“A new culture takes time.”

Portland’s Chief Administrative Officer Michael Jordan on change management for 7,000 city employees.

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar
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Last week, Mayor Wheeler announced that the daunting task of reforming City Hall has left him too stretched to seek a third term.

If Wheeler seems swamped, meet Michael Jordan, Portland’s Chief Administrative Officer. He’s quietly racing against the clock to transition 7,000 city employees to a brand-new government structure by January 1, 2025.

Jordan typically works behind the scenes, ensuring that the wheels of government keep turning while elected officials focus on the hot-button issue of the day. Lately, however, Portland’s Chief Administrative Officer has found himself increasingly in the limelight. Why? Because when Portlanders passed a sweeping measure to reform city government last year, Jordan was picked to implement those changes.

The biggest lift is prepping Portland for a system where city commissioners no longer oversee bureaus. A hired professional administrator will manage city affairs, reporting directly to the mayor.

That means 7,000 city employees are going to get a new top boss.

Jordan, a city management veteran who also served four years as a Clackamas county commissioner, has a plan. His proposed org chart, outlining the hierarchy of the new government structure, is slated for a council vote in October. Spirited debate is all but guaranteed, particularly after news broke this week that Mayor Wheeler wants to consolidate all city bureaus under his control and test-run the new system with Jordan at the helm until 2025.

Amidst all this, Jordan carved out time for a chat with Rose City Reform.

Under Portland’s new charter, the city administrator oversees most bureau directors, but the police chief and the city attorney report directly to the mayor. How does that work?

To some degree, the new charter points you in two different directions. On one hand, the mayor appoints the Chief of Police, and the Council confirms. You could take that to mean that the mayor alone supervises the chief. On the other hand, the charter makes all city employees accountable to the city administrator. When I was the city manager in Canby, Oregon, I experienced a similar dynamic. The council could hire and fire the police chief, but I had day-to-day managerial oversight. So, it’s not unprecedented for it to be this way. But it does create a little confusion in people’s minds about “okay, who’s on first?”

Okay, so who’s on first?

Think of it this way: The mayor and the city administrator, collectively, make up the office of the executive. Their roles have separate authorities, but in the day-to-day, think of them simply as “the executive”. They’ll need to be in each other’s hip pocket on all things, not just on how the police chief is doing.

The mayor will appoint the city administrator with council confirmation. Does this mean that the city administrator has a dual allegiance to the mayor and the council?

Certainly, council confirmation implies that the administrator must be attuned to both legislative and executive dynamics. It would be ill-advised for the executive branch to drift away from the legislative branch. They have to work closely together for the city to be successful. The city administrator’s role is structured to be responsive to both branches of government because the council can remove the city administrator with a supermajority, and the mayor can do so unilaterally. I think that’s an appropriate balancing of allegiances.

In the org chart, the mayor supervises the new “Portland Solutions” office, which handles programs like neighborhood districts and homeless shelters. Shouldn’t the city administrator oversee these, as the charter asks the mayor to delegate city administration?

Many of the programs included in “Portland Solutions” stem from an emergency declaration by the mayor and currently operate out of the mayor’s office. So the mayor needs to retain authority over them, at least for a while. But yes, ultimately that area of work needs to transition to the city administrator. The mayor’s chief of staff has said as much, and I believe we’ll get an opinion from the city attorney to that effect. Over time, the biggest value of “Portland Solutions”, if we can construct it correctly, would be for the office to serve as a conduit for district-centric concerns, ensuring that the broader bureaucracy can stay focused on citywide issues.

What type of district-centric concerns would that be?

Everything from minor complaints, like a neighbor’s fence being too tall, to a major arterial that needs capital maintenance. The city needs an efficient system to address these concerns, particularly when they span multiple bureaus. I don’t mean to be cynical, but in our current system, we quite often get folks who go shopping for the response they want from different bureaus. With a central point of contact, we can give a timely and organized response. Sometimes, the answer is “no”. Sometimes it’s “you bet, we can get someone out there tomorrow.”

There’s another new office called “council operations.” What’s that?

The council operations office has several functions. It supports the legislative branch in staffing, procurement, budgeting, and human resources. It also handles communication between the twelve legislators and our 7,000 city employees. We want to make sure that legislation can move efficiently and that the council has the information it needs to do its job.

Will the new district-based council have shared staff?

We are currently developing a staffing plan. It will likely involve some shared staff for district offices, but individual council members may also want personal staff support. We also expect to staff council committees, which will be an important part of the legislative process.

Where will the district offices be located?

We have decided to defer that decision to the new council. Plans are underway to renovate City Hall’s second floor to house all twelve council members and some shared staff. Once the new council is seated, we’ll discuss their vision for district offices. There are tradeoffs associated with offices outside of City Hall, both in terms of cost and security. Times are different now than they were twenty years ago and this organization spends a fair bit of money on elected officials’ personal safety.

Once the org chart is confirmed, how will you manage the transition?

Once the council confirms the new structure, we’ll immediately move into change management mode. A lot of our internal focus will be on staff. It’s going to take time to get all bureau management and staff accustomed to being accountable to a single person.

And who is that single person: the mayor or the city administrator?

The city administrator. At least according to the charter.

How will accountability change under the new system?

Some people look at the org chart and say, “Well, I see five deputy city administrators. How is that different than having five city commissioners in charge of different bureaus?” My answer is that the city administrator will hire people with managerial experience and public sector training. That doesn’t happen with city commissioners. Secondly, in our current system, the city commissioners aren’t accountable to each other, or to the mayor. They’re accountable to the public every four years. In our new structure, those five deputy administrators will be accountable to the city administrator, who is ultimately accountable to both the council and the mayor. That’s a very different cultural environment. Will that culture happen instantly? No. Culture takes time. Behaviors don’t change just because you print a new org chart. It will probably take several years for everyone to acclimate to these new cultural norms.

What do the changes mean for city staff?

For the vast majority of city employees, life won’t change at all. For others, it will be a massive readjustment. My office, for instance, will cease to exist. So, ironically, my team probably needs more change management than anyone else.

Do you have a comment on Mayor Wheeler’s suggestion that you step in as interim city administrator?

I hope that at some point the mayor and the entire city council can agree on the appointment of an interim city administrator, regardless of who it is. It’s important to lay the foundation for a smooth transition when elected officials take office in January 2025. I currently serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and I don’t have any further comment about who might be appointed as an interim city administrator.

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