Baby Face Sten Battles with Business and Doesn’t Back Down
a damned socialist!”
— unidentified Portland businessman on the political philosophy
of Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten.
is the boy wonder who began his public life in Portland at age 23 working
part time as a swim instructor and helping his friend, Gretchen Miller
Kafoury, win a seat on the Portland City Council. Sten, whose mom was
a social worker and whose dad was
a Yale educated attorney with the Oregon Attorney General’s office,
had recently graduated from Stanford with an English degree and, was looking
for a newspaper job. After being turned down by the Oregonian and doing
a little freelancing at Willamette Week, Sten begged a job on Kafoury’s
City Hall staff, later became her chief of staff, and has never looked
Over his nearly 13 years in the public eye Sten has changed his hairstyle,
but not his politics. He’s still to the left of the left. Though
less overtly combative and strident these days, Sten has learned to play
the political game with the big kids, using his growing political muscle
to bring people in line with his beliefs, all the while flashing his “What,
me worry?” gap-toothed grin. To the vanquished he’s a sonofabitch;
to people in his camp he’s Erik the great.
established as the next new thing by the Oregonian newspaper. The anointment
with printer’s ink began in 1995 when Sten, along with former Grant
High School buddy, Deborah Kafoury (Gretchen’s daughter), and Portland
newbie, Eugene native Serena Cruz (now married to developer Tom Walsh,
Jr.—an old high school and college buddy of Sten’s), harnessed
the Generation X enthusiasm and started their own political action committee.
X-PAC was created to bankroll young, up-and-coming candidates (And it
has. To date, all three have been elected to office). X-PAC excited the
hard-bitten political scribes and gossip mavens alike and gave them a
fresh angle. The local news fawning frenzy began.
Sten ran for a spot on the city council within months of X-PAC’s
birth. While the Oregonian’s editorial board gave its endorsement
to a better-known candidate in his first election, Sten enjoyed glowing
news stories about his youth and exuberance. In one of his more naïve
moments, or maybe after overly imbibing in a beer named for him by his
friends at the Lucky Labrador Pub—Dark Horse Ale—the candidate
told reporters he wouldn’t take contributions over $25, and if elected,
promised to give his salary to Portland area food banks. The campaign
promises didn’t stick and Sten now looks shocked when asked about
them and swears he never uttered the words. By his second campaign for
Portland City Council just months later, Sten had established himself
as the front-runner—if just in the mind of the wags at the Oregonian.
Maybe because his last name was shorter than his opponents’ (among
them [Chuck] Duffy and [Lucious] Hicks), or maybe due to fans back at
the paper, Sten’s name almost always found its way into the campaign
headlines. When more than one name did appear, Sten’s was usually
listed first. In one especially bizarre handling of a story before the
election, The Oregonian’s headline read, “Sten is tops-at
least on the Sept. 17 ballot.” The story was about whose name would
appear first on the ballot among several candidates vying to take over
Earl Blumenauer’s old seat. The apparent favoritism continued: “Cash
pours in to Sten effort” and “Sten and Duffy come out on top”
in the runoff election. After Sten won, it probably came as no surprise
to read: “Commissioner Sten: off to a quick start” and “Sten
driven to tackle the future.”
The Oregonian, with a solid assist from lefty-leaning Willamette Week,
made Erik Sten.
Asked to play a little fill-in-the-blank game with a reporter, Sten obliges:
If someone asks me to oversee a major computer billing system changeover
“I’ll give them really good advice for free, but politely
Sten’s first city hall assignment was taking over the Water Bureau.
Now, Sten is sick of the Water
He brings it up to show he isn’t afraid to speak of it, but in truth,
the Water Bureau could have (should have?) been Sten’s Waterloo.
That it wasn’t must go down as a lesson in political spin and survival
and voter a) forgiveness, b) apathy, c) stupidity. The Water Bureau was
gushing money by the time Sten got fired from that assignment (Mayor Katz
says Sten wasn’t fired, just reassigned in light of Charlie Hales’
departure). The Water Bureau still is gushing money and will be for a
very long time.
The Water Bureau story is told in the local press as if it’s a budget-run-amok-debacle.
It is. But it’s also a story of an environmental experiment gone
bad. Too bad the Water Bureau couldn’t reduce, re-use, and recycle
all the money wasted on Sten’s experiment. The problems started
when the 28-year-old thought he should update the bureau’s billing
system to charge more for large water users and less for people and companies
that conserved. Fair enough. His inspiration for revamping the system
was the so-called “Natural Step” environmental belief system,
founded by a Swedish oncologist. The Natural Step holds that enviros are
getting bogged down with the details of policy and should agree on what
founder Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert calls core systems conditions which would
all elements of society, businesses, governments and individuals.
