City Charter Review Commission Announces Plans for Ballot Measures to Change Portland’s Government Structure

The panel proposes scrapping the commission form of government, creating multimember districts, and moving to ranked-choice voting.

busline72_LaPonte_WEB A change in the city's form of government could lead to greater representation of Portland neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue (Wesley Lapointe)

The city of Portland’s 20-member Charter Review Commission rolled out a three-part proposal March 31 that suggests how the city’s government should look different in the future.

The most dramatic change: The panel suggested getting rid of the current commission form of government in which all five members of the council are elected at large citywide and each has significant responsibilities to manage city bureaus. Critics have said that system, which no other large city in the U.S. uses, creates five mini-mayors and often places newcomers with little management experience in charge of massive, complex bureaus, and has historically made it difficult for candidates of color to win election.

The panel suggested instead that the mayor have greater authority and work with a single city administrator who would oversee management of the bureaus.

The second major change: The city would be divided into four geographic regions. Each region would elect three members of a new city council, who would act more like legislators, proposing policy and representing constituents. The council would expand to 12 members (the mayor would not be a member).

Finally, the panel wants to change the way voters elect city officials from the current system, in which they choose one person from a list of candidates, to what’s called ranked-choice voting. Cities such as Minneapolis, San Francisco and, most recently, New York, have moved to that form of voting, in which voters rank their choices for a particular office rather than simply pick one.

The proposed changes come after years of criticism of the current form of government, including a City Club of Portland report issued in 2020, which arrived at similar conclusions to those the Charter Commission. (Although the City Club has long been critical of Portland’s form of government, its report noted that voters have rejected numerous previous attempts to change it, including in 2002 and 2007.)

The Charter Commission has sent its proposals to the City Attorney’s Office, which will now draft charter amendments for the November ballot. Those amendments will be circulated to the public in a series of hearings in May.

One of the issues the City Attorney’s Office is likely to deal with is how the amendments might appear on the ballot and specifically whether the three big proposed changes will appear as separate questions or as one big question for voters to answer. Oregon election law for state and local ballot measures includes a requirement that initiatives “must have a single subject or closely related subject,” according to the secretary of state’s Initiative and Referendum Manual.

After that process, the Charter Commission will hold a final vote in June whether to send the ideas to the ballot.

“Portlanders recognize we are at an inflection point—this is the moment for change,” says Debbie Kitchin, a charter commissioner who currently co-chairs the commission. “A decade from now, Portlanders can look back on 2022 and feel proud that we made positive change happen.”

For more on the commission’s work, click here.

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