Our Opinion: City Charter in need of (smart) changes
There's good and bad to be found in the recommendations by the City Club of Portland for a massive overhaul of Portland's governance model. Here are two quick takeaways:
One: It would be difficult to come up with a governance model much worse than the so-called "Galveston Plan," which Portland — and no other major city in the nation, including Galveston — still uses.
Two: The City Club report (See "Sources: City Club report generates buzz about governance" at PortlandTribune.com) offers a wide array of fixes. If the wrong combination of proposals is adopted, you actually could come up with a model worse than what we have now. It wouldn't be easy, but it would be possible.
First, some background. The Galveston model was created at the start of the last century when Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by a hurricane. In the aftermath, they created a hybrid form of government in which elected officials fill both legislative duties (as City Council members) and administrative duties (as de facto department directors). Thus, for instance, Ted Wheeler is both mayor and the city's police commissioner. Jo Anne Hardesty is both a member of the City Council and the fire and rescue commissioner.
Many cities adopted the Galveston Plan until about 1930, when they abandoned it as a kludge; an illogical and constraining mechanism.
Except for Portland, which has held on tenaciously to the nutty structure, in which members of the City Council can argue with a straight face that "my parks users don't want to pay for your fire station," even though there's only one person in that sentence: a Portland resident paying for parks and fire protection.
So what do we like about the City Club's proposal?
For starters, the idea of eliminating the commission system is great. Also, creating the role of city manager.
Portland should be run like any other American city: The mayor and council vote on budgets and policies, and they hire a professional city manager. That person runs the day-to-day operations (and oversees all other hiring).
Of course, there are bad city managers throughout the nation. Also great and mediocre ones. The idea of a professional manager is good, provided you make the right hire.
Here's a possibly good suggestion: Elect people by districts. Right now, all five members of the commission are elected citywide. That's more expensive for candidates, making it harder, at least in the past, for women and people of color to run and win citywide races. And it means, historically, that the elected officials have come from the moneyed parts of town, generally the west side and inner east side.
We could see the value in having commissioners elected by sector (say, officials representing the Southeast side, West side and, maybe, Northwest, North, Outer East and Northeast sectors. We'd want more details, but that's possibly a good idea.
Here's a terrible combination: keep the commission system and go to vote-by-region. That would add a lovely layer of dysfunction to an already-dysfunctional system. If — say, for argument's sake — the parks commissioner represents only the west side, and the fire commissioner represents only the north side, well, you could be pretty sure of where the next investment in parks and fire stations would be. That wouldn't even require malfeasance; if you're elected only by people north of Burnside, then that's whose voices you'll hear, and that's where you'd invest "your" bureau's money.
Another bad idea: Increasing the city commission from five members — a mayor and four others — to nine — a mayor and eight others.
That wouldn't be less dysfunctional; it would be louder and dysfunctional. Hard pass.
The City Club has endorsed a major change to the city's charter in the past. City voters have said "no." That's no reason to give up the effort to make the city function better. The club is to be praised for taking this issue on (again). It is to be praised for a well-argued report. And at least some of its suggestions would be a far cry better than what we have today.
We would support city leaders taking a good, hard look at the report, adopting what makes sense, and taking it all to voters for approval, as required by the City Charter.
Some of the recommendations could make governance much worse, but a lot of the recommendations could make governance much better. And that's a debate worth having.