A cloud of witnesses at last month’s City Council hearings on the comprehensive plan update reproached developers and their allies for advocating their own interests while serving as city-designated advisers to the plan.
The fact of the undeclared conflicts of interest on the West Quadrant Stakeholders Advisory Committee has not been in question since a 2015 Portland Auditor’s office upheld an anonymously filed ethics complaint.
Westside citizens poured it on.
Spencer Burton spoke of “no transparency in robust conflicts of interest” by SAC members who “didn’t even dignify this council with disclosure” after being directed to do so by the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability.
Suzanne Lennard noted that five SAC members failed to make the disclosures, “two of whom appeared to benefit financially from the increased heights that will go forward under the current plan.”
Tracy Prince testified that “ethically conflicted developers are being enriched.”
Richard Lowensohn said, “I have protested earlier against the conflict of interest among the developers who voted on the liberalization of building heights and zoning, and that’s been amply covered here.”
Near the end of the second day of testimony, one of the SAC members identified for undisclosed conflicts had heard enough. Dan Petrusich, who served on the committee as a representative of Portland Business Alliance while he was a partner in Melvin Mark Cos., told the council he had been falsely accused.
Petrusich, who is now president of MMDC (formerly known as Melvin Mark Development Co.), was featured on the front page of the May 2016 NW Examiner under the headline, “Stakeholder gets juicy height bonus.” The story covered a special request he made to BPS for added height on his development site at 1853 SW Jefferson St.
The request was made to staff working on view protections in the CC2035 Plan, a finer-grained follow-up to the West Quadrant Plan, which the SAC oversaw.
“The Goose Hollow Foothills League [quoted in the story] claims I used my position as a Portland Business Alliance representative on the West Quadrant Stakeholders Committee to influence the decision to increase the height limit on our property,” Petrusich said.
“This claim is not only false but would have been impossible. The SAC committee’s last meeting was in September of 2014. The staff solicited comments on scenic resources, including the Vista Bridge, more than six months later in the spring of 2015. The West Quadrant SAC and scenic resources review occurred at different times and had different purposes. I submitted Jefferson Holdings’ first comment on May 29, 2015.”
Petrusich had chosen his words carefully. He used his influence to gain a greater height allowance on the Jefferson property, though this personal advocacy came after the SAC disbanded.
Had Petrusich never served on the SAC, his request for greater height allowances on this property may not have seemed untoward. But his work on the SAC, advocating for height increases affecting properties in which he had a stake and then brushing off an official request for disclosure, made him a marked man on the ethics score.
“This reply will serve as my disclosure,” read a statement he offered BPS instead of completing a form as requested. “I have been active in the commercial real estate business in Portland for over 30 years in a variety of capacities.”
He did not specify any properties or locations.
Petrusich questioned the fairness of the auditor’s investigation and speculated that the complainants were motivated by a desire to “block voices which do not agree with their own.”
In his testimony last month, Petrusich complained about the representation of a 130-foot-height-limit on his Jefferson property, the height ceiling in the draft plan until June 2016.
Height along the southern edge of the property was reduced to 45 feet in a later draft to preserve views of the Vista Bridge from Jefferson Street below. Petrusich lobbied to increase that to 75 feet, which he was granted in the next draft update.
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz has taken the conflicts of interest seriously since 2015 when she scolded her colleagues for allying with development interests seeking height increases.
After West End resident Wendy Rahm testified about the exclusion of downtown residents on the SAC and the danger of demolition that increased heights place on existing affordable housing, Fritz responded, “I agree with everything you said.
“Also, how are we going to correct the problems that were found? It is up to us, and that’s why I was asking the question about which particular properties should we look at more closely.
“I’d like as much information as we can get, both from the NW Examiner and the ombudsman, on which properties might have a conflict of interest,” Fritz said.
Mayor Ted Wheeler said he heard the concerns about height allowances and conflicts of interest.