Clean & Safe: A Dirty and Dangerous Contract for Portland

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Mon, 02/05/2024 - 9:00am to 10:00am


Clean & Safe: A Dirty and Dangerous Contract for Portland: Every year, Downtown Clean & Safe receives over $5 million to provide “enhanced services” to 213 blocks of Portland’s Central City. Yet below the surface of this seemingly benign contract lie threats to public transparency, public services, and even progressive public policies. In this segment, Guest Mole Alyssa Vitale explores how Portland business interests subsidize their anti-tax lobbying via a murky contract for sanitation and safety.


Image by Art Hazelton for WRAP

Image description: Text at top: PORTLAND Keep Public Space Public. Central image: stylized drawing of Portland, including in background Mount Hood, Broadway bridge, downtown buidlings, White Stag Portland Oregon Sign, and in foreground, an area labeled "Clean and Safe," with people walking through an entrance labeled "Welcome Shoppers," into an area enclosed by a high fence topped with barbed wire, surrounded by tents, and a person holding a protest sign that says "Streets for All." Text at bottom: Defund Private Policing. Dismantle ESDs. Logos at lower left: Right to Survive, Sisters of the Road, Western Regional Advocacy Project.


text/transcript (scroll down for audio): 

Imagine a city where the streets are policed by private armed guards, commercial real estate developers govern street health and safety, and money intended for sanitation lines the coffers of business lobbyists — all while politicians turn a blind eye.

            This dirty and dangerous world sounds like a nightmare, but it really exists: And it’s here in downtown Portland.

            Downtown Clean & Safe is the oldest of Portland’s three enhanced services districts, or ESDs. ESDs are a public-private partnership: The city subsidizes a private entity to effectively tax every property in the designated ESD zone to fund services beyond what the city offers. In the case of Clean & Safe, the private entity is the Portland Business Alliance, or PBA. PBA is an anti-tax lobbying group primarily representing multinational corporations, banks, corporate law firms, and commercial real estate companies. For nearly three decades, the Clean & Safe contract with the City of Portland has allowed PBA to control massive resources while policing public spaces and lobbying against progressive policy — all with virtually no oversight.

Through Clean & Safe, PBA collects over $5 million each year. Every property owner in the zone is mandated to pay into the ESD — not only big businesses and commercial property owners, but also homeowners, nonprofits, and public institutions like Portland State University, the City of Portland, and Multnomah County. Nearly 20 percent of the Clean & Safe budget comes from public institutions, meaning tax dollars fund the ESD.

But neither ratepayers nor the public can influence Clean & Safe: The ESD is governed by a self-appointed board. And it’s impossible to tell where PBA ends and Clean & Safe begins. There’s significant overlap between board members and staff for the two organizations. All but one Clean & Safe employee also works for PBA. And the Clean & Safe contract pays significant portions of the salaries of seven PBA staff members, including 45% of CEO Andrew Hoan’s salary and half the salary of a key lobbyist, PBA’s government affairs director. Clean & Safe also pays $26,000 a year to sit on the PBA board and shares the cost of office space with PBA.

By covering significant PBA costs, Clean & Safe subsidizes one of PBA’s chief activities: lobbying. And PBA’s lobbying efforts are prolific: Over the past decade, they lobbied city officials seven times more than any other organization. PBA has played a significant role fighting local progressive grassroots initiatives like charter reform, universal preschool, tenant protections, and Portland Clean Energy Fund. Since public institutions are Clean & Safe ratepayers, public money essentially subsidizes PBA lobbying against policies that voters approved.

Clean & Safe does not even directly provide the safety or sanitation services in its name. Clean & Safe contracts out for cleaning and controversial safety programs, which include paying salaries of extra Portland Police officers, hiring private security firms to patrol public streets in the ESD, and, most recently, a Downtown Hotel Security Zone. This new public-private partnership within a public-private partnership siphons even more public money to ESD personnel.

These irregularities have not gone unnoticed. In 2020, Portland’s City Auditor conducted an audit of the city’s ESDs. She found that Portland had limited oversight of ESDs and zero guidelines for ESD formation or governance, which led to overpolicing and prevented public oversight. The auditor recommended the City review the ESD program.

One year later, Clean & Safe’s contract was up for renewal. City Council had not yet responded to the audit, but PBA lobbied hard to renew its contract despite significant public opposition. Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty proposed a one-year renewal to complete the audit response, then reassess. Her amendment was voted down by Mayor Wheeler and every other commissioner: Mapps, Ryan, and Rubio. Clean & Safe’s contract was renewed through 2026.

Around the same time, the City hired an ESD coordinator to lead the audit response. This staffer dutifully engaged in public listening sessions, but before he could report his findings to City Council, his contract was not renewed, and many of his documents vanished from the City website.

In 2023, the City hired BDS Planning to review the ESD program. BDS consults on “establishing, managing, and renewing Place Management Districts,” another term for ESDs. BDS founder, Brian Douglas Scott, actually authored 1985 Oregon legislation that enabled ESDs like Clean & Safe to form. BDS’ pro-ESD bias shows in the firm’s draft report on Portland’s ESD program, which cites concerns that ESDs raised about the 2020 audit but minimizes the public pushback against ESDs.

After releasing the draft report in a poorly publicized meeting, BDS accepted public comment for just one month over the winter holidays. On February 14, BDS will present its final recommendations to City Council.

It’s unlikely the ESD evangelists at BDS will recommend pausing the ESD program, and even more unlikely that the PBA-friendly City Council will take any action that might jeopardize PBA’s control of downtown — or their executive salaries. So what can we do in response?

1. Show up for public meetings and comment. Do not allow this problematic public-private partnership to fade into the background.

2. Demand transparency and accountability from our public officials. Especially as a new batch of city councilors take over, we must remind them that they serve the people of Portland—not the business alliance.

3. Demand investment in essential public services like sanitation and behavioral and mental health. We should put our money into services that benefit everyone, offer good union jobs, and have public oversight — like the popular Portland Street Response or a public sanitation department.

The people of Portland deserve a better downtown than what business lobbyists are giving us. It’s up to us to demand better.

Learn more about ESDs in Portland:


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