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February 14th, 2007 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

As the Charter Turns

Don't change that test pattern. The wonky topic of charter reform actually has a lot of soap-opera twists.

     
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IMAGE: JASON WALTON
Admit it, all the City Hall chatter about changing Portland's governing charter makes you nod off.

But since a City Council majority voted last week to put four charter revisions on the May 15 ballot, we thought we'd offer some juicy political plot lines to follow. First, here's a brief summary of charter reform:

Mayor Tom Potter appointed a charter-review committee after he took office in 2005.

Last month the committee made its recommendations. The most controversial: strengthening the mayor's power by consolidating duties now shared by the mayor and his four City Council colleagues entirely under the mayor, with the help of a chief administrative officer.

OK, you can wake up now.

Here are four better subplots to track that involve Potter, the Average White Band that is Portland's all-Caucasian Council, ex-Mayor Vera Katz, The Oregonian, the Portland Business Alliance and your water bill.

Strange Bedfellows

Potter, who favors the charter changes, overwhelmingly won in 2004 as a "man of the people" despite opposition from two of the city's most heavyweight institutions: the Portland Business Alliance and The Oregonian's editorial page.

So who are the first two mega-groups to back the proposed change to strengthen the mayor's office? The PBA and The O's editorial page.

If the PBA ends up raising boatloads of cash for the pro-change campaign, that's going to look awfully weird, given that Potter limited donations in his 2004 general-election win to $100 a contributor.

There's also irony in the fact that one of the two commissioners who oppose strengthening the mayor's hand is Randy Leonard (the other is Erik Sten). The activists behind Leonard and Sten include some of the very folks—like Amanda Fritz—who united unsuccessfully behind a slate of candidates to unseat Leonard in 2004. Meantime, ex-Mayor Bud Clark, a Potter backer in 2004, also opposes Potter's change.

Will Potter Ever Answer "The Question"?

Which is this: What would be better if the system were changed and the mayor had all the city bureaus under his control?

Potter has faced that question multiple times ("Weak in Review," WW, Jan. 24, 2007), most recently from City Hall regular and downtown activist Irwin Mandel at last week's Council meeting.

The mayor did say (after snapping at Mandel for interrupting him then saying, to Mandel, "Why don't you shut up and let me talk?") that a stronger mayor would make government more effective and efficient.

But Potter still cannot cite any specific examples of how the city would be better had a stronger mayor system been in place.

It shouldn't be that hard to get energized. Former Mayor Vera Katz ("Herding Katz," WW, Jan. 17, 2007) showed more spunk than Potter during a rare Council appearance last week, when she sparred with Leonard over charter reform like it was old times between the two erstwhile Council adversaries.

We're also not seeing much of a case from commissioners Sam Adams and Dan Saltzman.

Both voted to put charter changes on the ballot, though they're undecided so far on the questions themselves. Perhaps they're fearful of antagonizing unions such as the politically powerful Portland Firefighters Association, which is already on record in opposition?

And forget their endorsements if opponents of a stronger mayor enlist powerhouse political consultant Mark Wiener, who's worked for Adams and Saltzman.

Here's Some Help

Potter and company could suggest that one reason to change to a stronger-mayor, city-manager form of government is the water-billing debacle that occurred in 2001, when Sten was in charge.

Here's what can go wrong when you have a pol in charge of a bureau, Potter could argue. But don't expect Potter to make that case, given that he has no interest in annoying Sten, who has proven to be far more adept at the game of politics than the mayor.

Besides, Sten has a ready response: The current system gave Portlanders a ready scapegoat to complain to when frustration mounted over billing snafus—him.

And If Charter Reform Flames Out?

Buh-bye to one of the few tangible Potter initiatives, since he was elected more than two years ago.

And get ready for the next political question: If Potter decides to seek re-election in 2008, what exactly besides "visioning" is he going to run on ?

 
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