City Charter Commission Sends Proposed Changes to Rework City Government and Elections to November Ballot

The major overhaul had three dissenters.

On Monday night, the 20-member Charter Review Commission proposed changes to Portland’s form of government that will now be presented to voters on the November ballot.

For the sixth time in 50 years, Portlanders will have the chance to overhaul how the city’s unusual commission form of government works. Many say it’s past due: Portland is the last remaining major city in the U.S. that uses the antiquated commission structure.

Three proposed changes, all bundled together, will appear on the ballot in November. Seventeen of the 20 commissioners voted to push the three changes through, two more than the 15 “yes” votes needed to place the changes on the ballot without review by the mayor and city commissioners.

Here are the changes the charter review group wants voters to approve:

1. Ranked-choice voting

Voters rank candidates in order of preference, rather than just voting for one candidate. The use of ranked choice has expanded over the years, and is now used in New York City and San Fransisco. (There are mixed reviews about its efficacy.) Proponents say it paves the way for a more diverse and representative council body.

2. A 12-member council elected by district

The city would be split up into four geographic districts, and three City Council members would be elected per district by voters within those boundaries. Proponents argue the change would create better representation for voters than electing city commissioners at large, which is how the current system works.

3. Scrapping the commission form of government

One of the loudest criticisms of the commission form of government is that city commissioners, who may lack managerial or subject-matter experience, are placed in control of massive bureaus. Under the new proposal, the mayor would have more powers and work with a city administrator who would oversee the bureaus. City Council members would no longer oversee individual bureaus. City commissioners currently act as administrators as well as policymakers; scrapping the current form of government is an effort to redirect elected officials to making policy.

The mayor would nominate a city administrator under the new structure. That administrator must then must be approved by the council. The mayor would not have veto power but would appoint the city attorney and police chief.

The proposal was not without dissent.

Part of the commissioners’ directive is to bundle all three changes into one question on the ballot rather than separate them.

There are downsides to each method: If voters were to be presented with three ballot questions and approved one or two but not the entire package, it could create chaos. But if voters are presented with one question that incorporates all three changes—and one aspect of it proves unacceptable to voters—the whole effort would be for naught.

That’s an issue two of the dissenters on the commission brought up on Monday.

They worried that presenting all three changes in one up-or-down vote could alienate voters who otherwise might be inclined to want change.

Vadim Mozyrsky, who ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, tells WW the proposal that came out of the commission was a “Frankenstein proposal” where bits and pieces of reforms that have worked across the country were glommed together.

“It was cherry-picking various things and proposing it as a remedy to the problems people have with the current system,” says Mozyrsky, who also criticizes putting all proposed changes into one question on the ballot. “It’s a gamble on the whole thing passing or bailing....We’re opening ourselves for a legal challenge because of the wording and confusion about what it actually means.”

Dr. Melanie Billings-Yun, a charter commission who voted for the package, tells WW the commission started from a place of analyzing what had gone wrong in previous attempts to reform the charter.

“It was seen as being a top-down process and dumped on the voters at the last minute...it was limited to just changing the form of government, and what people were really demanding was some kind of district representation which had been left out,” Billings-Yun says, and argues that picking an entirely new composition shouldn’t be the concern. “We’re not going o model ourselves 100 percent after someone else’s city.”

She says the commission leaned heavily on outreach to communities typically disenfranchised in Portland: “It’s been 105 years, and it’s time to just give us a system that answers to what we see are the biggest demands from the people of Portland.”

While nearly all Portland City Council members have publicly bemoaned the bureau form of government in the past year—particularly Commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps and Mayor Ted Wheeler—sources within City Hall say council members are concerned to varying degrees about the proposals that came out of the commission.

David Knowles, a former city bureau director, lawyer and current charter review commissioner, also voted against the proposal. He says the patching together of proposals could doom the measure.

“I think they put together a proposal that’s either going to pass or fail by 1 or 2 percentage points. Either outcome is a loss,” Knowles tells WW, “because it’s going to continue to create divisions that seem to be dominant in our city policy.”

The City Attorney’s Office is now tasked with putting the proposals into a question to appear on the November ballot.