Portlanders will have a chance to vote on some major changes to the way city government functions this year. The Portland Charter Commission unanimously approved recommendations that will now make their way to the November ballot. Those recommendations include creating a city council that functions more like a legislature, with multi-member districts, and a mayor who serves as a chief executive along with a city manager chosen by the mayor and approved by the city council.
Portlanders would also have the option of using a ranked choice voting system in city elections. We dig into these recommendations with two members of the commission, Raahi Reddy and Melanie Billings-Yun.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Portlanders will soon have a chance to completely overhaul the way city government is set up. The Portland Charter Commission unanimously approved recommendations that should now make their way to the November ballot. They include creating a City Council that functions more like a legislature with multi-member districts and a mayor who serves as a chief executive. Portlanders could also use a ranked choice voting system in city elections. For more on these recommendations and how they were created, I’m joined by two members of the Charter Commission. Raahi Reddy is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program Director at the Metro Regional Government and Melanie Billings-Yun is an international negotiation consultant and mediator. She is also a retired professor at PSU’s School of Business. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.
Raahi Reddy: Thank you.
Melanie Billings-Yun: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Raahi Reddy, first, before we get to the status quo, the way things are now or the changes that you’re all pushing for. I want to start with the biggest picture of all. What’s at stake in this? Why does this matter?
Reddy: Thanks for having us, Dave. I think fundamentally our conclusions as a Portland Charter Commission is that our current system cannot meet the complex and urgent problems facing Portlanders. And it is not set up to meet the emerging challenges that we continue to face and so our real look at this is there’s an urgency at stake right now where we have to have a city that can be responsive to the needs of Portlanders, that centers community voices, that has the ability to allow Portlanders to select leaders that represent their true values. And we have to have a system that works for the way we are here in Portland because there is no one size fits all. And I think Portlanders have told us time and time again, in the hundreds of public comments and surveys and polling that we’ve done, that they do not feel like this city is going in the right direction and they are hungry for change. And so we feel we, we really feel the conditions are really good right now to make a change and to do it in a way that really responds to the values that Portlanders have.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun, you were obviously, we’re going to dig into the details of what you’re putting forward, but I guess I’m curious to get your take on the same question because above those details, what do you see is at stake in this?
Billings-Yun: Well, the future of Portland, to put it most succinctly is at stake. We have met with over 6000 Portlanders to listen to what is bothering them and what we are hearing again and again is how frustrated they are. They don’t feel represented. They don’t know where to go when they have problems, they don’t feel that anyone is taking accountability. They are frustrated, in many cases they are angry. It’s very interesting that we keep getting the same message again and again from all different walks of life, whether we’re talking to the Portland Business Alliance or we’re talking to small groups of Somalians that were brought to us through the Coalition of Communities of Color. It’s interesting, Portland has had this system of the commission based system since 20, since 19, well, since the early 20th century and we’ve tried to change it seven times and the last time, in 2007 when it failed miserably by 3 to 1. The thing that Portlanders kept saying, the biggest comment we got, that they got at the time was that Portland is great, why should we need to change it? We’re working just fine. In all of those comments, those 6000 comments that we have gotten in this process, not one person has said, this city is working just fine.
Miller: Raahi Reddy, for folks who have just moved here or who just don’t pay that much attention to city politics, can you remind us briefly how the current system works?
Reddy: Yes. The City of Portland has probably the most unique system left of any city in that we have a commission form of government, which means that our at large, elected commissioners are put in responsibility for managing bureaus at the city and have like, I mean, they basically are the commissioners in charge of bureaus. We do not have a central system or a professional staffer or administrative staffer that manages the whole, the whole kind of operations of the city. The mayor then has responsibility for assigning bureaus to commissioners and can change them year to year. So that is one form that I think has really frustrated so many Portlanders because we don’t have professional staff that are managing the operations and the deliverable, delivering services to Portlanders. And so what we have is a system where bureau directors are really responding to the electives that are in charge of their bureaus. It doesn’t produce, there’s no mechanisms to really produce like collaboration and coordination in the city. There’s also really just no infrastructure to hold the whole city accountable in terms of policies and programs that are passed, how it’s being implemented and evaluation. And what it also means is that our elected officials, so our city commissioners who are again elected at large, that they have to spend more of their time running bureaus and managing in that way than spending the time actually creating policies, listening to constituents and being able to do the legislative needs that we have to have good policies in the city. And then there’s no infrastructure to coordinate the implementation of those policies.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun, what do you see as a value of having districts, of having geographically based chunks of the city and having those be what the basis of representation is as opposed to having citywide at large seats?
