Our Opinion: Beaverton voters should reject cynical charter change
This May, Beaverton's voters will render their verdict on a new city charter.
Now, Beaverton already has a city charter. It was first approved in 1980, replacing a charter that existed before that. It's been amended once, back in 2008, and it shares a lot of DNA with the charter that's been proposed. But the "Beaverton Charter of 2021" is sufficiently different as to stand alone as its own document. We've described it before on these pages as a charter amendment, or a set of amendments, but it is, technically speaking, a new and distinct charter altogether.
There are a number of places where the proposed charter departs from the current charter. But the most notable changes include:
• Beaverton city councilors and the mayor would be limited to three consecutive terms — a term being four years, as it is under the current charter, for a total of up to 12 years. That means an elected councilor could run for re-election twice. After being term-limited out of office, that councilor could run in a future election, or seek appointment if a seat is vacated, and the "three consecutive terms" limit would begin all over again. (As an example, John Smith could be elected to the council in 2022, win re-election in 2026 and 2030, leave office due to term limits after 2034, run and be elected to the council again in 2036, and win re-election in 2040 and 2044 before being term-limited out of office again after 2048.)
• The Beaverton City Council, which currently consists of five voting members, would expand to seven voting members, one of whom would be mayor. The current system under which councilors are elected citywide but to specific positions — as opposed to running on a single list and two or three top vote-getters winning seats, or alternatively running in geographically defined wards or districts, both systems used in several other cities in the region — would remain in place.
• The mayor of Beaverton would have many of his powers stripped and handed off to an appointed administrator. The proposed charter completely re-organizes Beaverton from a mayor-council system, in which the mayor is the chief executive of city government, to the council-manager form of government, which Beaverton had until the 1980 charter was adopted and which most of Beaverton's neighbors, such as Hillsboro and Tigard, continue to practice. The mayor would gain a vote on the City Council — at present, he is only empowered to vote in case of a tie, which is rare because the council has an odd number of seats — but give up the day-to-day management of city staff and execution of the city budget, which the council approves. Instead, a city manager hired by the council would take on those duties, becoming the chief executive of Beaverton.
The observant voter will note that this charter change will appear on the same ballot as another question, which asks who should serve as the mayor of Beaverton from 2021 through 2024? Denny Doyle is running for a fourth term, which he says will be his last if he is re-elected this year. Lacey Beaty, a city councilor first elected in 2014, is challenging him. Cate Arnold, who is retiring from her seat on the council, jumped into the race earlier this month, although she says she's running mostly to promote the new charter.
Doyle is running to keep doing the job to which voters have been electing him since 2008: that of managing and leading the Beaverton city government. Beaty is running to take the reins from Doyle and do that job the way she believes it should be done. Arnold's quixotic candidacy aside, the election presents a generational choice — Doyle is in his 70s, Beaty is in her 30s — between two people who want to serve as Beaverton's chief executive.
And yet it's entirely possible that's not the job to which one of them will be elected.
Because this new charter and the mayoral election are on the same ballot, Arnold, Beaty and Doyle are essentially running for two different jobs at the same time. Would voters be more inclined to support Beaty, who has less political and professional experience than Doyle, if they knew she would remain a voting member of the council and wouldn't be charged with the day-to-day administration of Oregon's sixth-largest city? Would voters be less inclined to support Doyle, who has already been in office for 12 years and would already be term-limited out if this proposed charter had been approved and taken effect already, if they knew he would continue doing his current job the way he's been doing it since George W. Bush was president?
That's what strikes us as unfair to both voters and candidates, and it's telling that both Beaty and Doyle opposed having this charter on the May ballot.
The Beaverton City Council has decided that, for whatever reason, there should be another question on the ballot that renders the mayoral election virtually irrelevant. The proposed charter is effectively an additional candidate for mayor, one that can defeat the people's choice for office regardless of who wins. The victorious candidate, elected to Beaverton's highest leadership position, would instead become one of seven people empowered to choose a person to actually serve in that position in all but name. The electorate for Beaverton's chief executive shrinks from tens of thousands to seven, and the question of whether voters prefer Arnold, Beaty and Doyle for the job as it exists now is dismissed.
It's unusual for a City Council to refer such sweeping changes to the ballot itself, especially when those changes include limiting how long its own members can serve. In Wilsonville to the south, voters will also vote on term limits, but that's because a citizens' group petitioned them onto the ballot.
