From the Orange Line light-rail tracks to the mist of Willamette Falls, Carlotta Collette is leaving political memories as she departs the Metro Council to retire in Corvallis.
Collette ended her term a year early, capping a decade representing the southern part of greater Portland. The Metro Council will select somebody to serve District 2 through the end of the year, with the winner of a May election taking over in January 2019.
A former Milwaukie city councilor, Collette played a key role in securing resources to build the Orange Line. She also helped negotiate a 50-year “urban-rural reserves” plan, which protects some land for farming and queues up other areas for growth. But she is best known for leading the movement to transform a former paper mill in downtown Oregon City into a thriving development with front-row views of Willamette Falls.
Before her retirement party last week, Collette reflected on her accomplishments, her political roots, the future of greater Portland — and her own plans for the future.
Share a little bit about what drew you to public service and kept you in it.
I’ve been active politically pretty much my whole life. I actually was one of those little Catholic kids campaigning for John Kennedy in 1959, when I was 10. There, now you have my age!
I never thought I’d run for office. I just always supported political issues, civil rights, farm workers, all of that various anti-war stuff. I got involved politically myself because I live in Milwaukie, and the street in front of our house is Johnson Creek Boulevard. There was a project underway to widen the street, potentially to four lanes – although the Sellwood folks had pretty much put the kabosh on that, by making sure the new bridge could only be two lanes. There was still a lot of unsettled feeling in the neighborhood, so I got involved.
My neighbor asked me to run for the neighborhood association chair, and I did. Then at the same time, the talk began about what became the light rail Orange Line. My neighborhood was very supportive, and we knew the rest of Milwaukie was not. We worked very hard at getting community buy-in and support for the light rail line. Then when I looked at the City Council and realized that there was really only one strong yes for the project, I decided to run for City Council — and hopefully talk at least three more people into supporting the project. I won, and the rest is history.
I went to Metro to follow the money.
One position flowed into the next.
What are you most proud of during your decade as Metro councilor?
I would say there are three things I’m most proud of.
First, helping the Orange Line to completion. If you remember, the funding formula changed when I was chair of JPACT (the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation). It meant that the region had to raise 50 percent, not 40 percent. That was an extra $119 million in very short order. Working with people like Andy Cotugno and others, we figured out a way to do that. I’m very proud of that.
I’m very proud of the urban-rural reserves. No one has tried to do that anywhere else in the country, and probably no one ever will. It was an absolutely essential means for this region to look at how we grow in the future more carefully than we have in the past. Again, that was a very difficult political strategy: negotiating, meeting with people, trying to come to agreement. I’m very proud of how we landed it after all the litigation. I was really happy that happened before I left.
And then the Willamette Falls legacy project is, of course, the one that’s the easiest to say “This is the best thing” — because ultimately we’ll have a phenomenal outcome for Oregon City, for West Linn, for the region, for the whole state. It, in some ways, is less of an accomplishment. Because once people get to the Falls, once they see it, they recognize it’s absolutely essential that we give that back to the people. That’s kind of a no-brainer. It may have taken some convincing that we could actually do it, but it’s going to be spectacular. And I'm very, very, very proud of having been a part of that.
You’re stepping away just as the Metro Council approved the master plan for a riverwalk at Willamette Falls. How did it feel to speak as a supporter rather than voting as a member of the council?
It was actually pretty fun. I have to say, retirement from political office — retirement from any really engaging career — is a bit of a leap off a cliff. And that sense of free fall really hit me yesterday for the first time, like “whoa.”
But being able to testify on that side of the dais on that project reminded me that public service doesn’t end just because you leave public office. There may have been a more intensified version of it. But as much as I have talked about not getting involved and staying on the outside of political stuff, it’s pretty clear that there are still so many things that need doing. And as a citizen, I’m happy to help move good things forward.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your work as a Metro councilor?
Well, there have been a lot of challenging issues: urban-rural reserves, the Orange Line. But I think overall the most challenging, really — and the most important, I have to say — is the diversity, equity and inclusion work.
It’s challenging because you don’t engage in that kind of work having a handful of answers. You engage having a lot of questions. And you have to be willing to ask the people who feel it, who’ve experienced being on the outside. You have to be willing to ask those people what it is that it will take for them to feel included and treated equitably and fairly.
It’s been, I think in some ways, the best work that we at Metro will do, because we don’t have the answers. And we’ve been willing to say, “We don’t have the answers, and we have a pretty good idea who does.” And we’re willing to listen — and spend some money, frankly, in ways that government hasn’t spent money in the past. I don't think any government has really looked at using their resources to engage people the way Metro has through this process.
So that’s the most challenging, because we all have so much growing to do. And yet it’s certainly the most rewarding, because we all have so much growing to do.
If you could pick one topic for Metro to address in 2018, what would have the biggest impact on greater Portland?
I would say the housing issue. I think we have been striving to build the greatest region, the greatest place, and we still have not figured out how to be completely inclusive in that. And when we have the kind of homelessness we have here — I won’t say Metro’s doing something wrong. We’re all doing something wrong. We’re not doing enough.
How Metro helps the region through this I think is going to take just a lot of real thoughtful, careful sort of sussing out what really is the problem. And what’s the most effective thing that we can do, at this level, versus the City of Portland or other cities?
It’s very hard to expect anything from people when they don’t have a home. Anything else that you want people to enjoy — your parks or transit, all the fun stuff that Metro tries to do — you can’t really expect people to do that when they don't have a roof over their head.
That’s a good segue. Metro touches the community in many ways, but a lot of people don’t know or understand regional government. Why do you consider Metro’s role important?
The regional government has the opportunity to cross city lines, and so many of the problems we face cross city lines. I mean, I think our old house in Milwaukie was the perfect example.
Our house was in Milwaukie and Clackamas County. Our backyard was City of Portland and Multnomah County. And we had homeless people practically living in our backyard down on Johnson Creek. And I think Milwaukie can address some of it, Portland can address some of it, Beaverton’s doing a great job. But ultimately, if the region as an entity helps to lead and coordinate those efforts and find funding for them, I think that that makes so much sense.
And then there are things like the zoo, and the parks, and the convention center that really have regional benefits. Everybody benefits from those resources, so having regional government managing them just makes sense.
Thanks. Share a little bit about what you have planned for the next chapter of your life.
As it turns out we have moved to a really walkable neighborhood, so I plan to get in a lot more walking. I can walk to the co-op, I can walk to the coffee shop, I can walk to downtown.
I want to get much more involved in my art. I completely put my art aside for the past 13 years since I’ve been in elected office. I did a little bit while I was on the Milwaukie City Council, but not much, and so I really look forward to just diving back in, taking classes, refreshing all of that.
But a lot of what I want to do is just relax, get to know my neighbors, get to be creative, get my kitchen remodeled so I can get back to cooking, get my garden in. I love to grow my own food and then create meals. I love feeding lots of people, so that's what I’ll be doing.
When you come back to greater Portland to visit, what will be your go-to spots?
Well, the art museum. Several restaurants. There isn’t really great food in Corvallis.
Except in your kitchen!
Except in our kitchen. That’s why the emphasis on the garden and kitchen is really important.
And then a lot of friends here that I'll be spending time with. And honestly, I have to check in regularly at my consignment stores to see if any of my clothes have sold and if I have credit. I’m totally into recycling clothes!