Billings-Yun: Well, there are a few advantages. I think the biggest one that we’ve heard again and again from voters, especially those on the east side, is that nobody is taking responsibility for them. No one understands their problems. The elected officials overwhelmingly are coming from the central and west side of the city.
Miller: That was the case historically, although now that’s not currently the case, right?
Billings-Yun: It’s not absolutely currently the case. But you’re talking about in the last two years, over the last year.
Miller: As opposed to 100 years…
Billings-Yun: Because we elected Barack Obama, we’re now safe from being prejudicial and voting for president. It could be seen as a blip. It could be seen as a change. But I will tell you that the Portlanders we speak with don’t feel represented. So that’s number one. The second issue is that by running only at large, the barrier to running for election is very high. You have to have a lot of money. You, this discriminates against women, minority candidates until, I mean, you were talking about history, until 2019, in Portland, we had only elected two people of color on our City Council, only eight women until 2019, one renter. And so the barriers for people to enter are extremely high when everyone has to run at large. And so we’re looking for a system that is more equitable, both in terms of equity to the neighborhoods that want to be heard and equity in terms of the people and the talent that we can bring into running our city.
Miller: So Raahi Reddy, that, all of that is the argument for scrapping at large representation and going towards geographically based representation. but there is a separate question of how many people should be representing each of those potentially newly created districts. What’s the idea behind multi-member districts?
Reddy: I think the, I’m so glad you asked me this question, because I really spent a lot of time on the commission really trying to understand multi-member. It is not something that in the United States we’re just really used to, I mean, I think there’s a couple of jurisdictions in the country that have this system, though it is prevalent in so many other places outside the United States, which we can all learn from. I think we have an understanding of elections, you get one candidate that’s in and they, it’s a winner take all system and we can understand it. And that one person is, is the people’s choice. And the reality is that it’s never such as that. You can have a candidate, one candidate in a district that wins by 50.1% of the vote and you have 49% of the constituents that didn’t get their candidate of choice. And it is just the real, like slight difference. I think what multi-member districts means for me is the ability of Portlanders to have their preference and have more chances of their preference of a candidate to get into office and to represent their interests and to have more than one person that can serve in this legislative role that we’re designing for council to create policies, to serve on committees across the city, to deliver on the issues that these candidates really care about. It’s really our opportunity for districts to have more representation and more diversity of representation. And to me that was really probably the most compelling case, is can one person do it all and have kind of like this, just a one set of values? Or could we actually elect three council members per district who can have a variety of backgrounds, a variety of lived experience and the opportunity to use that to make good policies in the city.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun, essentially, you all are, it’s like a 21st century version of the constitutional convention. You’re a bunch of people getting together, less white and less male, obviously in this case, but getting together to say what should our government look like? In your case, how should we change Portland’s government? So even if you decide on those two things, let’s have more members and let’s have districts, you still have to figure out the numbers. How did you end up with four districts and three people from each one?
