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In the latest BEE editorial, we're wondering if maybe this time it really IS time to make city government work better?

ERIC NORBERG - Heres the Project Manager currently leading Portlands Charter Review Commission, Julia Meier, as she appeared via Zoom at the online meeting of the Southeast Portland Rotary Club last April. She wants to hear what you think Portlands city government needs. We have written about it several times before lately, and you probably have seen or heard it discussed on news broadcasts. Portland is the largest city in the country, by far, to be using a Commissioner form of government that was invented over a century ago in Texas specifically for small towns. And it really doesn't work very well at all these days in the Rose City. The Commissioner form of city government was initiated here in 1916. Only three years later, the voters who approved it tried pretty hard to change it – perhaps because the city never did follow through with a very important component of just what made the Commissioner form of government work for small towns in Texas over a century ago. More about that in a moment. Since 1919, changing to a better governmental model for a large and growing city has again come up for a vote from time to time periodically – most recently in 2007 – and, up till now, it has withstood the challenges.

There are two generally-offered reasons for this: One, that a lot of people in Portland say, "if it isn't broken, don't 'fix' it." The other is, that a lot of people like the idea of Portland having a truly strange form of government.

Well, our city government is broken now all right, and that's widely recognized.

And possessing a weird form of city government has an increasing cost in the increasing unraveling of our city, and more and more people – including some who are IN city government! – have come around to the idea that it really does have to change. To start with, just what are we talking about? What IS the Commissioner form of city government? As practiced in the small towns where it originated, the city council consisted of several commissioners assigned to operation of specific bureaus – and there, these responsibilities stayed with a specific council seat permanently, and people ran for a specific seat because of their expertise in that part of the city's operation! The commissioners were always expert in the management of the division of the city they were elected to be responsible for.

That doesn't sound very much like Portland, does it? That is the very important component of what made the Commissioner form of government work for small towns that Portland has NEVER adhered to.

Instead, we elect whoever chooses to run for a Commissioner's seat – without any certainty that the bureaus that seat is responsible for will still be the same ones when they are elected; and, there is absolutely no requirement that the person elected be competent about managing anything the city government oversees! In addition, our Mayor, who is also one of the five Commissioners in Portland, is free to reassign the bureaus any Commissioner is responsible for overseeing at any time.

So, to sum up, you have people on the City Council here who do not represent any part of the city in particular (most of them traditionally are from downtown), and who run on political platforms that are often dictated by personal agendas that have nothing to do with managerial competence, or any interest in representing all the people of the city. Recent events show how this can result in a Rose City that keeps coming off the rails. As you may or may not know, in 2007 the voters of Portland – although then unwilling to change the form of government here – mandated that at least once every ten years a Charter Review Commission be empaneled to determine if our form of government should be maintained or that changes are needed. So, after much testimony, and months of debate, the citizens serving on the commission are now to come up with a recommendation to place on the ballot for you to vote on.

You can learn more about this commission, and what it is doing, on its website – www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission – while serving under the Charter Commission Project Manager, Julia Meier. Meier does not advocate for any particular choice eventually to be made by the voters, but she is intent on getting as much public input as possible, as she explained the Southeast Portland Rotary Club at its virtual meeting this past April 21st.

Public testimony has been solicited during the first half of this year by the commission empaneled last December. Its members have terms of service that end in December of 2022, and it is expected that whatever recommendations for change they come up with and agree upon will be on the General Election ballot of November 8, 2022.

This time, at that election, we hope voters will not again just rubber-stamp a form of city government that has never worked as it was expected to since the time it was initiated in 1916, and that voters will adopt a more progressive and effective form of city government. A form which, we hope, will include geographical representation of all parts of the city in the composition of the City Council, and a professional, thoroughly-experienced City Manager to run the services and infrastructure of the city with the approval of the City Council – more like every other large city in the country. Maybe then, Portland might truly finally become "the City that Works".


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