Our Opinion: Beaverton should rethink approach to charter changes
By now, you've likely read in The Times about the proposed changes to the Beaverton city charter.
A city charter is sort of like the Constitution. It sets out the basic rules for city government. Local ordinances have to comply with the charter, and if the charter prohibits something — for instance, the Tualatin city charter doesn't allow the city government to tap the Willamette River as a source of drinking water — the city can't do it without getting voters' permission.
But there is a big difference between the Constitution and the city charte. While the Constitution changes rarely, with a lengthy and complicated process required to amend it, many city charters change all the time. All that is required is a simple majority of voters to change the charter, and either the city or a group of petitioners can refer a charter amendment to the ballot.
So when we urge the Beaverton City Council to slow its roll on proposing changes to the city charter, it's not from an originalist standpoint. Charters are living documents, and that is as it should be.
For us, it's all in the timing.
Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle is running for a fourth term of office this year. He's being challenged by a city councilor, Lacey Beaty.
Unlike most local cities, Beaverton holds its elections on the May ballot, with a November runoff if no candidate wins an outright majority.
The City Council is also looking at the May election as its venue of choice for the proposed charter changes. Among those changes — more on that in a bit — the amended charter would drastically reshape the office of mayor in Beaverton, stripping the mayor of most of his or her official duties in exchange for giving the mayor a vote on the City Council. Instead, the council would hire a full-time city manager, the same as in neighboring Tigard and Hillsboro, to serve as Beaverton's chief executive.
In essence, there are two people running for mayor right now, and they don't actually know what that job is, and neither do the people who will be choosing one of them to do it. The May election will not only decide which of them becomes mayor, but what the mayor does — whether it's a full-time job overseeing the city staff, or a part-time job that's "first among equals," with mostly ceremonial duties in addition to being a member of the council.
The difference between those roles is vast. It's not unreasonable to think that it could affect voters' perceptions of candidates, if they see one candidate as better suited for being a chief executive and another candidate as better suited for just presiding over the council. It's certainly not unreasonable to think that it could affect how those candidates campaign for office, what goals they put forth and what strengths they stress.
Austrian scientist Erwin Schrödinger posited a famous thought experiment that places a cat inside a sealed box. (We emphasize, for the sake of animal-lovers and the equally impressionable alike, that this is just a thought experiment, not a real experiment. Do not seal your cat inside a box.) The presumption is that when this cat is placed in the box, it is alive, but eventually, having been sealed inside, the cat will die. But the outside observer has no way of knowing, at any given point in time, whether the cat is alive or dead. If the observer were to see inside the box, they would see either a live cat or a dead cat. But while the condition of the cat is unknown and unknowable, they must consider the cat to be both alive and dead, because one of those states must be true.
Taking the analogy of Schrödinger's cat, if these proposed changes are referred to the May ballot, Beaverton will have Schrödinger's city charter. The sealed (ballot) box won't be opened until Election Night, which is also when the votes will be revealed for who will be the next mayor of Beaverton, barring an unlikely runoff. Up until that point, whether the charter will give Beaverton's mayor the expansive role of a chief executive, or whether the charter will give Beaverton's mayor the diminished role of a presiding officer, is unknown and unknowable. Voters must choose a mayor for both of those roles, even though only one of them is the role he or she will serve.
This is, obviously, a suboptimal condition under which to hold a mayoral election.
The City Council should wait until after the election to place this kind of major change on the ballot. Voters will have more information on which to base their decision, and the candidates this spring will be able to make their cases for election without the charter amendment overshadowing the election.
We'd also encourage the Beaverton City Council to consider breaking up the changes it's proposing to the charter into more manageable pieces.
Right now, elements that have been discussed include:
• Changing the role of the mayor and creating the position of city manager.
• Adding one more councilor position to the City Council.
• Instating term limits for the mayor and members of the council.
• Creating some sort of grandfather clause to wholly or partially exempt sitting officeholders from term limits.
• Delineating which department heads are to report to the chief executive, as opposed to those which report to the City Council.
That's a lot of changes to propose all at once, and they would transform the city government in complex ways.
The council can choose whether to squeeze all of these elements into a single amendment and tell voters to take it or leave it, or it can section them out, proposing multiple charter changes from which voters can pick and choose, voting for the elements they like and against those they don't.
Both approaches have their pros and cons. But we wonder if putting both term limits and a restructuring of the mayor's office on the same ballot at all — whether or not it shares that ballot with the election for mayor itself — is simply too much to ask at once.
Term limits in Tualatin turned out to be a popular proposition. A citizens' group petitioned term limits onto the ballot in November 2016, and they passed by an overwhelming margin. That was two years before the mayoral election, giving Lou Ogden ample notice that he would have to move on after more than two decades as Tualatin's mayor, and giving prospective candidates and voters plenty of time to adjust to a new political reality.
That wasn't planned on the part of the Tualatin City Council. In Tualatin, the term limits measure was brought forward by city residents. It was a responsible approach to changing the way the city government works in Tualatin.
The Beaverton City Council should take the same approach. Instead of making May 19 the pivot point on which the future of Beaverton — who will be mayor, whether there will be a manager, what that manager will do and when council members will have to leave office — the council should space these decisions out. There is no urgent reason for the May vote to be for "all the marbles." Let the voters of Beaverton make these decisions at a time they know what they are actually deciding.
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