comments I have read on an institutional topic in a long time.)Recommended 1

    Who in PBOT is “classified” and who is “at will?”

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      Todd Boulanger April 4, 2019 at 6:05 pm

      Jim – I personally do not know the answer. Generally anyone with a “manager/ director” title is “at will”. Sometimes planners are union and sometimes they are not…at the City of Vancouver we all were “at will” (it made no sense since we did not manage anyone directly most of the time) but the same positions at Clark County were “union”. So you may have to do some Googling or buy a PBoT friend a beer after work and they could probably give you most of the guidance you seek pretty quickly. You could also befriend a transportation savvy staffer of the councilmember that oversees PBoT too. And some positions and pay are listed on line for most public agencies in the NW.

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      David Hampsten April 4, 2019 at 9:30 pm

      In most jurisdictions (probably all) this information is “public” and can be obtained from a city’s human resources department/bureau, along with each individual’s name and salary. This is an uncomfortable reality for all public employees everywhere – in many small cities, this information is published in a local rag once per year, and it usually is popular with readers.

      In general, “at will” employees are usually at the very top and at the very bottom of every government organization – the director, most deputy/assistant directors, some of the legal staff, some clerks/secretaries, but also interns, community service aides, engineering interns, seasonal workers, etc. The advantage of “at will” for any city is it allows for a certain number of employees to be paid at either a below-standard or union rate (for interns and such), and far above the norm for executive employees, as well as to more easily hire (and fire) employees during sharp changes of economic cycles or right after a new administration is elected. All city managers would prefer that all their employees were “at will”, of course. However, even states that are definitely anti-union like North Carolina, there’s still a high tendency to have most employees be “classified” rather than “at will” as it creates a more stable workplace and increases overall worker morale, as an attempt to keep other cities from outbidding/absconding with each other’s workers.

      For employees, “at will” jobs can be great for getting your foot in the door. My first job at PBOT was “at will” and I was lucky to have a boss who valued my work as an intern – I was able to get a couple of “at will” gigs during an economic downturn, eventually getting a limited term “classified” job when the economy improved. For people at the top, it allows well qualified people to be paid what they think they deserve (you’ll no doubt note the huge spread in salaries for the Director.)

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    JIm Lee April 5, 2019 at 8:52 am

    Thanks to David and to Todd for “at will” versus “classified” information.

    If Portland has this as public information for PBoT perhaps JM could generate a link to it.

    I am betting that Roger Geller is “at will.”

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    Jim Lee April 5, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    I lose! Thanks, David.

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    J_R April 5, 2019 at 5:50 pm

    The PBOT director works for the commissioner in charge of Transportation, a position that can be changed at will by the major. I can’t imagine a really good candidate accepting the position under those circumstances.

    We need structural change at the top: more council members (probably elected by district) who direct policy and look at the big picture; and a city manager responsible for implementing that vision. The current commission form of government reinforces individual fiefdoms and foster an attitude of “you keep your hands off my bureau, I’ll keep mine off yours.”

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      David Hampsten April 5, 2019 at 10:23 pm

      And yet all public governments are to some extent or another subject to drastic changes due to politics, as are DOT directors for both Portland-like commission governments and for city-manager governments. I don’t think any serious director candidate is really all that concerned about the form of city government Portland has, as long as it has a common vision, adequate funding and good leadership at the top.

      I can understand the discomfort than any reader of this blog has about our discussing the salaries, names, and classifications of particular government employees, but the reality is they are all being paid with public funds, paid through our taxes, including my Federal income tax. We have both a right and an obligation as citizens to know who is being paid how much and on what terms, for all our city, county, MPO, state, and federal staff, as well as elected officials. Are they being paid what they should be? Are they doing a good job? This is public information – the bigger the agency, the better they are at hiding such info, but the info is out there. If you are paid with public funds, you should have been informed by your HR organization that the public can find out quite a lot about you that isn’t as public if you had worked for a private firm or as self-employed. It’s the nature of the beast. I knew that when I worked for PBOT and I assumed everyone else knew that too.

      So I think it very appropriate that the Street Trust advise what the job description for the next PBOT director should be, just as I think it appropriate for us low-paid or unpaid advocates to discuss salaries and classifications of individual public employees, even by name, and Jonathan as a journalist to publish such discussions. It’s called democracy. We all should all embrace and engage in it.

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    Jim Lee April 6, 2019 at 8:58 am

    One more question for David:

    Back when Randy Leonard led a drive to transfer many “classified” folk to “at will.” How did that work out?

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      David Hampsten April 6, 2019 at 1:08 pm

      I was an intern when he was in office, so I wouldn’t know. It was only when I became more or less permanently unemployed in 2008 that I started to get involved with city budgets and hiring processes, especially at PBOT.

      In general, any government staff that is determined to resist change can do so effectively by slowing certain processes down, often long enough to outlast a one-term elected official. It gets harder if they are re-elected. It becomes nearly impossible if a successor carries on the policies of their predecessor. The older a government is, the more staff it takes to change a light bulb.

      From what I observed during the great recession of 2008-12 is that fee-based bureaus like Development Services (BDS) suffered huge lay-offs, while bureaus like PBOT that are nearly entirely funded with grants and contracts suffered from high attrition but no lay-offs to speak of (anyone who left was leaving or retiring anyway – they weren’t replaced, and those who jobs were rendered redundant were “retrained” for a job that was vacant.) But there also occurred a lot of “bumping” – many BDS planners displaced other planners in other bureaus based upon their overall city-wide seniority. But in general, the Portland city bureaucracy didn’t suffer nearly as badly as typical “at will” city governments in the Midwest or the South.

      Which is a good thing if you want to retain people with a lot of experience. But it can be a bad thing too, if you want sweeping reform and get rid of backward employees who are good at resisting change and new ideas. If you don’t mind me using Dilbert as an example, essentially the Great Recession affected PBOT by forcing out all the Asoks (bright interns) but kept all the Wallys, during 5 years of annual budget cuts.

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    Mary Beth Henry April 8, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    Hi,
    The problem is two-fold. #1 The form of government needs to go! It is archaic and ineffective. #2 Don’t just put out a job description, go out and reruit the best person for the job and don’t rely on the City’s HR department, which is mediocre at best. Hire recruiting talent. The job is too important. I am speaking from inside experience and as a 10 yr commuter by cycle to the City, working for Transportation, then Parks and finally Community Techonology for a total of 32 years.

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      rachel April 11, 2019 at 9:43 am

      ..Agreed on #1. That’s really the issue here. If Portland had a City Manager there would be a different mix of skills that would be needed for this position–skills that could focus on getting the job done, rather than keeping one’s job in a political fun house.

      And, include these principles in the job description:
      https://www.sharedmobilityprinciples.org

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