No politician has closer ties to Portland’s troubled police and firefighter pension and disability fund than City Commissioner Randy Leonard. As an injured firefighter, Leonard relied on the fund for disability checks.
As a fire union president and a fund trustee, he successfully boosted pensions and dominated the fund’s board, at times pushing through controversial disability claims. And as a state lawmaker, he wrote a law to protect his own firefighter pension.
Now, amid mounting evidence of the fund’s problems and renewed calls for reform, the 52-year-old Leonard faces perhaps the biggest dilemma of his career: Deciding how far he is willing to go to protect a system that he has spent much of the past 20 years shaping.
“Sometimes I feel pretty awkward here defending the system,” Leonard said of the fund, which costs the average Portland homeowner $373 a year in property taxes. “But I know how the system works.”
The $87-million-a-year Portland Fire and Police Disability and Retirement Fund is under attack by critics as archaic and wasteful. A task force appointed by the City Council is at work on a reform plan to send voters next year.
And a recent investigation by The Oregonian exposed how lax rules and management have pushed the fund’s disability costs and claims rate far above the average for injured police and firefighters elsewhere in the state.
For this report, The Oregonian examined Leonard’s history as a fund trustee, his advocacy for the fund at the Legislature, and Leonard’s personnel files, which he made available. Reporters spoke to past fund officials and interviewed Leonard at length.
In his 12 years as fire union president and trustee, Leonard was an insider, ally and guardian willing to work the system for police and his fellow firefighters. It’s a role that contrasts sharply with his popular image as friend of the taxpayer, foe of government waste and brute populist willing to shake up city bureaus.
“There’s nothing I’ve done that’s inconsistent with treating people fairly,” Leonard said. “That’s my mantra. I do what I think is right.”