Representation system leaves many behind
In 2016, I was working for the Coalition of Communities of Color on Open and Accountable Elections Portland, a program that amplifies the voices of average Portlanders, including those who don't usually engage in local politics, by increasing the value of their donations. It also helps balance the scales for those who don't have access to wealthy donor networks.
During that year, I met with each commissioner to talk about why this policy mattered to communities of color, but one meeting with a particular commissioner has always stuck with me. We were having a great conversation. He listened and seemed to agree that Portland should take this important step. But at the end of the meeting he said something I wasn't expecting.
The proposal would cost money, he said. And he still needed to find money for the Buckman Pool.
The Buckman Pool?
I was dumbfounded. His concern was so specific and unrelated to what we were talking about. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Buckman residents love their pool. But I was curious about why he had chosen one specific pool in a close-in Southeast Portland neighborhood as a counterweight to a landmark campaign finance program.
Thinking about it now, I shouldn't have been surprised. These kinds of conversations happen every week in a commission form of government.
Citywide initiatives get pitted against the concerns of close-in neighborhoods. And often, impacted community members, including people of color, young people, or low-income individuals lack a voice in the process.
I'm the strange kind of person who registers to vote before I've even unpacked in a new city. So, when I moved to Portland for law school, I wanted to understand how this government works.
Right away, I was shocked to discover that every voter votes for every commissioner position on the city council. Many courts have struck down at-large voting systems because they lead to systematic underrepresentation of ethnic minorities. The fact that there are only four commissioners makes the problem worse. In most large cities, councilors are elected from different geographic areas. Their job is to represent their district and create laws that advance the common good.
Why is Portland holding on to a system that leaves out so many communities?
Then I discovered that each commissioner is assigned to oversee a city bureau, such as the housing or police bureau. I found that incredibly strange since they often take on these executive roles with little, if any, managerial experience or subject matter expertise. If they run bureaus, when do they develop policy? How do they have time to engage with constituents? And to whom are they accountable?
The closer I looked at the commission form of government, the less sense it made. That's why when City Club announced that it was looking for researchers to examine Portland's system of government through an equity lens and make recommendations for it could be improved, I was excited to get involved.
We spent more than a year researching the facts and collaborating with City Club's research board and staff to sharpen our findings into a report that shows clearly what's at stake if we continue with this kind of government.
It became clear that an at-large voting system creates a significantly difficult barrier for people of color and individuals from low-income backgrounds to successfully run for office.
Most importantly, we saw how other cities made this change. At one time, more than 500 cities followed the commission model. Today, Portland is the only major city with this kind of government.
I moved to Portland from New Mexico and I've seen what's possible when diverse leaders cooperate on policies that benefit everyone. Portland's system puts up barriers to both equitable representation and cooperation. Our report makes three basic recommendations to change that:
• Create a city manager position to oversee administration of the bureaus so that city councilors can focus on representing Portlanders and creating policy to improve our city.
• End at-large voting and implement a district representative system. This may include multiple members representing larger geographic areas or districts.
• Expand the city council to at least eight members — doubling the number of people who can create and adopt policies.
Portland is a growing city made up of many diverse communities. To make sure Portland is a place where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, we need a government that reflects and represents the diversity of our city.