These core principles are: 1) Materials from the earth’s crust must
not be allowed to systematically increase in nature (e.g. mining and use
of fossil fuels) 2) Persistent (read: non degradable) substances produced
by society must not systematically increase in nature (e.g. CFC’s,
DDT, plastics) 3) The physical basis for the earth’s productive
natural cycles and biological diversity must not be systematically deteriorated
(e.g. overfishing, habitat destruction) 4) Therefore, if we want life
to continue, we must a) be efficient in our use of resurces to promote
justice-because ignoring poverty will lead the poor, for short term survival,
to destroy resources that we all need for long-term survival (e.g. the
rainforests). *from the website In Context, the quarterly of humane, sustainable
culture Sten told the Business Journal of Portland in February 2001, “I’ve
been really promoting The Natural Step.the water bureau has really tried
to take it on full steam. One additional angle I’ve been trying
to push is that the city place more focus on issues of environmental technology
Unfortunately, the taxpayers needed someone concerned about their financial
sustainability. Through mismanagement, over selling on the part of the
contractor, Severn Trent, and plain stupidity, the
initial $6.5 million cost of the computer switchover
has ballooned to as much as $30 million and counting.
Just days before Sten ordered the new billing system
to be turned on, the team assigned to implement the computer system outlined
49 flaws—including some major ones—in a memo to Sten and his
point man on the project, Mike Rosenberger. It urged that their
go-live deadline be pushed back.
someone wasn’t delivering memos that day. Or maybe somebody wasn’t
reading them. Sten and Rosenberger ordered the system turned on and the
old one turned off without even running a shadow program. Chaos ensued.
When the memo surfaced in the news nearly a year later, Sten and Rosenberger
claimed, never to have seen it.
Some customers received bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars (one
small Portland firm received a bill for $399,000.), some received no bill,
and there was no way to check to see who had paid and who hadn’t.
The ‘say what?’ calls to city operators went on for days,
weeks, months. Eventually Rosenberger took the fall—and a $120,000
severance deal. Not bad for a guy who was making $105,000 per year.
Dumping all that money into the computer commode, naturally stepping in
it, and then leaving the taxpayers to pay for wiping up the mess, struck
anyone paying attention as a, ahem, wasted opportunity to do something
better with all that money. After the computer chips hit the fan, Erik
Sten embarked on his humility tour. “I’m sorry,” was
never far from his lips. “Policy and software are different jobs,
and I’ve always focused on the policy side of things,” he
told a gathering once. “We’re making a bad bet if I’m
the firewall between good and bad decisions on software.”
Asked if he should have simply resigned his position due to the debacle,
Sten said no, he did the right thing to hang in and try to fix it. Sten
friend and parking garage magnate Greg Goodman, who’s married into
the Schnitzer clan, said, “Erik didn’t bull—. He owned
up to it and didn’t lie. Everybody makes mistakes.”
When Commissioner Dan Saltzman was named to take over by the mayor in
June of 2002, he immediately declared the new system would have to be
scrapped and another new one installed at a cost of at least $26 million.
Add to that the cost of uncollected bills, Y2K upgrades to the old system
because the new one wasn’t ready, and the $385,000 per year for
the next three years for Severn Trent must run the computer, minus the
$7 million that Severn Trent coughed up for all the trouble and taxpayers
are out roughly $49 million bucks. That’s enough to pay for more
than a few Buenos Aires United Nations environmental junkets, bucko.
STAY. GOOD BUSINESS!
When you need money you go to the bank. When the city of Portland needs
money it goes to the bank—the business community—pulls out
a gun, and ’jacks it.
By one estimate in 1990 Multnomah County boasted 132,000 jobs. By 2000
it was slightly more than half that. As the go-go ’90s gave way
to the sluggish 2000s, and the programs that had been swimming in money
weren’t anymore, Katz, Sten and company simply went to their default
position: get the gun and go to the bank. When the schools needed money,
they immediately called a meeting, got the gun and went to the bank to
demand an increased business tax. To some it looked as if Portland business
served at the pleasure of the city instead of doing what it should have
been expected to do: make a buck, hire some employees, be a good corporate
citizen, and cut a check for the occasional civic event. It wasn’t
working that way and businesses were leaving as a result. As civic, arts
and business leader Pete Mark told Willamette Week, “I think that
we’ve gotten into a situation where an extreme group is running
Not that the business leaders didn’t do their part to encourage
it, mind you. Apparently suffering from political Munchausen syndrome,
business leaders stepped up in 2000 and offered to tax themselves a bit
more to help fund Portland Public Schools. In January when the state legislature
referred the Measure 28 income tax increase to the voters, the biggest
business group in town, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), supported
it—albeit without much enthusiasm. When the PBA asked the city to
change the business tax structure from a tax on income to a payroll tax,
it even provided some $30 million to schools—when it had already
been bailing them out. And when the PBA forayed into making political
endorsements for the city council races for the first time, they endorsed
Randy Leonard, a ‘big-D’ Democrat state legislator, who was
more business friendly than say opponent Serena Cruz, but whose business
experience came from running a labor union.
