Portland's paucity of potties downtown spurs a political pig fight

With maverick commissioner Randy Leonard leading the charge, the push to ensure that members of the public -- including the homeless -- are given enough places to relieve themselves downtown is under way. Film at 11.
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The signs that pass through visitors' minds in downtown Portland

With maverick commissioner Randy Leonard leading the charge, the push to ensure that members of the public -- including the homeless -- are given enough places to relieve themselves downtown is under way. Film at 11.

The Randy Leonard Watch is good sport here in Portland. The enterprising city commissioner can be counted on to find causes and controversy in the most unlikely places, then reap maximum ink and film-at-11. His call for regulating duct tape use along the big Rose Festival parade route (too many out-of-towners marking off prime curb space) got attention usually reserved for nuclear-reactor leaks.

Lately though, some locals have mistaken his campaign for public toilets in downtown Portland as simply another Randicious act. Even a recent Oregonian story (news, mind you, not an editorial) referred to him as "restroom-obsessed."

Go drink a quart of iced tea, cross your legs, and read on:

Public bathroom shortages are not unique to Portland, although judging by the ubiquitous NO PUBLIC RESTROOM window signs, it's as bad here, and maybe worse, than other cities. As one blogger noted in responding to a Portland Tribune editorial pushing for attention to this issue, "No other place I have ever visited (Europe, North America, Australia/New Zealand) seems as toilet averse as Portland ."

Leonard's role as leader of the public-potty platform grew out of the city's ongoing struggle to limit loiterers and panhandlers, while protecting the public's right to assembly and free speech. Portland's City Council recently voted to allow police to ticket people who sit or lie on sidewalks downtown and across the Willamette River at Lloyd Center, a mall and park area also popular among those who tend to be prone. The ticketing is not a drastic move; cops must warn offenders first and provide information on shelters and other facilities for people in need, before a $250 citation can be handed out.

The decision to penalize loiterers came to a vote months earlier, but was put on hold while more benches, restrooms and indoor spaces for homeless folks were made available. Good moves all, and determined homeless advocates like Street Roots deserve much of the credit.

The benches and indoor resting spots were straightforward enough; the bathroom issue proved trickier. Open hours were lengthened at some restrooms in city parks, but the 24-hour option tends to be a circular bureaucratic thing: round-and-round, getting nowhere.

The Mayor's Street Access for Everyone Committee (SAFE) (a workgroup of business, social-service and government types) gave the nod to keeping public toilets at City Hall open around the clock. Not good enough, says Leonard, pointing out that City Hall is located several blocks from the downtown core where homeless people and others who spend most waking hours on the streets congregate. In his dogged ongoing coverage of the issue, Portland Mercury writer Matt Davis quoted Leonard as blaming the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and Mayor Tom Potter for what he a "gotcha" move -- a response intended to answer his request, but do it in such a way as to be ineffective.

Leonard, never more animated than when he thinks his partners are doing the passive-aggressive polka, has pledged to get 24-hour restrooms opened in a central spot, such as Pioneer Courthouse Square, otherwise known as "Portland's living room," or in the nearby Old Town neighborhood. In his comments to the Mercury, Leonard warned those who oppose his central 24-hour toilet plan:

"And one should avoid getting into a wrestling match with a pig, because you're going to get dirty and the pig likes it."

So, if there's a street pool going on about who will be the last man standing, so to speak, in this toilet battle, Randy Leonard's surely got the good odds. Maybe, though, he'll get some backing on this thankless issue. Some 95 years ago wealthy logger Simon Benson had the elegant (and still flowing) "Benson bubbler" water fountains installed around the city to keep the thirsty from relying solely on taverns for hydration. Maybe it's time for one of today's barons to step up. The NikePotty? Sure, just do it.  

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