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Three proposals for changing the size, duties and manner of electing the City Council are referred to the Nov. 8 ballot.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF PORTLAND - Portland City HallPortland voters will decide whether to change the city's form of government at the Nov. 8 general election.

The Portland Charter Commission referred three proposed changes to the City Charter during a Tuesday, June 14, hearing. Seventeen of the 20 members approved the changes.

Portland is the only major city in the United States where the City Council is elected citywide and its members both propose legislation and oversee bureaus assigned by the mayor without a professional manager.

The three changes proposed by the commission would:

• Create a City Council that focuses on setting policy and a mayor elected citywide to run the city's day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional city administrator. The mayor would not have veto power, only a tie-breaking vote on the council.

• Expand the council from five to 12 members elected in four new geographic districts with three members each.

• Allow voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, using ranked choice voting so there are no runoff elections.

Charter Commissioner Raahi Reddy was very enthusiastic about the proposals.

"I think this is going to be a tremendous, wonderful turn for Portland. I'm excited and proud of the work we've done," Reddy said. "I'm a yes, yes, and yes."

One of the three no votes came from Charter Commissioner David Knowles, who is worried about the unintended consequences.

"I think it's going to dilute accountability. Am I wrong about this? Yeah, maybe I am but on the other hand, I very well could be right," Knowles said "And the problem is that there's no data to show that I'm right or wrong."

Even though commission co-chair Melanie Billings-Yun wants to "almost immediately" get started, it will take a while for the changes to be implemented if voters approve them in November.

"We want to have a commission that would design those (geographic) districts," she said. "That commission would begin on January 31."

The districts, Billings-Yun explained, came out of the desire for geographical representation. Having 12 members puts Portland closer to one elected councilor for every 50,000 residents. Currently, there is one councilor for every 128,000 people.

There are some opportunities for there to be more diversity in the council because of this system," said Ellen Seljan, an associate professor of political science at Lewis & Clark College.

Seljan looks at the districts as lowering the financial barrier of campaigning — focusing on neighborhoods rather than the entire city. She notes a less costly election process can inspire more people to run.

Proportional ranked-choice voting will change how the council and mayor are elected. Billings-Yun said that was a high priority in the surveys and feedback the commission received.

Despite its popularity, it will require more research, Seljan said.

"That means voters are going to need to get information about every single one of those candidates and be able to rank them and decide their best to their worst candidate. That's a lot of work," she explained.

Billings-Yun pushed back on that and said if a voter only wants to vote for one person, that is their choice and their right.

However, Seljan hopes voters take the responsibility more seriously.

"It's really important to rank every candidate for the election to turn out fair," Seljan said.

It will be a while until voters are asked that, as 2024 would be the earliest election under the new charter. It's on the voters themselves to pass the change to the charter first in this year's election.

Seljan thinks in order to succeed the campaign supporting the change will need to inform voters about what they're voting on, how voting will work in the new system, and inspire turnout. She notes that it's common for voters to simply vote no on something they don't completely understand.

Billings-Yun is confident Portlanders will come through.

"It's going to take less education than a lot of pundits are saying," she said, "The fact is we have not heard from one Portlander who says let's keep it like it is. The mood for change is so tremendous that we have the winds on our back on this one."

"We believe very much in what we've put together. We believe very much that Portlanders want change," Billings-Yun said.

KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune.

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