Portland charter changes debated before vote
Portland voters will be asked to change its unique form of city government for an almost experimental one at the Nov. 8 general election.
On May 15, the Portland Charter Commission referred a measure with three major changes — including unusual multi-member geographic City Council districts — to the ballot. The new system would replace the current weak-mayor system that has been called outdated and dysfunctional.
The vote was 17 to three. Supporters say the proposed changes will make the council more efficient and representational.
"Voters will have an exciting opportunity this November to make Portland work better for all of us," said Charter Commissioner Becca Uherbelau. "This measure is our unified response to what Portlanders told us is the change we need."
Opponents warned of unintended consequences, however.
"This has never been done in the U.S. before. It's an experiment and I am very concerned that at this point in our city's history we shouldn't replace the form of government unique in the country with a form of government that hasn't been proven," said member David Knowles, who served as the city's planning director in the 1990s before leaving for the private sector.
One question is whether including so many subjects in a single measure is even legal. The proposed changes are sprinkled throughout the City Charter. The Metro attorney recently disqualified an initiative measure to redirect the regional government's homeless services spending because it violated the Oregon Constitution by including both administrative and legislative matters.
The Portland measure still must undergo several steps before making it to the ballot. The next public event is a report on the proposal to be presented to the council on June 29. The City Attorney's Office also must draft the title and explanation that could be challenged in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
Portland voters have rejected changing the form of government eight times over the past 94 years. John Horvick, political director for the DHM Research polling firm, believes Portland voters may be more open to changing the form of government than ever before. But he is not sure a majority is willing to suppose these changes.
"Just one in 10 Portlanders think that the city is headed in the right direction, and they may see changing the form of government as a way to get back on track," Horvick said. "However, I don't have a strong view of how they will view these particular changes. It's one thing to believe what you have isn't working. It's quite another to embrace a specific set of changes."
Portland currently is the only major city in the country where the City Council is elected citywide and its members both set policies and oversee bureaus assigned to them by the mayor without a professional manager. It is called the Galveston model, and was created in Galveston, Texas, in 1901, after a hurricane devastated the city. It became popular nationwide between 1901 and the advent of World War I, but waned in popularity after that. Portland is the last major city using the model.
The proposed changes 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 could only vote to break a tie and would not have veto power.
• Expand the council from four to 12 commissioners with three members elected in four newly created geographic districts.
• Allow voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, with the top three candidates in each district winning without runoff elections.
According to the members of the charter commission who supported them, the changes will increase representation of marginalized communities, allow the council members to focus on important policy issues, and eliminate the "silos" among bureaus that have hampered cooperation.
"No other city in the country is asking people who are supposed to be focused on policy, and big vision, to also be managing the day-to-day operations," said commission member Robin Ye. "Portland hasn't increased its size of council in over 100 years, and our city has changed dramatically in 100 years. It's time we invest in our democracy — we should give Portlanders a government that better represents their viewpoints and lived experiences."
But David Chen, a business attorney who voted against the changes, said they might not work as expected.
"We're making decisions that could persist for generations," Chen said. "We have to get the charter recommendation right."
Ballot fight possible
No organized campaigns on either side of the measure have yet been announced. That is so far different than what happened during the May 2007 primary election, when voters rejected a measure to create a chief administrative officer to oversee all bureaus. It was overwhelmingly defeated 76% to 24%.
The dynamics this year are very different, however.
Measure 26-91 had been crafted by a citizen commission championed by then-Mayor Tom Potter and appointed by the council, which referred it to the ballot on a split vote. Support and opposition fractured along traditional Portland lines. Business interests supported the measure, while public employee and other unions opposed it. Many liberals and community activists also came out against it, including former Mayor Bud Clark, environmentalists Mike Houck and Bob Sallinger, and former Oregon legislator Jo Ann Bowman, who is now Portland commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
The fight was expensive for the time. The Citizens to Reform City Hall PAC that supported the measure raised more than $247,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. The two committees that opposed the measure raised more than $232,000. They were Portlanders for Accountability and the Committee for Accountable City Government.
This year the measure was drafted through a process approved by the voters at the May 2008 election. The commission was appointed and supported by the council. Many members were chosen to represent marginalized communities.
Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, told the Portland Tribune his organization considers the changes a major improvement.
"We will be supporting the measure and encouraging our members, supporters and colleagues to vote for it come November," Mundy said.
But Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who has formed a political action committee to support charter reforms, said his members need to discuss the changes further before deciding whether to support all of them.
"The package of proposals that we got out of the charter commission contained some things I'm awfully excited about, like having a city manager. I also support growing the size of council and moving towards district-based elections. But I have concerns about how various parts have been implemented. I'm not thrilled by multi-member districts, and I'm frankly disappointed by the ranked choice voting proposal," Mapps told Rose City Reform, a website devoted to the debate.
If approved by the voters, the geographic districts would be drawn in 2023 and the larger council and citywide non-voting mayor would be elected at the November 2024 election. The two councilors to be elected this November would have their terms shortened to just two years. but could run in their districts for new full terms. The winners would all take office on Jan. 1, 2025.
One-time transition costs are estimated as an additional $4.6 million to $7.9 million per year for three years. Ongoing additional costs of the proposed changes are estimated at between $2.7 million to $10.2 million per year.
It is unclear where the additional seven members of the council would locate their offices. The current five are in City Hall, along the City Attorney and City Auditor. More than doubling the council size would requiring significant additional office space to accommodate the additional members and their staffs. Outside district offices would also cost more.
Steps to come
According to the Portland Elections Office, these steps need to be completed before the measure qualifies for the ballot:
• The Charter Commission's recommendations are presented to the City Council, currently scheduled for 2 p.m. on June 29. The presentation must include a report from the city auditor, a redline version of the charter amendments, a fiscal impact statement and a public involvement statement.
• The city attorney must draft a ballot title and explanatory statement and files these items with the City Elections Office.
• The City Elections Office must publish a notice of ballot title challenge period in the local newspaper.
• Voters wishing to challenge the drafted ballot title must file a petition with the court within seven business days from the date the ballot title was filed by the city attorney with the City Elections Office.
• If a voter files a ballot title challenge with the court, they must notify the City Elections Office of the challenge within one business day of filing with the court.
• Once the ballot title challenge process has been completed and any ballot title issues resolved, the City Elections Office may file the Notice of Measure Election form with the County Elections Office at any time before the 5 p.m. Sept. 8, 2022, deadline.
• After the measure is referred to the ballot, any person may file with the an argument in favor or opposition to the measure County Elections Office to be included in the voters' pamphlet. The deadline to file an argument for the voters' pamphlet is Sept. 12.
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