The fight over whether or not Portland City Hall will get a top-down overhaul this November has officially kicked off.
The City Attorney’s Office published the ballot question to appear on voters’ November ballots July 6. That means opponents can now object to how that question is phrased.
That’s exactly what they’ve done.
On Friday evening, the Portland Business Alliance sent a letter to the city’s elections officer, Louise Hansen, and City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, asking that they reject the ballot question. WW obtained that letter.
When the Portland Charter Commission passed a slate of reforms to Portland city government in a 17-3 vote in June, they elected to bundle all the reforms into one question. That drew the ire of some powerful critics, including City Commissioner Mingus Mapps and the PBA, the city’s chamber of commerce.
This is the first attempt by the PBA to force the hand of city officials to split the reform package into three separate ballot questions. (Sources tell WW that if city officials don’t strike the measure down, the PBA will likely pursue legal action.)
At issue for the PBA is the bundling of the three major reforms proposed by the Charter Commission into one ballot question, leaving Portlanders with an all-or-nothing choice to change how Portland is governed.
In its letter this morning, the PBA argued that Hansen struck down a similar ballot initiative in 2020 because she deemed it violated the single-subject rule. So why not do the same to this one?
“Under your own analysis, the Charter Commission proposal violates the constitutional single-subject requirement,” PBA’s lawyers wrote. “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.”
In December 2020, Hansen wrote to a petitioner that the “Portland Council Reformation” initiative as written violated the 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 City Council.)
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 and noted that the single-subject requirement only applies to ballot initiatives, not measures referred to voters by the Charter Commission.
The PBA asked that the officials respond to its letter by July 13. Any legal challenge to the measure must be filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by July 15.
As opposition launches its first attack, a PAC established by Building Power for Communities of Color in alliance with the League of Women Voters of Portland, Next Up, and the Portland City Club will fight for the measure’s passage this fall.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that the letter was sent on July 11. It was sent on July 8. WW regrets the error.