If regional policy is an episode of "Iron Chef," 2012 was the year of the kitchen prep.
There's a lot coming down the road, but most of the work at Metro in the past year was setting the stage for the future, chopping the carrots and peeling the onions before a meal is served.
Here's a look back at what made news at Metro in 2012.
1. All ayes on the Metro Council
The Metro Council made 97 votes in 2012. Of those, 95 were unanimous.
That's not inherently newsworthy. A Metro News analysis of the Portland City Council (931 of 956) and Washington County Commission (196 of 199) votes in 2012 showed similar levels of unanimity.
But the unanimity underscores that this was not a year of deep division at Metro. There was no huge urban growth boundary expansion to consider, no vote on a big expenditure on a potentially controversial project, no agency-wide overhaul to consider.
Why the agreement?
In an interview before the end of his 12-year term, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder said the final vote is often unanimous because councilors are often briefed individually by staff and discuss positions among themselves in public work sessions in advance of votes.
"What comes before the council to vote on, we've already figured out this is the best thing we can do, and we don't have to have debates and vote on things," Burkholder said. "Complex problems require decision-making – it's not a debate where everyone presents their point of view and votes and whoever has the most votes wins."
So, what were the two split votes?
The first came in September, when Councilor Kathryn Harrington voted against a council liaison appointment. The second was in December, when Burkholder and Councilor Carl Hosticka opposed a small urban growth boundary expansion in Lake Oswego.
Regardless of the homework, the Metro Council was pretty ideologically aligned in 2012. That might not carry forward to 2013 – Councilor-elect Craig Dirksen is the first Republican elected to the council in more than a decade, and Councilor-elect Bob Stacey narrowly lost his 2010 campaign against Metro Council President Tom Hughes.
2. The elephant in the room
Managing a pack of charismatic megafauna can be a blessing and a challenge. Never was that more evident than in late autumn, when the Portland region celebrated the Nov. 30 birth of Lily, the Oregon Zoo's newborn elephant, then asked questions about the future of the elephant pack at the zoo.
Rose-Tu's nearly two-year gestation ended nearly perfectly in November, and the Metro Council shortly thereafter made two key elephant-related decisions.
Councilors voted to spend nearly $1 million to buy 240 acres near Sandy that could become home to an offsite elephant center, and it authorized an extra $4.9 million to bolster a now $34.8 million plan to renovate and expand the Oregon Zoo's elephant habitat.
Those decisions came in the wake of controversy.
The zoo contracted with a Perris, Calif.-based company, Have Trunk Will Travel, to designate ownership of the offspring of Tusko, Lily's father. Tusko is owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, a Perris, Calif.-based firm that rents out some of its elephants for entertainment and education.
According to the contract, Have Trunk Will Travel owns Lily. While The Oregonian had reported that before Lily's birth, the ownership arrangement's reporting as part of a Seattle Times series on zoo elephant welfare raised concerns in the Portland region.
Oregon Zoo director Kim Smith has said Lily won't be leaving, and Have Trunk Will Travel's co-founder, Kari Johnson, said the company " has no intention and has never had any intention of coming to take Rose-Tu’s calf." Construction should begin in 2013 on the new elephant habitat at the Oregon Zoo; more specific planning on the off-site habitat will get started now that Metro owns the site.
3. Weighing a levy
Twice, voters told Metro to buy sensitive habitat to protect as natural areas around the Portland region. But as those properties have accumulated – 12,000 acres since 1995 – it's become increasingly expensive to maintain the land.
After a year of study, including discussions with interest groups and government leaders, Metro councilors voted on Dec. 18 to send a property tax levy to the ballot in May 2013.
Voters will be asked to consider the levy, proposed at 9.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value – $19.20 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 – to pay for maintenance of and access improvements to the natural areas, park operations, and grants for community projects.
Not everyone was in favor of the levy going forward. Several local mayors said an approved levy could cut into their revenues thanks to an Oregon rule called compression, which drew a forceful feedback from Metro Council President Tom Hughes, who called the impact "miniscule" in pointing out that the levy wouldn’t' affect school budgets or permanent tax rates, and would amount to less than 1 percent of the levies on the tax rolls.
Ballots are due for the election on May 21. The Oregon Legislature could take up the compression issue in its 2013 session.
4. A hotel for the convention center?
There's a photo of the night the Oregon Convention Center opened in 1990, showing a mural on a building across the street that said "Future home of the Headquarters Hotel."
Negotiations are still ongoing to make that dream a reality. But the goal is as close as it's been in some time, with a developer proposing to front much of the money to finish the project.
