Portland Business Alliance Is in Early Talks About a Legal Challenge to the City Charter Reform Ballot Measure

The two-week old proposal to fundamentally change Portland’s form of government and elections is already facing organized pushback.

The Portland Business Alliance is in preliminary discussions with other labor and business organizations about filing a legal challenge to the charter reform ballot measure that is set to appear on Portlanders’ November ballots.

That’s according to a source who’s been privy to those conversations but is not authorized to comment on the record.

The PBA’s opposition would mean that the reform package approved two weeks ago by the city’s Charter Commission faces powerful backlash from multiple angles.

Yesterday, WW reported that a political action committee controlled by City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, Ulysses PAC, which Mapps formed last fall to promote charter reform, now plans to oppose the proposal. So will another PAC led by onetime City Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky and two former staffers of the late Mayor Bud Clark, Steve Moskowitz and Chuck Duffy.

Though the language of that ballot measure has not yet been released by the City Attorney’s Office, one specific part of the proposal has upset some onlookers: All three significant changes to city governance and elections will be bundled into one ballot question rather than posed individually.

That’s reportedly the PBA’s gripe with the proposal: While PBA supports scrapping the commission form of government for a city manager, it doesn’t want the other parts of the proposal—ranked-choice voting and multimember geographical districts—to jeopardize the adoption of a new form of government.

A PBA spokesperson declined to comment.

If the PBA decides to move forward with a legal challenge, it will likely challenge the measure on the basis of the state’s single-subject law, which says any ballot measure must include unly one subject. (The City Attorney’s Office believes bundling all reforms into one question will pass legal muster, per a March memo.) PBA’s hope: that the proposals are broken up into three distinct ballot questions.

Prior to making any concrete decision, the PBA plans to host both naysayers and supporters of the measure to hear their respective arguments. The opposing parties will be Mapps and the co-chairs of the Charter Commission, Gloria Cruz and Melanie Billings-Yun.

From there, the PBA’s government affairs committee will decide whether to file a legal challenge.

Today, proponents and critics of the measure testified in front of the Portland City Council. Councilors peppered the committee with questions. At times, the questions and answers got testy.

Mapps asked about the bundling of all three proposals into one ballot measure, adding that he thought it didn’t meet the spirit or definition of the single-subject law.

Becca Uherbelau, a Charter Commission member, said the panel determined it was legally defensible.

“There is an abundance of case law and precedent that as long as things fall under what’s called a unifying principle, which all of these reforms do, we’re confident it could withstand any legal challenge to the title if that was the case,” Uherbelau said. “There’s absolute policy reason that we’re proposing them together, because they hang together.”

Mayor Wheeler posed the question: “Why not use a plug-and-play form of government that already exists?”

Billings-Yun rebuffed the suggestion that another city could provide a rubric for Portland.

“It’s actually not correct that you can find a city that has the same issues and the same population,” Billings-Yun said. “There is no way you can take one city and say, ‘This matches us.’ Rather, we had to fine-tune a proposal that would match us.”

Charter Commission member Raahi Reddy added: “How do we build a structure that both addresses the past harms and problems that we have with the commission form of governmemnt, and moves us into a much more propelled democratic process where we have more Portlanders who can actually serve and lead and bring on-the-ground issues?”

Proponents of the reform package say it would more fairly distribute power and offer better representation to communities historically disenfranchised in Portland politics. Another PAC called Portlanders for Charter Reform is forming to advocate for the proposal, and is being led by Building Power for Communities of Color.

Yesterday, the managing director of the coalition, Jenny Lee, told WW that “this is the first step to creating a more accountable, effective, and representative city government in Portland.”