Judge Says He Will Decide by Monday if Bundled Charter Reform Measure Can Go to Voters

Arguments included references to Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and a 1913 court case.

A Multnomah County circuit judge said he will decide by the close of business Monday whether the charter reform ballot measure that could restructure Portland’s government and elections is lawful and can proceed to a vote in November.

Judge Stephen Bushong heard arguments from attorneys for the city and for Andrew Hoan, president of the Portland Business Alliance, which opposes the ballot measure.

The PBA in July filed a lawsuit saying the measure—crafted by the city’s 20-member Charter Commission, which met for more than a year—violated laws requiring ballot measures to contain just one subject.

As written, the measure would expand the Portland City Council from five members to 12, create geographic districts with more than one councilor representing each, and mandate ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to choose more than one candidate for each office, in order of preference.

It would also scrap Portland’s unusual system in which elected commissioners have day-to-day administrative control over city bureaus and replace them with appointed professionals.

Steve Elzinga, Hoan’s attorney, argued that by sending such a complicated measure to the electorate, the Charter Commission would infringe on voting rights. Voters, he said, should have the right to vote on each of the changes to their city government, one at a time.

“The commission is trying to force voters to support provisions that they don’t like in order to get provisions that they do like,” Elzinga told the court.

The Oregon Constitution contains “single subject” protections that prohibit ballot measures that are overly broad, like the one from the Charter Commission, Elzinga said.

“The city is seeking to carve out an exception that argues that the Oregon Constitution does not apply either the single subject protection, or the separate vote protection, to any city referendum,” Elzinga argued. “The city’s position is effectively a slight modification of the famous quote from George Orwell’s satirical book Animal Farm: ‘All ballot measures are equal, but some ballot measures are more equal than others.’”

The city, for its part, argued that there is ample precedent for measures like the one in question, including one in 1913 that created Portland’s current form of government.

“The only issue necessarily before this court is whether the measure referred by the Charter Commission meets the liberally construed single-subject requirement,” deputy city attorney Maja Haium argued. “Fortunately, the Oregon Supreme Court has already reviewed and upheld a measure to reform Portland’s government that was substantially similar to the measure before the court today. In 1913, voters approved a single measure to merge legislative and executive power in a commission form of government, decrease the council from 15 to five and eliminate geographic district representation, and adopt preferential voting where voters are allowed to rank candidates.”

Haium said the Charter Commission’s measure did not violate single-subject laws because all the changes fall under the unified task of changing governance.

“It is limited to changing the structure of Portland’s government,” Haium argued.

She presented a hypothetical. If the proposals went to voters separately, Portland could end up with commissioners assigned to geographic districts that still run city bureaus. In that scenario, a commissioner elected to represent 25% of the population would end up running the Police Bureau or Portland Fire & Rescue for the whole city, Haium argued.

That would be an “absurd result,” she said.

Bushong agreed to decide the case on an expedited schedule because if the ballot measure is ruled illegal, the City Council would have to craft a new one and vote on it before Aug. 19 to get it on the November ballot.

If Bushong rules against Hoan, the current measure would move to the November ballot for a vote.