Charter Reform Measure Will Appear as One Question on November Ballot After Judge Rules in Favor of City

The ruling means the charter reform measure will remain as intended by the Charter Commission.

A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled today that a Portland charter reform ballot measure that could overhaul the city’s government and elections is valid and will appear on the November ballot.

The Monday ruling by Judge Stephen Bushong means that naysayers of the reform measure—who almost all take issue with the bundling of all three major reforms into a single ballot question—have no recourse left to challenge the measure.

The Portland Business Alliance filed a lawsuit against the city over the ballot question last month, asserting it violated an Oregon law that requires ballot measures must only contain one subject. Bushong heard oral arguments by opposing lawyers on Friday.

Judge Bushong ruled today that the measure does not violate the single-subject law for ballot initiatives because the package of reforms fall under a “unifying principle.” Bushong wrote in his decision that because the measure does not violate the single-subject state law, he did not go so far as to determine whether it was even subject to the state law.

He wrote that the ballot measure passes legal muster because there is a “single unifying principle connecting the provisions of the measure...changing the structure of Portland’s government,” Bushong wrote in his decision.

In his conclusion, Bushong did introduce some ambiguity into the process: He wrote, “Nothing in this opinion prevents the city from choosing to submit these reforms to the voters separately if that is how the Council decides to proceed.”

The ruling is a huge win for the 20-member Portland Charter Commission that created the measure from scratch in a yearlong process. (Seventeen of the commissioners voted to send the measure to the November ballot, with only three dissenters, one of whom has since quit the commission.)

Melanie Billings-Yun, co-chair of the Charter Commission, tells WW: “The court has agreed that the charter commission has developed an indivisible and comprehensive plan to bring meaningful change to our government...a governing system that is accountable, responsive and representative of all the people of Portland. Now Portland voters will have the chance to choose a better future for our city.”

The charter review process over the past three months has devolved into a bitter fight between progressive Portlanders who believe a complete overhaul of the system will lead to better representation, and more moderate Portlanders who believe testing a novel form of government and elections is too risky.

The three reforms in the measure include ranked-choice voting, expanding the City Council to 12 members elected from four geographic districts, and adopting a city administrator form of government that would scrap the city’s current commission-style of government—a model no other city in the U.S.still uses and is widely seen as ineffectual.

It’s now likely the political action committees that have formed on either side of the issue will kick into high gear. Two PACs—one led by City Commissioner Mingus Mapps and the other by a group of onetime staffers for late Mayor Bud Clark—are attempting to critique or kill the ballot measure.

In a statement, the Portland Business Alliance said it was “disappointed” in the decision.

“Portlanders now have less choice. Our members and board will now have to weigh the unfortunate options to either oppose the measure and keep our present dysfunctional system, or to support the measure in favor of a completely improvised one that will likely lead to a different system of dysfunction,” it said.

Community groups, including the Portland League of Women Voters and the North Star Civic Action Center, led by Building Power for Communities of Color, are running a pro-charter reform campaign.

The BPCC coalition has raised over $200,000 so far.