Anyone who’s been mugged knows the cops aren’t going to be
there every time to help you out. Eventually you have to take steps to
protect yourself. Never was that more clear to small businesses as when
Portland based sportswear giant Columbia Sportswear wanted to move from
its outgrown St. John’s home to a premier spot on the Willamette
River and the city and county pulled every political trick in the book
to foil it. The political chicanery forced the international business
concern to move to Washington County. So last summer the Portland Chamber
of Commerce and the Association for Portland Progress merged to attempt
to become a greater political force for business than ever before. And
then the newly formed Portland Business Alliance decided to go out and
get itself a big ol’ watch dog.
Kim Kimbrough and Erik Sten have been nose to nose ever since.
“We’re talking about a massive cultural change taking place
among the business community,” says Dan Yates, owner of the Portland
Spirit party cruise line on the Willamette River.
“There’s been a definite change in the way business deals
with the city,” parking lot operator Greg Goodman, agrees. “Businesses
have been crushed in this town and the [Portland Business] Alliance knows
that because its members are telling them. Now the Alliance is pushing
back more than they ever have. Erik doesn’t like the tactics the
alliance takes, for instance on the Iraq thing and the sit/lie ordinance,
but the Portland Business Alliance says ‘we want accountability.’”
“[The city’s] relationship with business has been more combative
in the past few years. They’ve been taking more extreme positions
than they have in the past and I disagree with some of those,” says
Sten refers to the pressure exerted by the executive director, Kim Kimbrough,
and the Alliance to keep the council from passing a resolution condemning
a war against Iraq. The Alliance claimed the city should keep its vision
focused on local issues, not on issues over which it has no control and
which could have a negative impact on tourism and the perception of Portland
in the eyes of the rest of the country. The Alliance also targeted one
of Sten’s soft spots: the homeless and poor.
The Alliance gives money and aid to the poor and homeless, but when the
business group proposed cleaning up the city’s image by ticketing
people who slept in doorways and sat all day on the sidewalks, Sten’s
civil liberties sensibilities were singed.
“Sitting down is a civil liberty,” Sten preaches. “I
don’t like their [PBA’s] approach to trying to sweep homeless
people off the streets. I’m not anti-business. Saying I’m
anti-business because of the way I want to deal with homeless people is
like saying I’m against kids because I think the way we’re
funding schools isn’t smart. And I don’t buy it.” Sten
has his fans who believe he’s been fair to business interests in
the city. He himself believes he’s pro-business when it makes sense.
“I think it’s a bad debate to say I’m pro or anti-business.
It has to do with the context of the situation,” says Sten. “You
have to be a moron to say that business isn’t important to Portland.”
The Oregonian wrote a glowing article in June of 2001 about how the former
“brash Gen-Xer” had grown up in the job, mentioning in passing
that the Water Bureau debacle had been “humbling” to the lad.
dealings with Sten have run the gamut between their occasional sushi lunches
to pitching the city for an ice rink for in Pioneer Square. They’ve
left him with good feelings about the competency of the commissioner.
“Erik is a doer. Erik wants business to do well,” Goodman
says. “He helped a tremendous amount in the west end [to break the
20-year permit drought near the north park blocks]. Erik understands that
quality of life begins with a job. He has taken an active role in the
North Macadam plan [connecting to OHSU with an aerial tram].”
Ann Gardner, with Schnitzer Investment Corporation, which would like to
develop some of its land adjacent to the North Macadam plan, says Sten
is, “a warm-hearted, kind man,” who is “intellectually
curious and has a very strong network of advisors.”
“I don’t have a problem with Erik,” says Ron Beltz,
who oversees business properties in Portland for multi-national corporation,
Louis Dreyfus. Beltz is the former chairman of the now defunct Association
for Portland Progress and is currently with the Portland Business Association.
“He went a little overboard in his [recent] quotes in the Mercury
[a downtown Portland alternative weekly], but they’re not that much
worse than quotes I’ve seen around the country about some people.”
A little overboard? Sten likened the Portland Business Alliance to “Frankenstein’s
monster.” The article, which excoriated Kimbrough and questioned
why the business community has so much power at City Hall, obviously struck
a chord with the iconoclastic Sten, who gleefully piled on with further
comments on why the towns-people should come after this monster. Now Sten
says he was having a little fun in the interview but was making the point
that the city council had essentially created the Alliance monster by
allowing it city funds to use.
