On his agenda: Housing, public safety and protecting Bull Run from climate change

By Lisa Loving, NECN

As Portland grapples with historic crises — from gun violence to affordable housing, climate change and Covid-19 — Hey! Neighbor spoke with Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps about his work focus, what his constituents are talking about and what’s under the radar.

Hey! Neighbor: For readers who aren’t familiar with the issues, can you please talk about what bureaus you manage for the city?

Commissioner Mapps: I have deep roots in Portland. I’m raising a family here. I grew up here. I am your commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau and the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Environmental Services and the commissioner in charge of our Emergency Communications, which is basically 911.

HN: What’s your vision for the long-term supply of drinking water from Bull Run?

Mapps: Well, my vision is to provide Portlanders with a safe and sustainable water supply both for today and for generations to come, and frankly we are in a really good position to do that. Even in a time of climate change, Portland is not in a place of water scarcity. Bull Run is just a remarkable literal rain for us. 

“But whether you’re at the left end of the spectrum or the right end of the spectrum, there’s a clear expectation that the city and Portland must do better by our most vulnerable neighbors.”

–Commissioner Mingus Mapps

According to all of our predictions, both in terms of population growth and climate change, we expect to have a plentiful supply of clean water for a hundred years. But one of our obligations here is to actually keep that up, keep our water clean. So a lot about being the commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau is really around environmental protection and protecting public health.

So over the course of the next couple of years, you’ll probably hear me talk a lot about the need for a new water filtration system, which we’re in the process of building, to protect our water supply from pathogens, which frankly we have found in the water in the past. The water filtration plant is also really important, in the context of climate change because of the risk of forest fires. 

Should we find ourselves in a situation where there was a forest fire in the wrong place along Bull Run, that in and of itself under current conditions would devastate our water supply. However, the water filtration plant that we’re looking at will actually have the capability of keeping the faucets on, even when the fires are burning. 

HN: When it comes to balancing the needs for protecting our local environment with the needs and the requests to accommodate unhoused people, what is it like to find that balance, especially from someone who is so on-the-record about caring about unhoused communities as you are? 

Mapps: I find it is a challenge. I think when it comes to caring for our most vulnerable neighbors and protecting the environment — I think that’s a false choice. I think that we can house Portlanders and give them humane, safe, dignified places to live, and at the same time, celebrate and maintain our parks and protect our open spaces. 

Anyone who knows my career knows that I’ve done an awful lot of work around trying to get people housed and make Portland a better place for people who were down on their luck. At the same time, one of the things that defines Portland is our open spaces. As the guy in charge of Environmental Services, one of the things I’m keenly aware of is that we have a sacred obligation to protect our natural spaces.

As the guy who manages a lot of open spaces that function as floodplains — where we also see a lot of households camping — those are also an enormous fire risk. And as we’ve seen too often this summer, we have had truly terrifying fires, both in the wilderness and in town. 

HN: Which issues are you hearing the most about from your constituents? 

Mapps: It’s a tie between houselessness and public safety issues.

Portlanders are awfully frustrated with the emergence of houseless camps, it feels like, on every corner of the city. And I think every Portlander is humane. But whether you’re at the left end of the spectrum or the right end of the spectrum, there’s a clear expectation that the city and Portland must do better by our most vulnerable neighbors.

And the other close second would be public safety issues. I think that Portlanders want better policing, and that means both police reform and better police protection.

I think one piece of our current condition, which I don’t think gets nearly enough attention, is gun violence. And everyone is aware of a rise in gun violence. You know you’re a lucky Portlander at this point, if you don’t hear gunshots in your neighborhood on a very regular basis. But the sum total of gun violence is just astounding.

I believe that as of today we have so many shootings, we’re easily on track to see homicides at double — if not triple — what our historic levels have been. And also, two thirds of the folks who are being murdered on our streets are people of color.

So there’s a real irony at a time when I think Portlanders have never been more aware that Black lives matter. At the same time, we’ve never seen Black lives cut down on the streets more than we have the last few months. I think that’s a real tragedy. It makes my heart heavy and the legacy of that, I know, stretches through generations.

It’s something that we’re focused on that I think is going to also have long term consequences for the health of our community. And I hope that we can come together as a community to discourage weapons.

HN: What have we not discussed yet?

Mapps:  If there’s one topic we didn’t talk about that I want to amplify it’s just the importance for everybody who is medically able, to go out and get their COVID shot.

A lot of the challenges that we’ve talked about today, whether it be houselessness or homicides, I think ultimately come down to the disruption which has been brought by this pandemic. We have the tools to conquer this pandemic — that’s a simple shot in the arm at this point. 

I’ve done it myself, and it’s not that bad. I personally think the people I represent are really ready to move on to the post COVID era and get back to business.