Why Are Electeds on the Portland City Council Called “Commissioners?”

To people in other cities, this seems provincial, or just stupid.

The Portland City Council is besieged by weekly protests. The council currently consists of (from left to right) Chloe Eudaly, Amanda Fritz, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish. (Thomas Teal)

Why are electeds on the Portland City Council called "commissioners?" To people in other cities, this seems provincial, or just stupid. Should we change one or the other for consistency? —Why the Foolishness

Don't take this the wrong way, Foolishness, but you sound like one of those people who has a stroke if someone doesn't zero out the last 4 seconds on the microwave timer.

You're not wrong—just as members of the U.S. House of Representative are usually called "congresspeople," Portland city councilors are usually referred to as "commissioners." But it's one of those things like McGeorge Bundy's name—unfortunate, but we let it slide.

Originally, our councilors were just councilors (or, more commonly, "councilmen"). Each was elected from one of 15 separate wards throughout the city, like senators in a miniature congress. The police commissioner, city assessor, treasurer and mayor were elected directly.

But in 1913, voters approved a plan in which just five councilors would be elected at large. Now, instead of running for commissioner of a specific bureau, you'd just run for City Council in general, and let the mayor decide who was most qualified to run, say, the Bureau of Environmental Services.

It's like the gate attendant on every airline flight looked over the folks waiting to board and then picked somebody who might be good at flying the plane—sometimes you luck out and get an actual pilot, but if not, oh well. (To be fair, the old method was analogous to letting the passengers pick the pilot, which doesn't sound that great either.)

In any case, don't sweat it: Appointing people to head huge, complex bureaucracies they hadn't heard of before last week is pretty much how we run the whole country. Even our beloved revolutionary sweetheart Barack Obama named Democratic megadonor Penny Pritzker to head the Department of Commerce, presumably based on the fact that, as a billionaire, she knew about, like, buying stuff.

But let's save the limitations of democracy for another time. Our electeds are both "councilors" and "commissioners," and—let's be honest—"commissioner" sounds way more badass.

QUESTIONS? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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