So while Sten had few concerns about trashing the business community’s
Kimbrough in the Mercury article and in a subsequent Willamette Week smear,
individual members of Portland’s downtown crowd, particularly those
with frequent business before the council, are loathe to comment publicly
about Sten. Something about not biting the hand that feeds you?
AND THAT WHICH THE CITY GIVETHS.
The Portland Business Alliance receives, as many such organizations around
the country do, some of its funding from the host cities. Part of their
money goes to marketing the city of Portland around the region and the
country. The other part goes to pay for the programs to keep the core
business area clean and safe. Early in the APP’s existence, companies
in the core area of downtown voted themselves a tax assessment to clean
up downtown. The city collects that for businesses and gives back part
of it to fund the organization. In an attempt to attract shoppers to downtown,
the city also gave the APP the job of running its so-called Smart Park
garages. The deal was, the APP ran the garages and the city got a cut.
After the merger, the new PBA had 41 employees and an $11 million budget,
and among the assets was the garage deal.
After Kimbrough had a few run-ins with Sten and Mayor Katz, however, something
odd happened: the city, for the first time, asked the PBA to give it a
full accounting of all the money. Kimbrough told the city to go pound
sand and that’s when another odd thing happened: the city decided
that, after all these years, it would be better for taxpayers if that
Smart Park contract went out to the competitive bidding process.
“Purely vindictive,” says one Portland business owner.
Sten doesn’t deny it. When asked why the city didn’t ask for
competitive bidding five, six, eight years ago, he sidesteps the question
and declares, “It’s a sweetheart deal. I wasn’t even
aware they were getting that much money out of it and it’s my fault.
If I’m culpable for not knowing those guy were getting that much
money out of taxpayers you’re absolutely right, but that probably
doesn’t follow that I should ignore it. It’s time to have
a bidding contest.”
HOT DIGNITY DOG
Dog Dave stands in the middle of the tent city and points, “There’s
what we call Lake Dignity.” He laughs at the encroaching lake of
water that looks as if any minute will be soaking into the bottom of a
large tent. “Don’t worry;” he assures a visitor, “it
Dave’s dog meanders the camp sniffing around the rows of junk around
huts made from found objects and tarp—lots of it—that make
up Portland’s longest running homeless camp, Dignity Village. Dignity
Village visited itself upon Portland in 2000 when a homeless activist
came to town, chatted up the street people, set up camp downtown, and
tried to pick a fight with the city, hoping to shame leaders into letting
the rag tag band squat where they wanted. It worked.
Now, three years later the group has ballooned to 60-70 people on a slab
of asphalt next door to the jail near the airport. Now, there are three
meeting places for villagers, including a white bus with the words “Dignity
Village” on the destination banner above the windshield, a main
hut where it looks as if someone found the mother of all window junkyards
there are so many of them, and another bus where three computers with
internet access are crammed into what is called the “job center.”
The job center is where the action is on this day. One man is playing
solitaire, another is surfing the Internet, and two others are commiserating
in the bus that is liberally papered with anti-war posters. Dignity Villagers
are a political bunch and decidedly anti-war. When asked about it, one
man, sourly responds, “Oh, yeah, let’s just bomb them. Why
This is Erik Sten’s kind of place. He helped create it.
Sten is the city’s expert on housing issues. Currently he’s
working to pass a real estate transaction tax, which would put a half
a percentage point premium on any real estate deal to go into a fund for
low-income housing. He’s married to a low-income housing activist,
Marnie Vlahos. He believes Dignity Village is an experiment worth pursuing.
“When they were camping under the Fremont Bridge, I made a strategic
decision after going to the mayor that I would approach the villagers
with compassion and not just sweep them out. What they wanted was a confrontation
and I wasn’t going to do it. Lo and behold it grew into, not a solution
for homelessness by any way, shape or form, but a pretty interesting and
worthwhile project. I don’t think this is a substitute for transitional
housing or shelters, but on the other hand I think the notion that people
may be able to do something for themselves with dignity—it’s
worth exploring. I mean, give me a little credit, I gave these guys a
lousy concrete pad and they’ve gone out there and made it work.
They’re not getting anything from the government.”
Sten arranged for donors to help pay for the use of the slab, arranged
a Tri Met bus stop for them, let them
plug their extension cords into city electrical outlets (which Villagers
got donors to pay for) and got them Internet access. Columbia Sportswear
should have had it so good.
Now Villagers have their own website, email addresses, a “Survivor”-like
system of self-government, possess 501© (3) non profit tax status
to better beg for donations, and lobby city hall on a host of issues,
among them, the anti-war resolution recently reintroduced by Sten, which
fell to defeat.
