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Our Opinion: Unflashy Hales earns a passing grade

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales isn’t an “A” student yet, but he is pulling down a solid “B” after one year in office. At this point, most Portlanders are probably just fine with that.

As we expected when he took office in January, Hales hasn’t been the flashiest mayor to occupy City Hall. To his credit, he also hasn’t been a fountain of new ideas with no follow-through. Instead, he has concentrated on a few priorities, choosing to check items off his to-do list in more or less sequential order.

Hales is quite dissimilar from his most immediate predecessor, Sam Adams, who spent his final year or two in office in a seeming mad rush to complete every project he thought worthy of his attention. Hales’ methodical approach, while it may not ignite passion, will serve him and the city well — as long as he recognizes the need to balance discipline with a compelling vision of the opportunities within Portland’s reach.

The mayor sat down with the Portland Tribune editorial board last week to reflect on his first 12 months in office. In his self-evaluation, he also gives himself a “B” grade for his efforts so far. Although we concur with that assessment, we see areas where improvements are needed if Hales is to move Portland ahead economically in the final three years of his first term.

On the positive side, Hales has helped establish a new tone at City Hall with his straightforward style of communication. He also has labored hard, with some success, to improve the relationship between the community and Police Bureau. His work on the city’s budget has been laudable, as he proposed and won approval for a 2013-14 budget plan that closed a $21.5 million spending gap.

Looking ahead, Hales names just a handful of priorities, but they are large, complicated issues that require perseverance and continued focus on the part of the mayor. Among them are:

• Decreasing the tax dollars diverted for urban renewal districts managed by the Portland Development Commission. Portland’s urban renewal zones are siphoning too much tax revenue away from general city government, county government and school districts. It’s time to restore portions of those renewal districts to the general tax rolls, but also retain a focus on neighborhoods such as Gateway and Lents where urban renewal’s potential has yet to be fully realized.

• Working with all the other agencies and businesses involved with the Portland Harbor Superfund site to put together a workable cleanup plan by the end of 2014.

• Deciding whether to establish — or ask voters to approve — an additional fee or tax to pay for transportation improvements in Portland. This would include more money to pave streets and build sidewalks in outer east Portland, where roads have been neglected by the city for nearly three decades.

• More immediately, as the opportunity has now arisen, deciding whether to improve Veterans Memorial Coliseum and turn it into a top-notch venue for events such as the 2016 International Track and Field Meet.

• Continuing the progress made to date in changing Police Bureau practices involving use of force, interactions with the mentally ill and officer misconduct.

This short list of issues doesn’t begin to cover the myriad of concerns that make it to a mayor’s desk. Hales and fellow city commissioners also must deal with the problems presented by homelessness, reform of the city’s Office of Management and Finance, the future of the water and sewer bureau, the need to improve parks and all the other crises of the day that pop up when least expected or needed.

It is the all-consuming nature of the job that can divert a mayor’s attention from opportunities that loom. Hales correctly sees the potential of a world-class cancer research center at Oregon Health & Science University as one way to improve Portland’s economic standing.

Still, we would like to see Hales take a more assertive role in economic development — and in publicly making the case that Portland’s quality of life is not complete until its residents are able to earn salaries comparable to other cities that have placed a greater emphasis on attracting and nurturing the right types of employers.

After one year, Hales is off to a commendable start as mayor. We would rather see steadfastness over flash, and incremental progress over unfulfilled promises. However, that progress also must point toward a larger conception of what Portland can become. Hales should articulate a better economic vision for Portland, continually making the link between good-paying jobs, a good education system and investment in infrastructure that supports those jobs.

In today’s world, a great city and a great mayor are defined by the community’s shared wealth. Hales can make the A-list if he measurably advances Portland toward a more robust economic future.