Report Suggests Fixing Dysfunctional Portland Government With a City Manager and Twice as Many Commissioners

The City Club report pans Portland's current system—but doesn't repeat past calls for a strong mayor.

To get better government, Portland needs more government.

That's the conclusion of a new report from the City Club of Portland, which recommends scrapping the city's commission form of government and handing much of the responsibility for Portland's daily operations to an appointed city manager.

In Portland's current government, voters elect five commissioners to city-wide seats, each with an equal vote on the Council. The mayor assigns city bureaus to his or her four colleagues.

The scathing report, released Sunday, condemns that form of government as unjust and unworkable.

That's not a new or surprising finding: For decades, Portland mayors have blamed their failings on the commission form of government and the bickering it inspires, while newspapers have repeatedly observed that city-wide elections have resulted in just three African-Americans and nine women serving on City Council.

What is more interesting in the report is the recommended solution, from 16 expert witnesses ranging from former Mayor Bud Clark to current City Auditor Mary Hull Caballaro.

"Portland should have a professional city manager selected by the mayor, subject to council approval," the report concludes. "The city's day-to-day bureaucratic administrative functions would be handled by a professional, non-political city manager whose function is to effectively implement the policies and budgets approved by the city council. This method of selecting a city manager would vest the mayor with appropriate authority to manage the city without concentrating executive power too heavily in a single office."

The report implies that Portland's elected officials struggle to walk and chew gum at the same time. Their two tasks, of managing city functions and making decisions about political issues brought before council, are spreading officials too thin and paralyzing them, the report concludes.

So the report suggests another fix: more officials.

The report proposes electing commissioners by geographical districts—a reform long suggested by observers. But it goes further, recommending that the City Council expand to at least eight commissioners, plus the mayor.

That's a minimum number: The report says the City Council could use as many as 12 commissioners.

"A larger council offers more chance to represent diverse viewpoints and backgrounds," the report says. "The bureau assignments would be spread more thinly, and each commissioner might have fewer staff, but they might also have more time to focus on constituent services and their policy and legislative functions."

City Hall faces an obvious challenge in implementing these suggested reforms: the voters, who have rejected district-based elections five times, most recently in 2007. But the report breaks from past reform efforts, which tried to replace the commission government with a "strong mayor" system where the mayor gets more power over his or her colleagues.

"Your committee encountered so little support for a strong mayor system that we do not believe a full analysis of its potential merits would be justified," the report says. "Portland-based political consultant Mark Wiener's testimony was particularly enlightening. Even though he believes that Portland's commission government needs to be replaced, he nonetheless opposed the last attempt at reform because he believes a move to a strong mayor system would be a major error. As he explained, he saw no reason to replace one bad system with another bad one and instead hopes to support a move to a better form of government in the future."

Yet it's hardly clear that voters would be any more excited about an un-elected bureaucratic manager than they have been about a more powerful mayor.

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