The Oregonian, usually a Sten fan, argued in a 2002 editorial, “Sustainability
may be a fine goal in some arenas but making homelessness more sustainable
makes no sense as public policy. We should be doing what we can to move
the homeless into housing. Dignity Village helps the homeless stay homeless.”
The story goes that when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown came to town
some months back, he gave city leaders a little dose of “what for.”
Some Portlanders who heard him speak had to chuckle. The mayor of the
city that has experimented with giving homeless people shopping carts
to give them a sense of “ownership,” shook his head at and
wagged his finger at city leaders for allowing Dignity Village to flourish.
The imperious and liberal mayor of the one of the nation’s far left
cities was remembering the old days when a tent city encampment stayed
for years near San Francisco’s city hall. Even Willie Brown booted
Back at Dignity Village, Dog Dave is considering his future work. He thinks
he has a gift for training animals and may pursue it as a career. He’s
skipped around from city to city and says he’s found a home here.
He’s been on the street since he was 15. He’s 35 now.
Erik Sten is nothing if not an opportunist. When Enron went toes up due
to cooking the books and shady power trades, Sten became interested in
buying one of its premier properties, Portland General Electric. The city
that has to raise taxes on business at every turn now apparently has the
fiscal juice to buy the utility. Sten uses the bad boys of Enron to sell
the idea of taking over the utility by the good guys (the city) so such
a thing could never happen again. The Portland Business Association called
it “a hostile take over” because Sten’s plan is to use
the power of the city’s eminent domain law to condemn PGE in order
to seize it.
Not one of the dozen or more business leaders BrainstormNW spoke to thinks
this is a good idea.
Sten started floating the idea of buying the utility last summer. He began
lobbying the mayor and she soon caught the vision, agreeing to spend $500,000
for a feasibility study. Soon Sten started playing up the slogan “Get
Enron Out of Portland,” and signs parroting his slogan began turning
up at meetings.
lot of us wouldn’t mind if those Enron guys go to jail,” a
Portland business leader, who didn’t want to be identified, told
BrainstormNW. “But PGE was a well run company. PGE is a model corporate
citizen. It would be criminal to take it over.”
“For God’s sake,” he goes on, “we’ve got
roads, bridges to look after and water and sewage computer systems
to pay for. We’ve got 100 things the government is supposed to do—running
PGE shouldn’t be one of them.”
Sten believes this is right up the government’s alley, “I don’t believe that government should do that which
only the private sector can’t do. I think the private sector did
fine at producing electricity, but
when the private market does well at providing the electricity it’s
it’s a true free market,
the government has granted it a monopoly.”
that reasoning, Sten believes, why not just take the whole thing over?
Sten sees it as a way to fight back at the good old boys network and protect
ratepayers at the same time, “Who sold PGE? Who got rich off that?
Who sold U.S. Bank to the guy who owned the house next door to the CEO
in Palm Springs?” asks Sten. “The PGE governing body made
the decision to sell to Enron. They didn’t know Enron was probably
one of the most corrupt companies in the history of this country.”
One of Sten’s more bracing arguments for buying PGE is to make sure
the utility doesn’t get broken up and sold off piecemeal in bankruptcy
court. But, just as private sector utilities don’t operate in a
vacuum, neither would publicly run utilities. The Public Utilities Commission
would have a say in the matter in how the utility would be disposed, just
as it has power over the rates now. And the PUC has gone on record as
vowing to oppose any real or imagined break up of PGE’s assets.
Besides, it would be a bad business move to break up PGE and sell it off
a piece at a time. “It’s pretty much an integrated unit and
breaking it up would diminish its value,” says one.
Having the city own the utility, however, makes it even more vulnerable
to the political whims of those setting policy. It’s easy to see
how Sten and company’s environmental, work place, and contrarian
views would make their way into the day to day policies of a utility over
which the city had oversight.
Like PGE Park, when the city set forth standards which required operators
to pay a “liveable” wage (well above minimum wage), have lower
ticket and concession prices, and pay a huge percentage of the concession
proceeds to the city—a nearly untenable business plan—it’s
quite easy to see how the same scenario would play out when the city’s
powerful social engineers run the power.
“The only thing Erik knows is government service. He doesn’t
understand wealth creation,” says a Portland businessman who has
dealt with Sten for years, and who, fearing city retribution, wants to
remain anonymous. “He actually believes [wealth creation] is evil.
He believes in wealth redistribution. How else could he call for a real
estate tax in a recession? How else could he call for public financing
Or as another put it, “He’s a damned socialist.”
Sten: “As far as being a socialist, I think I’m less interested
in labels and more interested in funding things for people who need it.
I think the community needs to provide affordable housing, health care
and all those things.”
Look on the bright side—when you’ve been tapped out, Sten
may let you set up your own Dignity Village.
