Reforming city government discussed at rare joint forum
Changing Portland's form of government has become such a hot subject, the city's two largest and most established civic organizations held a rare joint discussion about it.
The Portland Business Alliance hosted the City Club of Portland at its monthly breakfast forum on Wednesday, Nov. 13. City Club members have overwhelmingly approved a research report calling for fundamental changes in the city's form of government. Although the PBA has not taken an official position on the report, President and CEO Andrew Hoan made it clear his organization's members are following the issue closely.
"The way government operates impacts all of us," Hoan said at the beginning of the discussion.
Portland's form of government is unique among modern U.S. cities. The mayor and the rest of the council are elected citywide. All council members oversee bureaus assigned to them by the mayor. All council members can also propose legislation that affects the entire city or bureaus overseen by other members, although that has not happened very often in the past.
Many American cities once had Portland's form of government. However, most have now changed over to a system where the mayor is still elected citywide, most, if not all, other council members are elected by geographic districts, and the bureaus are run by a professional manager appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
That is the system the City Club endorsed by a near-unanimous vote on Feb. 25 of this year. Ken Fairfax, who chaired the research committee, said it is more representative and efficient than Portland's current form of government.
"Portland's form of government may have some merits, but it is inequitable and has long since been proven to be inefficient," said Fairfax.
The three other speakers agreed with him. Former City Commissioner Dan Saltzman said council members currently prioritize their bureaus over citywide concerns. Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods Communication Manager Mischa Webley said many Portlanders feel unrepresented on the council. And Sightline Institute Policy Analyst Kristin Eberhard said most city residents don't even know which council members oversee which bureaus.
Saltzman disagreed with some of the City Club's recommendations. The report recommends that all positions except the mayor be elected by districts, while Saltzman felt some should still be elected citywide to provide a broader perspective on issues. And the report recommends increasing the size for the council from the current five to 13 or more, while Saltzman thinks seven to nine would be more manageable.
Despite the interest in the issue, one problem emerged from the discussion — no one is currently working to put a reform measure on the ballot. Changing the form of government requires amending the City Charter, which voters must approve. There are three ways to do it, all of which face challenges.
First, a measure can be referred to the ballot by the council. But the last time that happened, it was sponsored by former Mayor Tom Potter and defeated at the May 2007 primary election, causing some City Hall watchers to conclude voters will not trust any measure referred by the council.
Second, a measure can be placed on the ballot by an initiative petition started by citizens that obtains the required number of city voter signatures. As the City Club sees it, the initiative petition process requires a lot of hard work and money to gather the signatures and run a campaign that builds support across the city. And Fairfax admitted much more research is necessary to turn his organization's report into a detailed measure.
And third, a measure can be placed on the ballot by a citizen Charter Review Committee appointed by the council. The next committee must be appointed no later than 2021. But the City Club believes that even a single council member can subvert the charter review process, meaning there is no easy path to placing such a measure on the ballot.
Under its rules, the Portland Business Alliance cannot endorse any proposal that is not a specific measure.
Despite that, the mood at the breakfast forum clearly favored change. Alliance members complained about the inefficiency of the current system during the question-and-answer period. And Hoan ended the meeting by thanking the City Club for its work and hoping it will continue.
You can find the City Club report www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government.
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