Judge to rule on legality of Portland charter reforms by Monday
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong has promised to rule on legal challenges to the Portland Charter Commission's proposed Nov. 8 ballot measure by the end of the day on Monday, Aug. 15.
Bushong must rule whether the single measure proposed by the commission violates legal prohibitions against multiple subjects. If he agrees it is legal, Bushong must also decide whether the 10-word ballot title submitted by the City Attorney's Office adequately describes it.
"This is a very important measure for the voters of the city of Portland," Bushong said at the end an afternoon hearing on Thursday, Aug. 11.
Bushong heard conflicting arguments from attorneys on both sides of the issue, as well as James Posey, a longtime Black business leader who argued the rank choice voting provisions in the measure is inherently confusing. Bushong admitted the ability to rank several candidates on the same ballot is complicated and said he had to research it after the challenge was filed.
The appointed citizen commission referred the measure to the general election ballot on June 13. It proposes to change multiple provisions of the City Charter relating to the number of city commissioners, having them elected by ranked choice voting 12 new geographic districts, and assigning all city bureaus to a professional manager overseen by a citywide mayor who can only vote to break a tie.
The challenged was filled by Andrew Hoan, the president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance. His lawyers argued voters should not have to accept some changes they do not support for some they do.
"Plaintiff is concerned that the coupling of the good and expected reforms to the city's administration will be brought down at the ballot by the improvised concepts. Plaintiff wants the Charter Commission to re-submit the same charter reforms to voters in multiple measures so that Portland's voters have the choice to agree with all, none, or some of the charter reforms," Hoan's lawyers argued.
The proposal was defended by the City Attorney's Office, which argued the single-subject restrictions only apply to citizen initiatives, not to referrals from governments or its representatives like he commission.
According to city attorrney's filing, the constitution has two single-subject provisions, but none of them apply to "the measure.
"The single-subject requirement in Article IV, section 1 applies only to initiative petitions and does not apply to measures referred by local governing bodies like the Charter Commission," the filing said.
"The second single-subject rule is found in Article IV, Section 20, which provides, in relevant part: 'Every Act shall embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith, which subject shall be expressed in the title.' Unlike the first single-subject rule governing initiative petitions, the second single-subject rule contains no language extending the rule to local legislative acts," the filing continued.
The city attorney has filed a ballot title that said, "Should city administrator, supervised by mayor, manage Portland with 12 councilors representing four districts making laws and voters ranking candidates?" Posey argues that is inherently confusng for voters who have not ranked candidates choices in the past. They city attorney said a limited number of jurisdictions are already doing so.
The measure needs to be certified for the ballot by Aug. 23.
Reform measure complicated
Portland currently is the only major city in the country in which 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 would increase representation of marginalized communities, allow 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-chosen voting are experimental and could have unintended consequences.
Although it has yet to be decertified for the ballot, campaign committees have already been formed on both sides of the issue.The measure is supported by Portlanders for Charter Reform, a political action committee supported by Building Power for Communities of Color, the political engagement arm of the nonprofit Coalition of Communities of Color. It is opposed by the Partnership for Common Sense Government, which was founded by two former staff members for the late Mayor Bud Clark, Chuck Duffy and Steven Moskowitz, and charter commission member, administrative law judge and former council candidate Vadim Mozyyrsky.The critics include Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps. He has promised to refer a series of single-subject chapter reform measures to the ballot to replace the current one of Bushong rules it violates the constitution.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.