SIDEBAR: THE ERIK STEN
10/67—Sten is born in New Haven, Connecticut to his mom, Peggy,
a social worker, and dad Erik G. Sten, a law student
1969—Moves with family to Portland; attends Irvington Elementary
and Fernwood Middle School.
1975—Parents divorce. Erik’s dad is assistant Oregon state
attorney general (later leaves legal work and is an avid runner; eventually
writes the Hood to Coast Relay book “36 Legs, 24 Feet, The Underground
Hood to Coast Manual”).
1985—Graduates from Grant High School, named “Outstanding
Student,” runs track, wrestles, is a drama student and National
Merit Scholar. On student newspaper staff with Deborah Kafoury (now Oregon
House Democrat leader), and is a buddy of Tom Walsh, Jr. (a developer,
now married to Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz and whose father
is Tom Walsh, a successful building contractor, former Tri Met chief and
1989—Graduates from Stanford University with a B.A. in English.
Covers college sports for Stanford Daily, works as a bouncer at a nearby
nightclub (where he sees Red Hot Chili Peppers and Grateful Dead), member
Beta Theta Pi fraternity (whose charter was yanked a few years after Sten
left), campus activist. Receives internship in Washington D.C. Mayor Marion
Barry’s first administration (before Barry is caught dealing crack).
Gets political bug.
9/90—Begins work for Gretchen Miller Kafoury’s (Deborah’s
mother) election team and then Portland City Commissioner office as a
gofer; eventually begins work on low cost housing issues; hits Oregonian’s
6/92—Sten and Kafoury propose city takeover of mortgages for 350
north and northeast Portland residents cheated by Dominion Capital, a
mortgage company, whose principals eventually are found guilty of bilking
a homeowner of $6,549.00.
1993—Elevated to Chief of Staff to Kafoury.
1994—Marnie Vlahos, Sten’s longtime girlfriend, and housing
activist, is selected to head programs at the non-profit corporation,
the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative, which Sten has helped
form to take over the old Dominion Capital mortgages.
1994—Backers of the then-proposed Chinese Garden are upset to learn
Sten is working to place a shelter for mentally ill homeless people across
the street from the tourist site. Backers of the garden call shelter a
magnet for the homeless, a complaint Sten downplays.
1995—Wins two awards for his work on housing issues, one from the
state of Oregon, one from a homeless advocacy group.
10/95—Sten, Deborah Kafoury, and now Multnomah county commissioner,
Serena Cruz, get in the generation X groove and form the political action
committee, X-PAC, to raise money for younger political candidates. Cruz
is a friend of Sten’s father-in-law and is Tom Walsh’s daughter-in-law.
The Oregonian’s news side and gossip columnist fall all over themselves
to breathlessly tell the news of the Gen-X angle. Sugar shock ensues.
5/96—Sten runs and loses for council opening when commissioner Mike
7/96—While running for another open seat, candidate Sten tells the
Oregonian, “If we eliminate special interests, we can make government
work for everyone. That is why I’m accepting no contributions over
$25…and if elected will donate my salary to Portland food banks.”
Now says he never remembers making that promise.
7/96—While the Oregonian editorial board eventually endorses an
opponent, the news side’s election coverage includes fawning articles
on wunderkind Sten.
9/96—Sten rakes in twice as much in political contributions leading
up to election. The Oregonian reports Sten’s major contributors
include Tom Walsh, senior; Walsh’s wife, Patricia McCaig, former
chief of staff to Gov. Barbara Roberts, then a Metro Counselor, now political
operative working with Portland pollster, Tim Hibbitts; Gretchen Kafoury;
and outgoing commissioner, Earl Blumenauer.
11/96—Sten is elected to fill the term left by Blumenauer’s
departure for Congress. Sten is 29. Assignments include overseeing Public
Works, including Water Bureau and Housing. Eventually Serena Cruz is hired
as an aide.
1997—Named as “Ones to Watch” by the Oregon Business
Journal. (In retrospect, perhaps they should have watched a little closer.)
1997—Sten elects to upgrade Water Bureau’s computer billing
system at a cost of $6.5 million. It includes a “greening up”
using the “Natural Step” sustainability model to include incentives
for water savers, billing business users—especially large water
users—more and attempting to extinguish what the “Natural
Step” program defines as injurious behavior to the environment.
Computer system to go online 12/98.
10/97—On the issue of Gen X-ers not voting, Sten claims, “The
idea that to make a difference you always have to vote is, to me, pretty
11/97—Council decides to raise business taxes to help Portland Public
Schools. Business and city leaders have worked out a 0.05 percent increase,
but Sten is the “one lone official calling for a minimum acceptable
increase: 0.75 percent.” Business groups get ticked off.
