Mayor Ted Wheeler Will Cluster and Reshuffle City Bureaus Come January in Effort to Ease Charter Transition

He says it’s to break down the silos of Portland’s current form of government. So why didn’t he do it sooner?

The day after Portland voters approved massive changes to Portland’s form of government and elections, bureaucrats outlined the daunting tasks facing City Hall between now and 2024.

Portland voters approved a ballot measure Nov. 8 that radically reshapes how the city functions, how officials cwill be elected to office, and what their duties will be. (As of 2:45 pm Friday, the vote stood at 57% to 42%.) Over the next two years, the city must do the following: split the city into four geographic regions and set up a election system by which three city councilors are elected from each region, implement ranked-choice voting, and hire a city manager to manage day-to-day bureau operations.

The office that will bear the brunt of making the transition a smooth one is the Office of the Chief Administrator, led by Michael Jordan. His office intends to ask for at least $4 million in the upcoming fall budgeting process to increase staff capacity and create a team dedicated to implementing the changes.

Two volunteer committees will decide the boundaries of the districts, as well as the salary and budget for the 12 new city commissioners. The city is seeking volunteers for those jobs.

Many questions remain: Will the city contract with consultants who are experts on drawing district boundaries and restructuring management systems during the transition? What are the qualifications for the volunteers who will make the key decisions? What are the hidden costs the city has yet to identify?

City officials at a Friday press conference maintained that the switch of government structure is their No. 1 priority and that they will hit all the deadlines mandated by the newly approved charter.

Mayor Ted Wheeler did not attend the press conference but said he would cluster and reshuffle bureaus into “service areas” come January in an attempt to ease the organizing of all bureaus under one city administrator.

The reshuffling is a curious one. Typically, one of the mayor’s most powerful tools he can wield over city commissioners is assigning and taking away bureaus. The last time Wheeler changed up the bureaus was in 2018; it’s not a strategy Wheeler has used as liberally as past mayors to keep his colleagues on their toes and accountable for their performance.

Therein lies an irony: Wheeler said in his statement that reshuffling will break down the silos of Portland’s current form of government by grouping bureaus together that it makes sense to manage together. If clustering bureaus would remove a major inefficiency in government, it’s unclear why Wheeler did not do it before voters mandated that he overhaul the entire system.

“In January, I will start knocking down the dysfunctional bureaus silos that are a plague of the current outdated commission form of city government. Silos that trap our great workers from being effective and too often strangle our constituents in needless red tape,” Wheeler said in a Friday statement. “This can immediately improve management and focus and ease the full transition to a City Manager...These efforts will start with benchmarking ourselves and moving quickly down a path to improve every city bureau, every city program in each Portland neighborhood, and city business district.”

WW asked why, if this will make government more efficient, he didn’t do so before.

Cody Bowman, his spokesman, said that the passage of the ballot measure “makes grouping bureau assignments by service area more politically feasible.”

A source within City Hall shared the bureau clusters his office is sketching out. It’s not clear yet which commissioner Wheeler will assign each cluster to.

Here’s how Wheeler is planning to organize the bureaus during the transition period:

1. “Community Safety”: Portland Police Bureau, Portland Fire & Rescue, Bureau of Emergency Communications, Bureau of Emergency Management.

2. “Economic Development”: Portland Housing Bureau, Joint Office of Homeless Services, Bureau of Development Services (permitting process), Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (including the Portland Clean Energy Fund), Prosper Portland.

3. “Utilities”: Water Bureau, Bureau of Environmental Services, Portland Bureau of Transportation.

4. “Admin”: Office of Management and Finance, Budget Office, Office of Government Relations.

5. “Community Services”: Office of Civic & Community Life, Open and Accountable Elections, Portland Parks & Recreation, Office of Equity and Human Rights.