PORTLAND, Ore. -- It's called the Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR), created a year and a half ago to help level the playing field between people of color and whites in the city of Portland. More than a million dollars worth of taxpayer money later, what has it accomplished?
One of the original ideas behind this office was that it would help bring paved sidewalks and fresh fruits and vegetables to poor parts of town. It hasn't done that. But it has taken on a power position, changing some key ways the city works.
Even as a concept, the Office of Equity was controversial, the brainchild of former Portland Mayor Sam Adams.
In May of 2011, he told KATU News "My goal is to have Portland be the city of the most equal opportunity and we're not providing that."
An Urban League study had found vast disparities between white people and minorities in Portland, but some city leaders questioned whether an entirely new city department was needed, whether it was redundant given what Portland's Office of Human Relations was already doing. Portland mayoral candidate Charlie Hales would eventually chime in during an April 2012 KATU news debate.
"I think we should look carefully at all of the special offices because there are functions that we must attend to like equity and the river but having a special office for healthy working rivers and a bureau of environmental services is one example of possible programmatic overlap," Hales said.
Still, the City Council signed off on it and funded it.
Now, a year and a half later, the On Your Side Investigators wanted to reveal what has this office done?
OEHR Director Dante James says it's led 30 training sessions for 600 city employees explaining equity, what it means, and how it can be applied. For example, how the Portland Water Bureau might consider hiring women or minority workers to lay pipe or how the Parks and Recreation Bureau might do so when hiring camp counselors.
James says OEHR has created an Equity Assessment Tool that each city bureau now has to fill out as part of its budget request. Bureaus must state whether staff reductions would impact employees of color and employees with disabilities.
The office has also changed how contractors are awarded bids for taxpayer-funded construction projects. The pre-qualification process now takes into account the contractor's history of hiring minority and women-owned companies as sub-contractors. That criteria is now just as important as whether the contractor finished projects on time and on budget.
It's been a struggle to understand what else the Office of Equity has accomplished. The office's annual report was due in September last year. It didn't come out until Jan. 8 of this year.
Why was it late?
"It was later than we'd hoped just because we were...honestly...we'd been working on it for a while, but we just kept adding more work to what we were doing," James says.
And to be fair, not all of the work has gone well. The annual report touts how the Office of Equity and Human Rights assisted the Somali community by providing them community meeting space. But that space, promised to the Somalis by former Mayor Sam Adams, turned out to be short-lived, lasting a mere six months. It was a space OEHR had leased and had vacated, but the Somalis have not accessed it since November 2013 when the city's lease expired.
Portland Urban League pushed for the creation of the Office of Equity and Human Rights. Its president Michael Alexander says the Urban League is closely monitoring OEHR's progress.
Alexander says he was disappointed OEHR's annual report came out late.
"I think part of that is that we look to have this data to drive other decisions," he says.
But he doesn't fault Dante James. Alexander says he's not convinced the new mayor, Charlie Hales, has taken ownership of this new office and made its work a priority.
"And to date, I don't know that I have enough to feel comfortable that it's on the path it needs to be on," says Alexander.
James is one of dozens of city employees who makes more money than the mayor. According to the Portland's Bureau of Human Resources, his salary is $140,691 a year. The mayor's is $128,107.
As for whether James is worth his paycheck, he says, "I'd like to think so but that's a question you have to ask the community and the people who utilize the services of this office."
Mayor Hales was out of town for the last couple of weeks as this report was prepared.
His spokesman, Dana Haynes, said in a statement "Michael Alexander’s concerns are fair. The mayor hears him and respects his opinions. You’ll recall the mayor took over all of the bureaus last year, then distributed them back to the Commissioners. He kept the Office of Equity and Human Rights. By keeping the office in his portfolio, he made it a priority. Wrangling the $21.5 million shortfall last year – the largest budget deficit anyone in Portland can remember – meant he didn’t spend enough times with most of his bureaus. But today we’re in the black, and this is a much different budget season. The mayor said we have a lot more to do to fold OEHR into the city's fabric, and to do it in a meaningful way. But we’re going to get there."