Billings-Yun: That actually was one of the easier calls. So we did a lot of research into other communities, talking to mayors, talking to city managers. And it seems that overall, although it’s not used everywhere, but the sweet spot was about 50,000 people for one representative. And if you actually look to our history, when we created this system back in 2019, we had 200,000 Portlanders. I keep saying 2019, excuse me, 1919 we had 200,000 Portlanders and four council people. So it was that 1 to 50,000. What we’re looking at now, Portland has about 650,000. So you’re staying at the same number, in general. So that’s considered a good representative number. In the way that we wanted to design it, between four and three, we were largely committed to multi-member districts. After we did all the research, for the reasons that Raahi has just explained, and for the additional reason that life has become very complicated. And if you are relying on one person to represent every problem in your city, you are largely relying on a lot of young staffers who are giving information to that one person who can’t possibly be balancing all of those issues. And the final reason was that Portlanders are quite attracted to their quadrants. Even when we have more than four quadrants, we like quadrants. And in looking at our city and looking at the way that it breaks up, it was very clear, for example, that the east side needed a representative that, that if you broke it up very neatly into contiguous locations, you would represent the city and the issues that it’s facing in the best possible way
Miller: Raahi Reddy, what about the actual elections themselves? How would ranked choice voting, for three spots or potentially for mayor, I guess, how would it work?
Reddy: Well, it allows Portlanders to basically rank their preferences of candidates and be able to share votes across that spectrum. So it really allows for more people to be able to run and to get into office, with less the number of votes. And I think it really allows for a kind of plurality of choices and I think Portlanders, it was incredible, the polling that was done. We’ve had two sets of polling that partners have done, as well as public comment and the level of interest and excitement, understanding even for a city that’s never had ranked choice voting. Our population is ready for making this kind of change and to be able to have this kind of form of voting.
Miller: And am I right that so for the city council positions, the top three vote getters, in terms of the rankings, those would be the people who would be voted into office?
Reddy: So Melanie, did you want to?
Billings-Yun: Oh yeah, I can take that. Yes, in essence it would be the top three vote getters but not in the same way that it is in the first past post system. In ranked choice voting, the voter has the opportunity and I really want to overstress this point, the opportunity, if they want to just vote for one person, they’re allowed to do that. But you have the opportunity to rank who you like, in what order and so what you’re trying to do is remove wasted votes and get the real feeling of what people want. And so if I vote for someone who either does not rise up to the level that is necessary or who actually has too many votes, my vote will be taken away from that person and my second choice will be brought in and as a result…
Miller: What does it mean to have too many votes?
Billings-Yun: Well, in a proportional multiparty system, you actually look at, this is how they do it in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You take the number of candidates in this or a number of officials that you would elect. In this case, it would be three, you add one, that would be four and you say if you reach 25%, you will have won, you will have won a seat, you’re seeking to reach 25% in this case. If you reach 50%, that means that a lot of people had feelings about various candidates, but half of the people who voted for this one person, their feelings will not be listed because that person was already elected. And so what you do is you say that person is elected and so the remaining vote for that person, you will look at their second choice and that choice will then matter so that everyone who’s voting gets a vote in terms of who they really want. It also works from the people from the bottom up. : And so what you’re doing is seeking to maximize the number of votes that count.
Miller: This just to reiterate or remind me that if this were to pass, there’s going to have to be a lot of voter education, in citizen education. So, I can be one of the people who understand this because it’s still a little bit fuzzy in my head, but there’s plenty of time for all of us to actually understand this if and when it becomes the way city elections are. I want to remind folks, we’re talking right now about the big changes to the way Portland’s government is set up that Portlanders will get a chance to vote on most likely this coming November. Raahi Reddy and Melanie Billings-Yun, I want to turn to the mayor because there are gigantic changes that could actually happen here. Right now, we have a so-called weak mayor system. The mayor is one vote among five on the city council, no more powerful than any other when it comes to legislating, passing ordinances. But their most far reaching power is in their ability to assign bureaus for other commissioners to manage. That’s the current system. Raahi Reddy, what would the mayor’s responsibilities be under the system you’re proposing?
