Although it's hard to think about much other than COVID-19, protests and wildfires, the work of city government grinds onward.

This week, the city of Portland took a major step in the process of reviewing the city charter, which happens every 10 years.

The city announced the hiring of a project manager to lead that process: Julia Meier, the former executive director of the City Club of Portland and, before that, the Coalition for Communities of Color.

Meier, a lawyer who worked as a public defender in Alaska before moving into nonprofit management, is well-positioned to take on the task of leading the 20-member volunteer commission, which will consider amending the charter.

"I look forward to supporting a charter review that centralizes the principles of equity, engagement and representation," Meier said in a statement. "As Portlanders call for a new future for our city, I want to ensure we create a transparent and community-accountable process for developing commission recommendations."

Julia Meier
Julia Meier

Under Meier's leadership, City Club completed a research report last year that looked at whether Portland should change the way the City Council works. Today, under what's called the commission form of government, the mayor and four city commissioners are all elected citywide and each of them directs a portfolio of bureaus, as assigned by the mayor.

City Club found that no other large American city uses the commission form of government because it's not effective. The organization's report suggested Portland consider expanding the council to between nine and 13 members elected by district rather than citywide; direct those commissioners to focus on policy, budgeting and constituent service; and turn city bureaus over to a professional city manager appointed by the mayor. (There are a various forms of governance in other cities with a key variable being how much authority is vested in the mayor's office.)

Voters rejected previous attempts to the change Portland's form of government in 2002 and 2007.

The soon-to-be-named charter review commission (applications close Sept. 14), which will include 20 members, is scheduled to bring its recommendations to the City Council in the fall of 2021.

One difference between previous commissions and the current state of affairs: There appears to be far more support for changing the form of government today, after three consecutive one-term mayors, than there was in past efforts.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and his challenger in November, Sarah Iannarone, don't agree on much, but both agree the status quo isn't working.

"Our current commission form of government fails to effectively serve the city of Portland. It discourages equitable representation of the diversity of this city, it's inefficient, and it creates unnecessary conflict and gridlock," Wheeler said in assessment earlier this year. "It's time to reform the way we do business. It's time we have a form of government that ensures our city services function equitably across our neighborhoods serving all Portlanders."