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Why the dog didn’t bark

On Oregon’s primary election night there was a mysterious dog that failed to bark in the night-time. Some explanation comes in an Oregonian story today, outlining a strategy and mindset – equal parts both – that could serve as a useful model for a number of growing jurisdictions.

The organizational dog was Metro, the planning and regional management organization for the three main metro counties of the Portland area (Multnomah, Wahsington and Clackamas). It’s human representative is David Bragdon, its elected president (its first, in fact, elected in 2002). Metro runs the region’s public transprotation (such as Tri-Met buses and MAX trains), some parks and other public facilities, and is in charge of region-wide planning: How and where and when, precisely, growth occurs and things are built, or not. Working in a visible position for Metro, in other words, is not a place to be if you’re easily upset by having people get mad at you: It seems unavoidable.

David BragdonAnd Metro is not exactly universally popular, but its work in the last few years has been vastly more widely accepted and approved that you might think. The hard evidence of that came in the primary election, when President Bragdon was not only re-elected, he was unopposed for re-election. And the two other commissioners on the ballot, who were opposed, won re-election overwhelmingly.

The tradition in matters of planning is work silently and present the opposition with a conclusion – an all but accomplished result. That tends to be true whether the clout resides more with development or conservation interests. In the case of Metro, the clout is pretty well divided. There’s a substantial development community with considerable force, but also a strong voter populace with (especially in Portland but some other places too) a strong environmental ethic.

Bragdon won election originally as the environmental candidate running against development interests. But he evidently concluded that trench warfare would lead to no progress for anyone. The Oregonian‘s sum-up of his approach at present: “Using incentives, Metro councilors intend to stay true to a vision of a vibrant, green metropolis without aggravating cranky voters. They hope it will break stalemates over land use and environmental protections that have stalled the Legislature and divided Oregonians. If successful, their methods could be copied elsewhere. The movement has gained a little traction. Metro recently persuaded builders to support a construction tax that jump-starts planning in new suburbs. New transportation money has been tied to economic development. And instead of banning construction on sensitive land, Metro officials are staging an eco-friendly design competition and doling out cleanup grants.”

More challenges are around the bend, including a large bond issue for land purchases. But the fact that Metro isn’t a whole lot more controversial than it is a remarkable feat by itself.

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