EDITOR: The struggle to reform Portland's odd form of government
Last month, the two stories on the front page of THE BEE were both about trees. They were there because each seemed to us to merit being highlighted as one the most important stories of the month. One story was about the well-loved local nonprofit organization "Friends of Trees", which happened to do its first major planting after its beginning on Woodstock Boulevard in 1989. The trees lining the business district of that street today are the result.
The story told how Friends of Trees would not have its contract with the City of Portland renewed — apparently because the City Council thought its own Bureaus could do a better job of planting and maintaining trees in Portland than this vigorous volunteer-driven nonprofit. One of the two Bureaus tasked with replacing the city-supported work of Friends of Trees in Portland is to be Portland Parks and Recreation. (The other seems to be the Bureau of Environmental Services.)
Coincidentally, the second article on the front page last month provided a wry commentary on that plan. A large tree in Creston Park had fallen on a number of vehicles in the park's parking lot, some occupied, flattening them. Miraculously, nobody were injured. But BEE correspondent David F. Ashton reported, "Although Creston-Kenilworth neighbors, and users of Creston City Park — just south of S.E. Powell Boulevard — have said they've complained about the condition of trees there before, their concerns apparently did not reach Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R).
"If heard, their concerns about trees and limbs falling had not resulted in any action taken by PP&R. That is, until Monday evening, July 11, just after the Creston Outdoor Pool and closed, when people were heading back to their vehicles in the parking lot. That warm and windy evening was when a huge tree snapped just above the ground, crashing down onto several parked cars, crushing them on the park's west side."
If that is the sort of maintenance of trees we can expect under the new regime following the end of the Friends of Trees contract, it does not bode well for either tree maintenance or the planting of trees in the future. We are glad Friends of Trees remains a busy nonprofit outside of the city contract, and one which might in the future be invited back in to help grow a vibrant Rose City tree canopy.
As for the real reason for this peculiar pivot from Friends of Trees to the "City That Doesn't Always Work", we quoted the conclusion of Pamplin Media news partner OPB, which had been reviewing emails and conducting interviews on the subject:
"Critics of the Commission system [of Portland's city government] say it discourages collaboration, and encourages Commissioners to prioritize their [own] Bureaus over broader city needs. The fight over trees offers a case study, in which two Portland Bureaus — the Bureau of Environmental Services, and the Bureau of Parks & Recreation — are competing for the power that comes with managing trees. The end result appears to be fewer trees being planted and cared for in the coming years, even as temperatures continue to rise."
That brings us to the choice facing Portland's voters this November. The City Charter Commission has come up with a proposal to reform our peculiar and sophomoric form of city government by replacing it with a plan much closer what has proven to work well at other large cities in this country.
We have previously endorsed approving the measure, and indeed there seems such broad support among voters for some change — ANY change — for this largely ineffective city government of ours that those who oppose change have resorted to nitpicking some parts of the proposal in hopes of getting voters to stick with what we have.
Among the proposals for change are these:
· A City Council that focuses on setting policy, and a Mayor elected citywide to run the citys day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional City Administrator
· Four new geographic districts, each with three Council members elected to represent each district, expanding the City Council to a total of 12 members
· Ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to rank candidates in the order of their preference for each of them
That first proposal is fundamentally what the Charter change is. We havent heard much quibbling about this proposal, which is just what the public increasingly has been calling for in the last few years.
No, the nitpicking centers on the two other proposals, which are part of the Charter Plan on the ballot.
As for that second proposal, we ourselves would like to see just one representative from each district and, instead, having more districts — after all, the city is formally divided into six different districts, not four: North, Northeast, Southeast, South, Southwest, Northwest. And one could add Downtown to that. If the second proposal does not work as intended, it can be changed later, but the point is this: Having four districts is far better than having NO districts, as we do now. (The result has been a City Council heavily drawn just from Downtown Portland and its near suburbs).
And presumably the multiple representatives proposed for each of the four districts helps to overcome some objections to the ranked-choice voting idea.
Possibly the most controversial idea is the ranked-choice voting. This is not a new invention, although you may not have heard much about it; it has been adopted in other areas of the country, and apparently without disastrous consequences. But we admit it is not an idea we ourselves care for very much, since it results in a situation in which everybodys third or fourth choice could be the winner! Thats why, we suppose, that the idea of electing three candidates from each of the four districts was added to the plan. However, don't overlook that you wouldn't HAVE to vote for more than one candidate in a category, and we ourselves probably won't, if we have a strong preference in our own district. So that is not a deal-breaker for us either. The bottom line is this: If the Charter Amendment is defeated in November, we will be stuck for some time to come with exactly the city government we have now. And (as the tree dispute is only the latest indication) this antiquated form of city government just doesnt work as intended, and hasnt for more than a century (it was already under reconsideration as early as the first five years after it was instituted over a hundred years ago).
Somehow, in many subsequent elections, opponents nitpicking the details have undermined the public desire to make a change. THE BEE fervently hopes that this will not happen again this time.
We all deserve and need a much better city government than we have now. Now is the time to pass this well-vetted Charter Proposal, to start getting Portland finally on track towards a better future.
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.