Sweeping Charter Reform to Reshape Portland’s Government Passed Last Week. The Politicking Has Already Begun.

Groups with a vested interest in the outcome could attempt to shape the volunteer committees—and if they do, they’ll be lobbying a City Council where four out of the five members openly dislike the reforms they’re now tasked with implementing.

Charter reform supporters watch election returns at Spirit of 77. (Michael Raines)

Portland voters decided last week to take Portland City Hall down to the studs. By a decisive 58% to 42% vote, they passed a ballot measure that remakes the city’s governmental structure.

That means, in two years’ time, Portland will have 12 city councilors spread across four geographic districts, a city administrator that oversees all the bureaus that deliver services to Portlanders, and a mayor who serves as a supervisor rather than a legislator.

On its face, that meant months of fierce campaigning between groups battling for and against the measure was over—and the greatest challenge became implementing the changes on a tight timeline.

The deadline is certainly looming. The morning after Election Day, city officials laid out months of behind-the-scenes prep work they’d done in case Measure 26-228 passed. They would establish committees to set salaries and draw district boundaries, coordinate with Multnomah County to set up a new voting system, and establish new council headquarters in each district.

But some of the most critical details of the measure are suspended in limbo, and the kind of government that voters will actually get depends partly on which 13 people Mayor Ted Wheeler appoints to draw the boundaries of the four voting districts.

That means the politicking has just begun.

Groups with a vested interest in the outcome could attempt to shape the volunteer committees—and if they do, they’ll be lobbying with a City Council where four out of the five members openly dislike the reforms they’re now tasked with implementing.

“It’s an interesting political question, frankly, about how this is going to go,” says Jay Lee, a democracy researcher for the Sightline Institute. “There’s reason for concern about this being, not manipulated, but being at the discretion of the mayor and the council. There’s that quote that’s like, ‘Democracy is the worst system except for all the other ones.’ That’s how I feel about this.”

Here are three levers that will determine the track the new government takes, and who has the ability to pull them.

Whoever serves on the committees will decide the shape of the new government.

A 13-member citizen committee will draw the four geographic voting districts by September 2023. Mayor Ted Wheeler will appoint its members by Jan. 31, and the City Council must confirm them by at least a 3-2 majority. As of Monday, 46 people had applied.

Requirements exist in both state and federal law and the current city charter for drawing electoral districts. Regions must be contiguous and compact, preserve communities of “common interest,” and be composed of equal populations. The city says it will bring in an outside population consultant to assist the committee in drawing boundaries.

But drawing voting boundaries has always been an opportunity for gerrymandering. It will take a nine-member voting bloc among the volunteers to pass the maps—and the City Council has no authority to veto, according to city officials.

The salary commission will be composed of five members. The commission must get a majority vote to cement salaries for the auditor, mayor and councilors. The City Council has no authority to veto its final decision, either.

That means the mayor’s 13 appointments matter. Unlike with the Charter Commission’s selection—where each City Council member nominated four members—Wheeler has near-total control now. And with three other centrist, business-oriented colleagues on the council come January, Wheeler is unlikely to get pushback against his picks if he selects less progressive members than served on the commission that crafted the measure, which established racial equity as one of its top priorities.

Melanie Billings-Yun co-chaired the Charter Commission. “The mayor needs to pay attention to who he chooses,” Billings-Yun says. “And, I will add, the mayor really needs to pay attention to the will of the voter. Because people will be watching this.”

Last time, city commissioners abdicated their duties to oversee the Charter Commission. They’ve been given a second chance to pay attention.

In late 2020, the city project manager for the Charter Commission, Julia Meier, sent a list of around 50 recommended names to the City Council, whittled down from the 275 people who applied. Fourteen of the 20 ultimately chosen by the council were from that list.

Mostly young progressives and a couple of moderates composed the commission.

Over the next year and a half, the commission did its work with little interference or inquiry from the City Council. It came up with an ambitious measure that 17 of the 20 commissioners sent to the Nov. 8 ballot.

But its contents were divisive. The unified attempt to fix Portland’s broken government quickly turned into a political fight between those who said the measure would make city government more representative of diverse voices, and those who said it sacrificed functionality for inclusivity.

Mayor Wheeler and Commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps didn’t express displeasure with the final product until after it made it to the ballot.

“The mayor was AWOL on this issue, as far as I was concerned,” says Bob Weinstein, who campaigned against the ballot measure. “He didn’t express his opinion one way or another. As the nominal leader of the city, he should’ve done so.”

The mayor has been given a second chance during the implementation process to show more care.

The charter reform measure sets some basic parameters for committee selection: Members must be diverse in race, age, gender and geographic location. They may not serve on a committee if they’ve qualified for the upcoming ballot, which is no one since the ballot for the new form of government doesn’t exist yet. They cannot be city employees.

It’s unclear, though, whether the mayor can add his own requirements for members, like barring them from running for City Council in 2024 or requiring that they have varying political affiliations.

WW asked Wheeler if he’d add any requirements. The mayor declined an interview, but said through a spokesman that “decisions for who will be appointed to the committees are still being developed,” adding that he “welcomes recommendations but also plans to review all applicants.”

Outside interests are already circling.

Campaigns on opposing sides of Measure 26-228 spent $1.3 million this fall. Now they get a rematch.

Many of the groups that intend to encourage affiliates to volunteer for the committees are the same groups that lined up for or against the charter reform measure.

Four of the five City Council members come January opposed it. That creates an uncomfortable reality: An overwhelming majority of the elected officials overseeing this transition don’t like it.

Mapps tried to tank the ballot measure this fall by proposing his own alternative measure to put on the spring ballot if this one didn’t pass. WW has learned Mapps attempted to persuade Wheeler to join him in passing a council resolution, prior to the election, that pledged to place an alternative measure on the spring ballot. (Mapps says he asked Ryan, too. Ryan’s office says it doesn’t recall such an ask.) The united front, he reckoned, would convince skeptical voters that the council could do better than the Charter Commission.

The mayor was noncommittal. Mapps later said he’d scrap the plan to place his measure on the May ballot if the Charter Commission’s passed because he didn’t want to undermine the will of voters.

Ulysses PAC, which Mapps formed in 2020 explicitly to promote charter reform but then abruptly switched to campaigning against the measure after it was sent to the ballot, will now attempt to “promote the various opportunities for committee work,” says director Jessica Elkan.

Jon Isaacs of the Portland Business Alliance, which funded a last-minute mass mailer campaign blasting the measure, says it’s “standard practice” to encourage his members to serve on committees.

“We believe it would be prudent for the mayor to ensure that the committees include a diversity of perspectives and expertise, including the perspective of Portland’s employers,” Isaacs tells WW. “Given that the city has admitted that they don’t actually know the full cost of implementation, the voice of business leaders experienced in managing costs will be essential to charting a successful path forward.”

Tugging on the other side are the Coalition of Communities of Color and a major donor to the “yes” campaign, North Star Civic Foundation.

“We’re interested in making sure there are people on the commission who are really grounded in expertise,” says North Star CEO Caitlin Baggott Davis. “There are ways to gerrymander districts that would undermine that.”

Damon Motz-Storey, spokesperson for the coalition, says, “We will be sharing the applications for these three implementation commissions widely,” but Motz-Storey said nothing that would preclude the coalition from lobbying the mayor during the committee selection process.

Disgruntlement over what voters approved is still bubbling under the surface. Following the city’s press conference last week, where city officials could not answer specific questions about estimated costs, at least one organization is exploring legal action against the measure.

This week, the city could not produce budget documents for WW outlining how it came up with estimated transition costs of $4 million to $5.9 million a year.

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”

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