The Portland City Council meeting is our local answer to the Roman Forum. Concerned citizens of the community of Portland gather before the City Council to air their grievances every Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, Oct. 12, I attended the afternoon session of one of these meetings. Downtown Portland on a Wednesday afternoon has a unique atmosphere. A construction worker was pounding the pavement with a hammer in one hand and a sandwich in the other. After passing the cloud of construction dust, I arrived at the entrance to City Hall. I was surprised to find the lobby almost empty, aside from two security guards.
Past the two sets of double doors, four marble turnstiles form a wall that sits between the citizens and the rest of City Hall. A security guard woke up from his nap to ask me to remove all the metal from my pockets so the metal detector could be used on me. After narrowly passing the preliminary security check, I walked upstairs and down the hall to the entrance to the chambers. I got nervous trying to find a place to park, so entering a room with five of the most powerful individuals in the city was more than daunting.
The meeting was already in session when I arrived, and I took a seat on the outer edge of the chambers. A ring of pillars separated the outer seating from the clutter of chairs facing the city council desk.
I had come to the council meeting in hopes of finding humor or interest in the form of outraged citizens or confused council members. Instead, what I found was people who cared about their communities earnestly addressing a council, which the citizens believe are the only ones that can fix their problems.
The first group that spoke was attempting to convince the council to implement a set of new zoning laws for Portland. The committee was throwing out phrases like “capital investments,” “low-cost AMI planning,” and “infrastructure,” none of which I understood. However, the group was prepared and spoke with confidence, so I trusted every word.
After the panel had finished their presentation, a series of citizens spoke to the council on Zoom. A large screen (visible on the top right of the picture above) displayed a Zoom call with the faces of all the citizens that addressed the council members. Stephanie Ralph, the head of the Planning and Sustainability Commission, talked about the increase in housing prices in the Portland Metro Area. Another citizen voiced her discontent about the lack of sidewalks in her neighborhood.
In each of these interactions, I expected at least one moment of unprovoked anger or disrespect from either the Council members or a citizen of Portland, but I found only a sense of relief from the speakers that someone was listening to their issues.
One woman spoke about how her block had too many hills, and the room patiently waited as she used most of her three minutes to discuss the direction she took on her daily walks, but her problems never felt insignificant because she spoke about them genuinely.
After the meeting concluded, I spoke with Commissioner Mingus Mapps’ Aide, Goldann Salazar. She told me that “these meetings usually see the same people coming back every time.” After the return to in-person sessions, Salazar explained that far fewer people attend these meetings. “It’s much lower energy now.” As for outraged citizens, “we get angry and aggressive people, [but most people] are pretty calm.”
While the attendance at these meetings is low, there is still hope for larger meetings in the future. Regardless of the size of the meetings, the city council is still a great place for citizens to share their concerns in hopes of improving their community.