Voters Could Overhaul How the City Is Governed. But How Many Questions Will They Be Presented?

A letter sent last Friday from the Portland Business Alliance requested the city auditor strike down the ballot language.

Date: July 8, 2022

From: Portland Business Alliance

To: Portland elections officer Louise Hansen and City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero

The Request: The PBA, the local chamber of commerce, asked Hansen and Hull Caballero to reject the wording of the question that will appear on Portlanders’ November ballots in which they’ll choose whether to overhaul the city’s government and elections. WW obtained the letter and first reported it on wweek.com.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hull Caballero declined to do so, saying she does not review measures referred by the Charter Commission: “Code affords special consideration to a Charter Commission when a supermajority of its members refers measures to the ballot.”

It was the first attempt by the PBA to force the hand of city officials to split a reform of city government into three separate ballot questions.

At issue for the PBA, among other opposition that’s formed, is the bundling of three major reforms proposed by the Portland Charter Commission into one ballot question, leaving Portlanders with an all-or-nothing choice whether to change how Portland is governed.

The Rationale: The PBA argued that Hansen struck down a similar ballot initiative in 2020 because she deemed it violated a rule that a ballot measure can only pose a single question to voters. So why not do the same to this one?

In December 2020, Hansen wrote to a petitioner that the “Portland Council Reformation” initiative as written violated the state’s single-subject law and that “not all the amendments are connected by a single unifying purpose.” (That initiative had significant overlap with the current ballot measure, including district-based elections, ranked-choice voting, and increasing the size of the Portland City Council.)

“A city elections officer has authority—indeed a constitutional duty—to conduct preelection review of proposed measures to ensure they comply with constitutional procedural requirements and to reject those that do not comply,” PBA’s attorneys wrote.

Why It Matters: As WW reported in last week’s cover story (“Ripped City,” July 6), critics such as City Commissioner Mingus Mapps have complained the city’s Charter Commission has packed too many concepts into its proposed reforms. (Mapps likes moving to a city administrator but doesn’t want to switch to ranked-choice voting or increase the number of city commissioners.) Several groups are preparing to oppose the package, and an all-or-nothing fight appears unavoidable—unless the PBA can successfully separate the ideas into three measures.

Two weeks ago, charter commissioners assured City Council members that the ballot measure they proposed would meet legal muster and have a clear, unifying purpose. In March, the City Attorney’s Office also said the measure would withstand any legal challenges.