Fight begins over Portland charter changes
Portland voters got a preview of the upcoming fight over the measure to change the city's form of government, which is heading to the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
Although the measure proposed by the Charter Commission has yet to be certified, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Mingus Mapps criticized key provisions during a presentation to the City Council on Thursday, June 29. The council does not have the power to prevent the measure from appearing on the ballot. But their questions reflect concerns about the complex measure being raised by business organizations, labor unions and at least two political action committees.
Among other things, Mapps questioned whether the measure — which includes amendments throughout the City Charter — violates an Oregon constitutional requirement limiting proposed laws to a single subject.
"My deepest disappointment with the process and the products that we're seeing today is that voters will not have a chance at considering each one of these questions separately," Mapps said.
Commission member Becca Uherbelau said she was confident the measure would survive any future legal challenge because there is a "unifying principle" thread between each aspect.
"I fundamentally believe all these policies are on a general topic, which is changing the structure of the city government," she said.
But Portland elections officials previously disqualified a similar proposed initiative — 2020-PDX01 — because it included too many subjects.
"2020-PDX01 does but comply with the single-subject analytical framework because it seeks to amend multiple provisions of the City Charter, and not all of the amendment are connected by a single unifying purpose. For example, the operations of City Council is not logically connected to changing the voting system for all elected City officials," read the City Elections Office determination of Dec. 16, 2020.
The City Attorney's Office said the single-topic requirement only applies to initiative petitions in a March 2 memo to the commission. But the opinion admits the council has historically limited measures referred to Portland voters to single subjects to avoid legal challenges.
The Portland Business Alliance is among the organizations considering challenging the title of the ballot measure in Multnomah County Circuit Court once the city attorney writes and files it.
The proposed measure already has its campaign supporters, however. As first reported by Willamette Week, the Portlanders for Charter Reform political action committee is supported by Building Power for Communities of Color, the political engagement arm of the nonprofit Coalition of Communities of Color.
The committee will compete against two PACs opposing the measure, One, the Partnership for Common Sense Government, was created by commission member and former council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky and two former Mayor Bud Clark staff members, Chuck Duffy and Steve Moskowitz. And the Ulysses PAC created by Mapps to support charter reform now opposes the measure.
Perhaps the most significant flash point during the hearing was the proposal to create multi-member geographic council districts with commissioners elected by ranked choice voting. Although no one disputed the value of electing commissioners by districts instead of citywide, Mapps called the combination of multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting unique and challenged the commission members to justify it.
Uherbelau said the commission heard from a lot of voters whose highest priority was changing Portland's form of government, but the change of government question polled higher when it was paired with multi-member districts and ranked choice voting rather than presented alone.
Wheeler also objected to the mayor not being allowed to vote except in cases of a tie or veto anything passed by the council.
"In the absence of that tool, where does the buck stop?" Wheeler said. "If the council gives for any reason a flawed or not fully baked proposal to the mayor, and the city manager and says implement it and then it blows up, couldn't you conceivably get into this finger-pointing game?"
Charter commission member Melanie Billings-Yun said polling showed voters were opposed to a "strong mayor" form of government, which is used by many cities and towns throughout Oregon.
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.
Proposed charter 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. Changes proposed by the Charter 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 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.
Supporters say 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.
Critics say the multi-member districts with rank-chose voting are experimental and could have unintended consequence.
Steps to come
According to the Portland Elections Office, these steps need to be completed before the measure qualifies for the ballot:
• The City Attorney's Office 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.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.
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