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Proposed Portland charter language would make it difficult for future voters to remove incumbent city commissioners

In 1998, Oregon voters enacted an important safeguard against the adoption of super-majority voting systems with the passage of Measure 63. Now voters in Portland are being asked to approve the mirror image of what that constitutional amendment was designed to prevent.

COURTESY PHOTO - Former Portland resident Tim Nesbitt says the proposed city charter would make it hard for voters to unseat future city commissionersThanks to a provision in the city's proposed charter revision, Portland voters now face the choice of limiting their power in future elections by setting a "super-minority" standard for electing city council members.

Super-majority voting requirements, like the one Oregon banned 24 years ago, handcuff the ability of voters to make decisions in response to changing circumstances. Super-minority thresholds, like the one proposed this year, make it easy for politicians to gain office with support from only small segments of their electorates and make it hard to unseat them thereafter, even when they lose the support of most of the citizens they represent.

Both systems entrench a status quo, allowing one group of voters, at one time, to change the rules for voters thereafter. Whether moving the bar up (with super-majority requirements) for ballot measures, or down (with super-minority thresholds) for candidates, the effect is the same: It constrains the power of voters to approve course corrections in future elections.

I authored Measure 63, known as the Defense of Democracy Act, in response to efforts by anti-tax activist Bill Sizemore to set in place a two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes — a proposal, which, at the time, could have been enacted with a simple majority. In other words, in one election, voters could have raised the bar for those that came after them to decide policies affecting the financing of government.

At the peak of Oregon's anti-tax fervor, Sizemore's strategy was to block voters from responding to the needs of the future. Oregonians were split on tax policies. But they didn't like the idea of changing the rules for resolving issues in our elections. They approved Measure 63 and, as Sizemore later admitted, forced him to abandon this strategy.

The Portland charter amendment (Measure 26-228) contains the mirror image of Sizemore's strategy in the form of a change to the rules for electing — and un-electing — council members. In four multi-member districts with three representatives in each, the measure would set a threshold of 25% to win a seat on the City Council. But that will also create a high bar of 75% to unseat incumbents who seek re-election thereafter.

This will be a "welcome to the Hotel California" for candidates who seek office in the first council election to follow. It will be easy to check in to the council, but much harder to be forced to leave.

Of course, incumbent council members could still be evicted by a 50% vote in a recall election. That's state law. But they could then check back in at the next election with a 25% pass key under Portland's proposed election scheme.

Ironically, proponents of Portland's charter reform package are justifying this change in election rules as one that is needed to promote diversity — at a time when Portlanders have elected the most diverse council in its history!

I agree that Portland's system of representation can be improved by expanding the council to include members elected by district. But that doesn't require giving up on the broad support that today's council members have managed to secure from their constituents.

I no longer live in Portland. But every one of us in Oregon will be affected by the city's vote on changing its charter. A well-governed, well-functioning Portland is essential to the well-being of our state.

It will take more than charter amendments to get Portland back on track in the years ahead. It will take a council whose members are empowered by majority support to guide the city through a process that achieves consensus and timely follow through. I hope my friends in Portland will not make that task any harder by limiting their ability to demand accountability for results in future elections.

Tim Nesbitt lived in Portland from 1989 to 2017. A former labor leader, chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and frequent contributor to the Capital Chronicle, Oregon Capital Bureau and other publications, he now lives near Independence.

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