Photo courtesy of Oregon Senate Democrats

By David Krogh

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish lost his battle with stomach cancer Thursday, January 2 and passed away at his home with family present. Only two days prior, Commissioner Fish had resigned his position in the knowledge that he could not continue any longer with his failing health. Fish was 61. 

He was a native New Yorker and trained as an attorney before moving to Portland in the 1990s when his wife became a history professor at PSU while he practiced law. 

Fish was the longest serving member of the Portland City Council, first elected in 2008 and he served under three different mayors. Known as a consensus builder and a commissioner who was more accessible to the public than his fellows, he is fondly remembered by many. 

During his time in office he was a strong advocate for affordable housing, environmental protections and services to aid the homeless. 

Fish most recently oversaw the Bureau of Environmental Services and Portland Parks & Recreation. He was previously the commissioner in charge of the Portland Fire Bureau and Water Bureau and helped to create the Portland Housing Bureau in 2009. 

First diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2017, he continued to serve as a city commissioner. It has been reported that he continued to make his way to city hall daily. 

The Southeast Examiner interviewed him several times, most recently for the March 2019 issue article about the commission form of government. Although Fish was very supportive of updating the City’s charter, (which, he explained, was coming due in 2021), he was reluctant to consider changing the current antiquated commission form of government. 

“I believe the commission form of government has many strengths,” he said. “They include accessibility, innovation and a premium placed on collaborative leadership. I understand the criticisms, including concerns about efficiency and accountability, but I believe we can continue to address those issues without changing the form of government. As a general matter, I’m reluctant to put too much power behind a single person, whether a mayor or a city manager.” 

His desire for collaborative leadership has not been consistent with other council members and criticisms abound of excessive commissioner oversight of assigned bureaus at the expense of public needs. 

This has affected Fish’s own administrative efforts wherein his political appointment to head the Parks Bureau resulted in a substantial Parks budget shortfall, and the subsequent firing of his appointee by Commissioner Amanda Fritz in 2019. 

Commissioner Fish’s resignation address two days before his passing discussed attempts to remedy the Parks’ budget problems and spoke of current efforts to provide up to 2,000 living units for the homeless, indicating he was still problem solving right up until the end. 

It is hopeful the remaining City Commissioners and the new members to be elected in this year’s election, will take note of Fish’s desire for “collaborative leadership” and make the solving of Portland’s problems a team effort. 

The Southeast Examiner spoke to Deborah Scroggin, Portland’s Elections Officer, about how Commissioner Fish’s seat would be filled. She explained that those interested in filling the remaining time for this seat (until 2022) would need to file by March 10 in order to be on the May 19 ballot. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a runoff would be held on August 11. 

Information on this process is available at the City Auditor’s website. As of this writing, two people have already filed to fill Fish’s seat. 

A public memorial for Commissioner Nick Fish is scheduled for Sunday, February 16, 3 pm at Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union Ballroom. Seating will be limited, however the event will be livestreamed at nickfishforportland.com. Former governor Barbara Roberts is one of the scheduled speakers.