6/98—There have been some strong signals sent by the City Council
that, “despite some of the setbacks, there’s going to be constant
political support of gay rights on the council,” said City Commissioner
Erik Sten, who co-sponsors the “human dignity” ordinance with
1998—Sten is presenter at United Nations Conference of the Parties
on Climate Change in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
1998—Re-elected to council. Sets contribution records for council
races. Receives Oregonian endorsement.
8/98—Gossip maven and Oregonian three-dot columnist Jonathan Nicholas
crowns Sten one of the city’s “top dogs” on housing
issues; calling the young commissioner “Erik ‘Stilton’
Sten,” “because he gets better with age.”
12/98—Promised date new water billing system is supposed to be ready.
1999—More water computer system deadlines go by. Because of the
delay, Sten decides to spend another $350,000 to do Y2K upgrades.
8/99—Baptised into the Greek Orthodox religion, his designated godmother
for the event, Effy Stephanopoulos, is the aunt of former Clinton White
House Communications Director turned ABC news host, George Stephanopoulos.
Sten says he’s met him once.
9/99—Marries Marnie Vlahos in two ceremonies, one in Portland, one
in the Greek village from which her family comes.
1999—Named Oregon Sierra Club Elected Official of the Year.
2/4/00—Water Bureau computer experts say new computer system isn’t
ready to fire up; 49 flaws are outlined in memo to officials to outline
why it isn’t ready.
2/18/00—Water Bureau Chief Sten, and water executive, Mike Rosenberger,
order the system turned on and the old system turned off. Water billing
chaos results. Forty-thousand customers either get no bills while others
are billed for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One small office in Portland
is sent a bill for $399,000. The city has no way to tell who’s paying
and who’s not.
7/00—Sten votes in favor of deal for city to spend $40 million to
help upgrade old Multnomah Stadium, with Portland Family Entertainment
to run stadium and buy Triple A ball team. PGE comes in as major corporate
sponsor; is hailed as a corporate hero. PGE Park is born.
7/00—Five months after water billing computer is turned on and billing
is in chaos, the problems are reported. The computer contractor, Severn
Trent, says the problems with inability to enact the billing reforms,
such as discounts for wise usage, are normal.
2/01—Sten tells Portland Business Journal he’s in favor of
abolishing tax breaks designed to lure business to Portland.
2/01—Sten’s eagerness to tax business prompts Portland business
leaders to consider running a candidate against Sten in the next election
6/01—The Portland Utilities Review Board calls for an outside investigation
of the billing problems.
6/01—Nearly a year after memo from Water Bureau technicians outlining
flaws in system and urging that it not be turned on is written, the story
makes its way into print. Sten and Rosenberger claim never to have seen
6/01—Sten asks water executive Rosenberger to resign.
6/01—Sten and rest of City Council vote to raise water rates by
1 percent and approve other reforms to help pay for Water Bureau’s
7/01—Oregonian enthuses in glowing article that Sten is moving to
“moderation [that] could be chalked up to growing up.” Article
mentions in passing that the water billing fiasco is “humbling”
7/01—Water Bureau executive, Mike Rosenberger, is paid $120,000
to get out of his city contract. His annual pay was $105,000.
2001—Sten calls for regionalizing the Bull Run water supply to share
costs and benefits of combined ownership of the water with suburbs.
8/01—Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission gives Sten the
Award for Local Government Partnership to the Portland Endangered Species
9/01—Sten approves $7 million cuts in spending and future building
projects in water and sewer department in response to computer snafu.
10/01—Outside consultant predicts Portland must scrap water billing
computer at a minimum cost of $15 million if it wants the functions it
contracted for. The Oregonian compares billing snafu to the notorious
failed computer upgrade at the state’s DMV department in 1996.
11/01—Sten says water billing computer is just about working.
12/01—City report says another $3 million should pay for getting
bills out to remaining 8,000 customers still not receiving bills.
4/02—Sten runs for re-election; leads opponents in raising campaign
cash by raising nearly $94,000 in one reporting period. Top donors include
Ken Novack of Schnitzer Investments, Dr. R.B. Pamplin, and other businesses
with city ties.
5/02—The Oregonian endorses Sten (and commissioner Dan Saltzman)
as “good, if not perfect” candidates.
5/02—Sten is re-elected to city council despite the Water Bureau
computer problems targeted by his opponents, who include a former Clackamas
County deputy district attorney. Sten tells the Oregonian, “I don’t
think there’s any doubt that voters were aware the system was a
serious mess, but we’ve been honest, and we’ve taken steps
to fix it.”
6/02—Sten is fired from Water Bureau by Katz and is put in charge
of Fire Bureau. Water issues are reassigned to Dan Salztman, who has an
engineering background. Mayor Katz says Charlie Hales’ departure
prompted the change.