We sat down with Councilor Marc San Soucie, one of the architects of the Beaverton charter change, to try to understand the council's motives.
Asked about the timing of this vote, San Soucie offers a couple of explanations, neither of which were persuasive to us.
One, he believes the "May voters" should decide on Beaverton's form of government. In Oregon, as in virtually every state, the primary election tends to have significantly lower turnout than the general election. San Soucie took the example of Doyle unseating then-Mayor Rob Drake in May 2008, then a charter amendment in November 2008 receiving more votes than the mayor-elect. To us, that seems a point in favor of Beaverton changing the timing of its municipal elections so that more voters will weigh in, rather than deliberately scheduling a brand-new charter for a time when fewer people will participate in the election. (But the proposed charter is silent on that point.)
Two, he argues that the vote should happen at the same time as the mayoral election because that makes it less of a "comment" on one person's leadership. We can see the logic here, but only if we squint really hard. This proposed charter has still been drawn up and drafted while Doyle serves as mayor. Although San Soucie offers that it could be seen as a "comment" on Beaty as well, that rings hollow; San Soucie has endorsed Beaty, and it strikes us that if Doyle is headed for re-election over his two challengers, those who oppose Doyle could still chalk up a "win" if voters demote him from chief executive to presiding officer.
Additionally, we question the City Council's decision to package all of these changes to city government into a single proposed charter, instead of following the example of 2008 and referring a smaller amendment, or two, or three, to voters.
San Soucie told us that if this charter is turned down on May 19, he and other councilors who want to see changes will likely spend some time asking the public which aspects of it they liked and which aspects of it they didn't. At the soonest, he suggested, the council could send another charter change to voters in November.
What we're wondering is: Why this intermediate step?
The timing of this vote is questionable, as we laid out above. So is the construction of this proposed charter.
Term limits are inherently a populist idea. They curb the abilities of elected officials, imposing a statutory requirement that they step down from office at a certain point. And one doesn't have to look too far to see that term limits, being a readily understood concept and placing a check on the power of government, tend to be popular. In 2016 in Tualatin, voters overwhelmingly approved term limits — even just two years after handily re-electing an incumbent mayor who would be barred from running again because of those term limits.
And yet the concept of switching to a council-manager form of government is murkier — more complex, and far less populist. It takes away the electorate's ability to choose a chief executive and vests that ability in an elected body instead. As San Soucie admitted in our editorial board interview with him this month: "The public likes to pick their administrator."
So here we have an unpopular idea (elected officials should choose who is the most powerful person in the city government, not the voters) rolled up with a popular idea (that elected officials shouldn't be able to run for office over and over again indefinitely). We have an attempt to open up democracy and empower people who might otherwise fear being steamrolled by an incumbent, enmeshed with an attempt to take power away from people who have grown accustomed to choosing their city's leader.
We're reminded of the wisdom of Mary Poppins: "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Maybe that's the strategy here, because we're finding this entire bill of goods hard to swallow.
This would be a sweeping change that would cost the city money to implement — just how much has yet to be determined, but cities the size of Beaverton typically invest in a nationwide search when hiring a city manager, and they typically set a six-figure salary to be competitive with other cities and counties looking for a professional administrator — and has been pushed to the soonest possible ballot for reasons that are about as clear as mud after a March downpour.
One of San Soucie's arguments was, to us, more enlightening than the rest: Concern over the erosion of checks and balances in the federal government, he said, prompted him to think about those checks and balances in the municipal government. Right now, he told us, the council's role is so limited that it isn't an active check on the mayor. Only Beaverton's voters, not its city councilors, can hire or fire the mayor. In some cities with a government structure like Beaverton, he remarked, the mayor has even prevented councilors from talking to city department heads.
The proposed charter would give the council a larger role — knocking the mayor down a peg, giving councilors the power to hire a city manager even if the mayor disapproves, and even giving councilors the ability to remove the mayor, or another councilor, from office if they believe he or she has tried to interfere with the council's chosen manager.
While we applaud the Beaverton City Council's creativity in coming up with more work for itself to do, we don't see any reason why voters should go along with this. We strongly encourage a "no" vote on the Beaverton Charter of 2021, and we look forward to seeing whom voters will choose to be Beaverton's mayor and chief executive.
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