PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Ahead of the upcoming legislative session, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler requested Governor-elect Tina Kotek and state lawmakers to prioritize several issues, including bolstering public defender salaries, addressing homelessness and lowering the bar to forcibly commit someone.
In a letter outlining the issues to Kotek and state lawmakers, Wheeler called for urgency.
Regarding Oregon’s public defender shortage, more cases are dropped every week.
The mayor says the shortage is not only impacting “all levels of Oregon’s courts,” but is also “eroding faith in our justice system and contributing to a public safety crisis in Portland.”
“The City of Portland respectfully requests that the Legislature take immediate action. Pass legislation to provide pay parity for public defenders and adhere to the American Bar Associations’ case caps,” Wheeler said in the letter.
In response, the Office of Public Defender Services says the mayor’s request shows he has a grasp of the issue.
“We support the Mayor’s ask and appreciate the steps the legislature has made so far. Mayor Wheeler clearly has a good grasp on the issue, and we appreciate his comprehensive and thoughtful approach. In Multnomah County, we are experiencing both a general shortage of attorneys doing this important work and also a specific deficiency in attorneys who have been practicing long enough to handle the more serious cases,” the Oregon Department of Public Defense Services told KOIN 6 News in a statement.
On homelessness, Wheeler echoed the Oregon Mayor Association’s request for the legislature to provide $40 per person in each city across Oregon. Statewide, Wheeler says this totals $123 million annually. In Portland, this totals $26 million; however, the mayor does not say how the city would spend the allocated funds.
For affordable housing, the mayor requests $200 million for the fast-track program, LIFT, for affordable housing. Wheeler additionally requested $10 million to buy land and $85 million for permanent supportive housing.
For Republican House Minority Leader, state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, it’s a lot of money to ask for with very few details.
“I think throwing dollars at it is not the answer. We need to audit the programs that are there. We need to ask our or agencies across the state, what is effective, what isn’t effective. And then we need to start having real conversations about what actually is going to help the person,” Breese-Iverson said.
Tess Seger, communications director for Oregon Senate Democrats said, “We agree that many of the issues raised by Mayor Wheeler demand urgent action, especially our unhoused crisis and public safety. We look forward to advancing legislation that will address these challenges in the city of Portland and around the state.”
Wheeler is also asking for changes to forcibly committing people in crisis, including lowering the bar to do so.
The Oregon Judicial Department has a committee working on suggestions, but Wheeler says the state can’t wait for those recommendations to land in 2025.
Wheeler says the state needs to act now to lower the threshold for civil commitments and change the length of time a person can be held who is experiencing meth or substance-induced psychosis. He’s also asking to allow looking further back into a person’s mental health history and expand the number of facilities and staff for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Breese-Iverson says that request has a good chance because her side of the aisle asked for it two years ago.
“Are they now realizing that the conversation we tried to have two years ago was real? And they ignored it? And now they want us to fix it?” Breese-Iverson questioned. “Oregon is such a diverse state. And we have such a diverse, diverse culture across the state, we need to honor that and make sure that we’re looking at each area of the state.”
The mayor also asked Kotek to deploy Oregon State Police to support traffic enforcement. OSP says they have had a history of assisting local agencies and will work with Kotek on this specific request.
“The Oregon State Police is aware of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s request to Governor Elect Kotek for assistance related to increased traffic enforcement in the City of Portland. We have a history of working with and if possible, supporting the Portland Police Bureau when requests for assistance are made. The Oregon State Police will continue to work with our partners and with Governor Elect Kotek to endeavor to keep people safe.”
The legislative session begins on Jan. 17.