6/02—The Oregonian reports the tally on the water billing fiasco
stands at $17 to $29 million in lost collections and over-budget costs.
6/02—Sten is given a fellowship to attend Fannie Mae Foundation
Fellowship to attend Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy
School of Government for his work on housing issues.
7/02—Sten floats idea of a city takeover of Portland Gas and Electric.
8/02—Sten and Mayor Katz officially call for public takeover of
Portland General Electric following the collapse of its parent company
Enron. Sten makes the takeover a mandate on the ethics of the discredited
Enron, calling longtime Portland PGE executives, “paid spokespeople
for Enron.” Signs begin appearing at hearings saying “Enron
out of Portland.”
8/02—City Council votes to pursue “city’s options”
on future of sale of PGE including condemning it to save it. Approves
spending $500,000 on feasibility study.
8/02—In heat of council races, Portland City Council candidate,
Randy Leonard berates the city and county commission (where opponent Cruz
is a commissioner) for picking on business, such as pushing longtime Portland
company and international apparel manufacturer Columbia Sportswear out
of the city. Vows to change “city think.”
9/02—Portland Business Alliance attacks the idea of the city condemning
Portland General Electric in order to take it over, calling it “a
hostile take over by government” and a move that would scare other
business away from the city.
9/02—One year after the terrorist acts of 9/11, City Council votes
to continue cooperation with the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force amid
a raucous public hearing. Among those voicing their opposition to re-upping:
the Oregon Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, and residents of the homeless
tent city sanctioned by the city, Dignity Village.
9/02—Sten works out a deal to allow the 60+ people who live in “Dignity
Village” tent city by the Portland Airport to stay put for another
year. The deal calls for them to pay for any and all costs incurred. The
city continues to allow villagers to plug into its nearby city outlets,
provides Internet service, help to maintain its own website, and allows
portable toilets to be carted in and out two times per week.
10/02—Sten uses some of his leftover campaign cash to donate $1,500
to Serena Cruz’s City Council race. Sten reportedly leaks information
to news media about her opponent, state representative turned council
candidate Randy Leonard, about receiving sick pay while running for office
(turns out it’s legal). Sten’s wife is also an active participant
in the Cruz campaign. Sten and Leonard conduct a shouting match on the
phone over the issue. Feathers fly.
10/02—Sten calls for public financing of elections: “Big money
sows the seeds of distrust in government, as the media and citizens are
quick to follow the money and hypothesize about the motives really driving
decision-making.” Business interests see it as a direct reply to
the Portland Business Alliance forming a Political Action Committee and
declaring it will begin endorsing candidates.
10/02—Sten considers bringing anti-Iraq war resolution to council.
Backs off when President Bush seeks United Nation’s blessing.
11/02—New Water Commissioner, Dan Saltzman, says the computer billing
system has to be scrapped and replaced at an additional cost of $26 million.
11/02—Sten gives in to the fire fighters union when it balks at
asking fire fighters to transfer their own handwritten incident records
on computers back at the firehouse. Proposes several solutions that could
include spending $50,000 on palm pilots and software to make data transfer
11/02—Dignity Village deadline to move off of city-owned land near
Portland International Airport is given another extension until next fall.
12/02—Water Bureau announces need for 10 percent rate increase to
help pay for computer fiasco.
12/03—The Oregonian editorial page calls for Sten to get the city
out of the Dignity Village tent city “quagmire,” saying sustainability
in some arenas is swell, but sustaining homelessness is counterproductive.
1/03—City works out deal for water billing computer company, Severn
Trent, to pay $7 million. Total loss due to changeover nearly $30 million,
not counting the additional $26 million to cover the cost of a new system.
The city, however, must pay contractor Severn Trent $385,000 to run it
for each of the next three years. A secrecy agreement between city and
contractor prevents a full disclosure of what went wrong.
1/03—Sten attends anti-war meeting at First United Methodist Church.
Also in attendance, his old boss, Gretchen Kafoury, a representative from
Congressman Earl Blumenauer’s office, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon,
the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, Mercy Corps and Physicians
for Social Responsibility.
1/03—Sten proposes anti-Iraq war resolution before council.
1/03—Anti-war resolution fails on a tie vote before city council
(Commissioner Dan Saltzman is not present; says he would have voted against
the resolution anyway).
2/03—City and county leaders call for additional personal and business
local income tax to forestall teachers’ strike and prevent cut back
in school year.
3/03—Sten and other commissioners call for increase in business
and personal income taxes to help bail out schools, jails and social services.
Sten says he may hold out for more business taxes depending on the need
in each area.
Sources: BrainstormNW interviews, the Oregonian, Willamette Week, Erik
Sten, Portland Business Journal
by Victoria Taft
BrainstormNW - April 2003