The proposal, from Mortenson Development and Hyatt Hotels, would have a 600-room hotel built just north of the convention center. In exchange for guaranteeing rooms would be available for future large conventions, the local governments pushing the project would offer some subsidy to the developer.
How much subsidy remains the topic of negotiations; the developers' proposal calls for the hotel's owners to keep all of the room taxes collected at that hotel. Proponents say those are taxes that wouldn't be collected by local governments in the absence of a convention center hotel.
The project wasn't in a complete holding pattern in 2012 – representatives from the development team and UNITE HERE, which represents hotel workers in the region, reached an agreement on some labor policies if the project moves forward.
Expect negotiations on a subsidy to continue for a few months or longer. Any deal will need approval from the Metro Council, Multnomah County Commission and Portland City Council.
5. Connecting East Metro
Anyone who's driven to downtown Gresham, Sandy or points east on U.S. 26 knows what a challenge it can be to get around in that part of the region. Transit commuters can also attest that moving within that part of town can be challenging.
After years of discussions, regional leaders signed onto a plan to make it easier to get around in Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village, Troutdale and east Portland in the coming decades. The key piece was a hard-fought agreement to widen 238th Avenue through Wood Village to improve access to central Gresham.
Other parts of the project include trails, upgraded streets and business projects designed to keep jobs in the area and reduce commute distances.
That 238th Avenue widening project was tentatively awarded $1 million in regional transportation funding in December.
6. How we get around, how we pay for it
We learned a lot about how the region's residents get around last year, thanks to a major study of commute patterns by the region's residents.
About 84 percent of the region's residents used a car when they needed to go somewhere, down 3.6 percent from 1994. But people are driving nearly 19 percent less than they were, distancewise, in 1994, and transit ridership into downtown is up 11 percent from 1994 to 2011, approaching 50 percent.
The year didn't just involve transportation research. When Congress allocated an extra $37 million to the Portland region for transportation spending, regional interests clamored for their piece of the money.
Active transportation advocates sought to preserve a funding formula that would have guaranteed an extra $9.4 million for their projects, but key government leaders supported splitting the money for specific efforts.
The Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation voted in December to award about $8 million to four projects, with another $1 million going toward the East Metro Connections Plan.
Those projects won't get the money right away – they'll need to continue to meet certain criteria before being awarded the cash in 2016.
7. Showdown over habitat preservation
The Metro Council threatened to take unprecedented enforcement action against Troutdale last spring after continued delays in that city's adoption of policies to protect habitat.
Councilors set a spring deadline for an agreement on habitat preservation that would meet regional standards, standards which most of the region's cities have already met. After negotiations, Troutdale agreed to adopt new habitat preservation rules and the Metro Council dropped its enforcement proceedings.
8. Barging in
What goes bump in the night? An abandoned yacht club moored to a Metro boat ramp.
Metro staff was left flabbergasted on March 23 when the ramshackle barge was tied to the M. James Gleason Memorial Boat Ramp on the Columbia River, and the explanation from the U.S. Coast Guard didn't leave them any less confused.
The barge, formerly the Vancouver Yacht Club, was found adrift in the Columbia the night before, and the Coast Guard ordered it tied to the dock at Gleason. With the barge a derelict vessel, the public, essentially, was responsible for its removal.
The barge cost about $80,000 to clean up, with some of that money recovered from the state's derelict vessel clean-up fund.
9. State regulators approve UGB expansion
When Metro planning staff suggested changes to the way the region reviews urban growth boundary expansions, they did so in hopes of making the process easier to understand and more legally practical.
But state regulators, the Land Conservation and Development Commission, struggled with the new method, spending three days last summer reviewing the UGB expansion's legality.
The thorough review came after the commission's staff at the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development recommended the commission reject the expansion.
But commissioners gave the expansion their blessing, voting unanimously on June 14 to OK the 1,985-acre expansion to the boundary.
The expansion now faces review from the Oregon Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, the Metro Council will begin its next urban growth boundary review in 2014.
10. Still looking at Blue Heron
Our No. 5 story from 2011 comes in at the tail end of the list for 2012, as Metro continues to review whether to support a purchase of the area just south of Willamette Falls as a potential natural area.
The former Blue Heron Paper Mill site is part of a bankruptcy auction, and Metro has been working with the state, Oregon City and Clackamas County to decide whether to buy the site. That plan nearly came apart in February, when a company called Humboldt Bay Energy expressed interest in buying the site. But that company later pulled back its interest in the site.
Metro's preliminary environmental review didn't turn up anything to deter the regional government from continuing its look at the site.
Some concept planning for the site could occur, but it's unknown whether the Metro Council would vote on acquiring the site in 2013.