Portland City Council members began talking Tuesday about appointing a city commission to recommend changes to the City Charter, despite the funding and citizen participation problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a Tuesday, June 30, morning work session, Mayor Ted Wheeler said the 20-member citizen Charter Review Commission will be appointed by the end of the year and could refer reform measures to Portland voters by the November 2022 general election.
"It will be empaneled by the end of the year but will be allowed enough time for a full community conversation," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also said the pandemic is expected to continue while the measures are proposed, drafted and referred to the voters, meaning the commission meetings will be held remotely. The council only approved $200,000 for the commission in the budget that takes effect on July 1 instead of the $400,000 originally proposed because of pandemic-related revenue declines.
Despite that, the commission will have more staff support from the city than the first commission appointed in 2010, which was only expected to propose housekeeping changes. The new commission will be staffed by existing employs with the City Attorney's Office and the Chief Operating Officer's office.
"'Unprecedented' is the new status quo," said Wheeler, who has promised to launched the process this year even if he is defeated at the Nov. 3 general election by challenger Sarah Iannarone.
Wheeler said he hopes and expects the commission will propose changing Portland form of government, in which all council members are elected citywide and oversee bureaus assigned by the mayor. No other major American city has such a system, which critics say leads to "siloed" thinking and underrepresents traditionally marginalized communities. There also is no city manager.
The governmental system is referred to as the Galveston Model. It was introduced in Galveston, Texas, after a turn-of-the-century hurricane killed many elected and appointed city leaders. The system became somewhat popular throughout the United States but began dying off in the 1930s. Portland is the last major city to employ the system.
Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Jo Ann Hardesty said they did not think the council should tell the commission what issues to consider. It is intended to be independent and can even refer measures directly to the council with a vote of more than 15 members. Measures supported by a majority by fewer than 15 members must be sent to the council, which will decide whether to refer them to the voters.
Fritz also argued that the city's new Open and Accountable Elections public campaign financing program already is addressing some of the problems attributed to Portland's form of government. Carmen Rubio became the first Latino woman elected to the ballot when she received more than 50% of the vote in the Position 1 race with public campaign financing. Two other publicly funded minority candidates — Loretta Smith, a Black woman, is facing off against Dan Ryan, a gay white man — in the Aug. 11 special election. And another publicly funded candidate, African American Mingus Mapps, forced incumbent Commissioner Chloe Eudaly into a runoff in the Nov. 3 general election. Eudaly also is publicly funded.
Each council member will name four members to the commission. The council is scheduled to hold another work session on it on Aug. 25. The appointments must be made by Dec. 15.
The council also heard from City Club of Portland board member Collin Jones, who said the longtime civic organization believes the commission process is the best way to study, write and refer a measure to the ballot changing the city's form of government.
The City Club spent two years studying Portland's form of government and approved a report that concluded it fails to provide equitable representation by nearly every metric, including income, geography, gender, race and ethnicity. The report also concluded the current allocation of responsibility to the mayor and council appears to result in poor bureaucratic performance.
The report recommended changing to the city manager form of government. It also recommends increase the number of commissioners from four to at least eight and electing them by districts.
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