How do you say goodbye to someone who has been a pivotal part of your life for twelve years? How do you thank someone who has done so much for Portland?
Commissioner Nick Fish’s statement issued on December 31, 2019 notes many of the achievements he cherished most from his 11 years, 7 months in office. I am glad he got to make his own list, and I encourage everyone to read it again.
Here are some things he didn’t mention.
He ran for Portland City Council not once, not twice, but three times. Few people have that level of commitment and fortitude. He knew he could make a difference, and he stuck with his resolve that it would be on the Portland City Council. On taking office after Erik Sten resigned mid-term, he kept almost all of Erik’s staff until they found new positions. One of Nick’s unsung achievements was choosing amazing staff, and supporting budding talent then celebrating their ascent to higher positions. His wonderful Chief of Staff, Sonia Schmanski, started as an intern at his front desk answering the phone and greeting visitors. She is now one of the most insightful and constructive leaders in City Hall. All of Nick’s staff members are and have been superstars.
Because of the mid-term vacancy and election, Nick began his service on the City Council seven months before me. When incoming Mayor Sam Adams asked me which bureaus I would be interested in leading and I responded that one of my passions is Parks, Sam told me that Nick already had dibs on Parks. With respect for seniority, that seemed fair to me. Nick’s assignment under Sam was Parks and Housing. In all the bureaus he led over almost twelve years on the Council, I think that was both his ideal portfolio and the one he was best suited to champion. Sorting out the tangled web of interconnections between the former Bureau of Housing and Community Development and the former Portland Development Commission wasn’t a task most rookies could have handled. Nick managed it smoothly and effectively. Even though Mayors Hales and Wheeler both felt the need to put Housing in the Mayor’s portfolio, Nick was always the shadow Housing Commissioner. And when Mayor Hales assigned Parks to me in order to put the Utilities (Environmental Services and Water) under one Commissioner, Nick was always a solid second to any Parks improvements I forwarded to Council. I’m glad he got to lead Parks again for his final assignment. He recognized that parks give joy, just as housing gives stability.
Nick and I share the experience of being middle children. I loved (and was sometimes exasperated by) his urge to get everyone to agree. Yet he was willing to take a stand and be the third vote when his principles demanded it. During my first year, he supported me in delaying during the recession the costly construction of a water filtration plant, then led the reconsideration to approve that facility ten years later after putting in place assistance for low-income ratepayers. He understood that changes to police accountability mechanisms have to be community-driven. He was firm in respecting the Commission form of government, and the principles and values of each bureau being independent and providing balance, rather than being beholden to any one goal based on the crisis-du-jour. He supported improved protections for trees in the Title 11 Tree Code innovations, and green infrastructure in Environmental Services. He led the City’s work on the Superfund cleanup. One of his last signature achievements was banning gas-powered leaf blowers for City actions. Let’s make that a citywide ban in his honor!
Nick chose to be with me on the worst day of my life, when my husband was killed in a car crash on his way to work at Oregon State Hospital in 2014. One of my staff realized that Nick would be the one to provide me support, and he came to my office in the first minutes after I heard the news. He arranged for Chief Mike Reese to drive us to the crash site. I found out later that Nick hated being in the back seat as much as I do, but he insisted I sit up front. Knowing that his mother died in a car crash too, it must have been especially awful for him to spend those hours with me in my darkest day. I know Nick and his parents are together now, and I rejoice for them. I’m glad he is no longer suffering the agonies of cancer and its treatment, while I share his gratitude for his OHSU medical and nursing team who kept him going at peak productivity for more than two years after his diagnosis. My heart aches for Patricia, Maria and Chapin. My children and I know their sadness.
I want Portlanders to know how committed Nick Fish was to our city. Several years ago, he and I were driving alone to an event … I don’t remember when, or who was driving (probably Nick as he hated being a passenger) or where we were going (probably a Budget hearing). I remember one shared trip where I was driving and Google Maps took us way out of the expected route, and Nick was patiently tolerant of my sudden turns in response to Google directions and the seemingly silly route we took. “Thanks for the tour of Portland neighborhoods!” he said. When we arrived at the venue ten minutes early, it turned out staff members who took the standard route were a half hour late. We congratulated each other. Anyway, back to the memorable trip conversation. He told me he’d been offered a high-level position in Housing in President Obama’s Administration. He said it was his dream job -- I knew it was, and was wowed. He said he turned it down, because he ran for the Portland City Council to do the City’s work, and he felt he owed it to Portlanders to do the job he promised to do. Also, that his family had settled here, and his wife, daughter, and son were happy here and he wanted to put them and Portland first.
He asked me to not tell anyone about that offer. I didn’t, not even my husband or my Chief of Staff. Last week, when I was asked to comment on his retirement statement I texted him, asking if it would be OK to share that information. He replied, “Your call”.
I am sharing this story so that people will know how committed Nick Fish was to our city, his honor, and his family.
I miss my friend.
I am deeply grateful that his last instruction and support to me was, “Your call”. It’s up to all of us now to make the calls in the best interests of the city Nick Fish chose to make his home.