If a Lawsuit Strikes Down Charter Review Measure, City Hall Is Mulling What to Do in the Aftermath

Yesterday, a charter commissioner resigned after learning of a survey result never shared with the commission that showed voters overwhelmingly wanted to vote on separate reforms.

Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps tells WW there are internal discussions happening among City Council offices about whether to reassemble reforms to Portland government if a judge strikes down the measure set to appear on ballots in November.

“Do we respond to it? Do we break it up into different pieces? Do we resurrect [the measure]?” Mapps tells WW. “If the courts say this should’ve been given to the people as separate votes, the courts don’t break that up, so that might come down to council to decide.”

Last month, the Portland Business Alliance filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the November charter reform measure violates elections law by featuring three proposals rather than one. The lawsuit followed the Portland Charter Commission’s overwhelming approval for a 3-in-1 reform package, meaning it’s an all-or-nothing decision for voters at the ballot box about whether to overhaul the city’s system of government and elections.

Oral arguments in the lawsuit are set for Aug. 11. It’s uncertain when Multnomah County Circuit Judge Steven K. Bushong will rule on the case, but if he does so before Aug. 19, the City Council has a tight window to decide what to do next.

According to the Oregon secretary of state’s manual, the City Council has until Aug. 19 to refer a measure to the ballot.

(The Charter Commission’s last possible day was July 11.)

It’s unclear how likely the scenario is that a judge will side with the PBA. But if it does, the only way a new charter measure could make it on to the ballot is if the City Council puts one there. Naturally, that means a majority of council members would have to agree on a new measure; the chances of that happening, too, are unclear.

But Mapps’ previous statements provide a hint of what he wants: Last month, he announced his intention to send a proposal for a city administrator form of government paired with a larger council and geographic districts to voters as soon as next May.

Mapps is one of three city commissioners who have voiced concerns about the measure as written, despite all three of them—the other two being Commissioner Dan Ryan and Ted Wheeler—being in support of charter reform earlier this year. Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Jo Ann Hardesty have not publicly taken a position on the measure.

What eroded City Hall and business support for the reform measure was the Charter Commission’s 17-3 vote in June to send the three major reforms—appointing a city administrator, moving to ranked-choice voting, and electing multiple councilors from geographic districts—to the ballot in one take-it-or-leave-it measure.

Charter commissioners in support of the measure argue that the reforms are dependent on one another and don’t make sense as stand-alone measures, and that all three in harmony are needed to offer better representation and leadership in city government.

Critics say it’s too risky to try a domestically untested combination of all three reforms.

On Wednesday, WW reported on a spring survey result never shared with the city’s Charter Commission that showed an overwhelming number of respondents preferred to vote on separate ballot measures rather than an all-or-nothing reform measure.

Later that day, charter commissioner Vadim Mozyrsky resigned from the commission, as first noted by The Oregonian.

Mozyrsky tells WW that learning of the poll, conducted by Lake Research and commissioned by an organization that’s now campaigning for the ballot measure, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“To learn all along that there was another poll that we didn’t see that the same people who did the other poll knew about is frustrating,” Mozyrsky tells WW.

Mozyrsky, who ran for City Council against Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty but was narrowly bested in the primary by lawyer Rene Gonzalez, was one of only three dissenting votes against the measure on the commission in June, for the very reason that’s now splintered interest groups who were once all on board with charter reform: putting all three reforms into a single ballot question. Mozyrsky says when he pushed back against the bundled package, “what commissioners fell back on was the polling that was presented to us, that showed it increased the chances of passing because people preferred multimember districts.”

Mozyrsky is talking about two other polls presented to the Charter Commission this spring: An FM3 poll showed bundling more than one reform had no effect on another reform’s favorability. A GBAO research poll showed moderate support for bundling reforms into one question.

But charter commissioners were not privy to the full version of the Lake Research poll, published around the same time, that showed 72% of 500 respondents would rather vote for individual reforms on the ballot. Only 22% wanted a package of reforms. Six percent remained undecided or said they liked neither option.