Reddy: So the mayor would become the executive in charge of the city and their main responsibility is really to deliver on the policy making and legislation of the city council. I think we really wanted to aim for a system that had embedded in it, checks and balances among our leadership and the ability to get things done. And so the mayor would have the ability to recruit and hire a city manager, a professional staffer whose responsibility will be to manage all of the city bureaus, including doing consistent performance, performance management of our city leadership and staff, and then the mayor would also, and that person would be vetted by the mayor and then confirmed by the city council. And so really the mayor will have this opportunity to run the city, to have a professional staffer that can really ensure that we’re delivering on all the services that we need to deliver on and the policy making and the mayor will work with city council, which is really going to be built to create good policy and be able to take all that they’re learning from their districts and the problems and work across the city to develop that policy. So at the end of the day, whether someone is a weak mayor or a strong mayor, most people need an elected official that they can hold accountable to how the city is delivering on its promises. And we really believe that an executive mayor can provide that kind of accountability to Portlanders and to have the power to actually harness the whole city to deliver on those promises. So we’re excited about the opportunity of shifting to an executive mayor model.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun, with that as one of the core ideas here, have one person who has both more power and and also more accountability and also more central ability to organize all kinds of instruments of city government together because a lot of problems touch on a lot of different aspects of city governance. With that as a goal, why add this new layer of a city manager?
Billings-Yun: We talked to so many people and would present different ideas to them. Do you like the idea of this stronger mayor form or do you like the idea of a council manager form and what we kept hearing was yes, we want to have something accountable and we want to have a city manager and ultimately…
Miller: But why? What was what was behind that second yes? What did people who responded to that saying, ‘yes, we want a city manager’? What were they saying?
Billings-Yun: They want a professional in charge. They are very tired of elected officials who have absolutely no background in the bureau that they’re managing, telling, managing a bureau. They were tired of the overlap. They were tired of the duplicity, of the duplication.
Miller: So, are you not then going for a different kind of duplication where there’s going to be the elected mayor, the appointed City Manager and then the bureau directors? I mean, there still is going to, there will be a different version of overlap then, right?
Reddy: If I could, if I could just chime in. I think it would, I would not characterize it as duplication, but actually strengthening the centralization system because a city manager or a city administrator would really work in partnership with the mayor. So the mayor is kind of the chief executive who’s making sure that there are the connectivity between council legislating and creating policy and the accountability on delivering and the City Manager’s role will be to be a professional who’s managing the operations and implementation system, because right now we don’t have any of that in the city right now. And so I do think that there is, it’s really a partnership, the city manager and the mayor working together to ensure that the delivery of services, the operations are functioning well. We have good bureau leadership and the mayor who then could take, kind of allow that to happen while also working with city council and Portlanders to ensure that we’re continuing to be responsive, we’re continuing to innovate and help the city prepare for the issues that we’re dealing with now. It’s a partnership.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun, even as you mentioned earlier, Portlanders have rejected, by, at the ballot box, sometimes overwhelmingly, different versions of changing Portland’s system of government seven times, most recently 15 years ago. What makes you think things would be different this time around?
Billings-Yun: Portland has changed a lot. The level of frustration as we all know is through the roof. Portlanders definitely want change. We have so many problems. It is clear now that our government system does not allow us to address or to correct, that’s number one. Number two is that we have worked hard, as Raahi was just describing, to create a system in which there’s strong checks and balances. In the 2007 election, there was a lot of fear that this was a power grab by the mayor. In this case, the mayor has a distinct role of overseeing the city manager, but the city manager has to be confirmed by the city council.
Miller: And could be fired by them as well.
Miller: I thought if there were a three quarters vote…
Billings-Yun: Three quarters yes, in that case a supermajority, yes, the mayor would be responsible for normally firing, but if there is a three quarters vote, yes, they could fire the city manager. And so we have looked, and worked very hard to find out what was frustrating people in previous initiatives. And finally, the last thing I would say is that people felt that in 2007, the whole system was rushed, that they were not consulted, that it was just dropped on them. We’ve been working a year and a half to learn what Portlanders want. We’ve had 72 public meetings, 26 listening sessions. We’ve met with 100 different public groups and organizations. This is not a top down process. This is very much a bottom up process.
Miller: And just finally, Raahi Reddy, if Portlanders have this in front of them in November and approve all these changes, what would the timeline be, what would it, how long would it be before we had a 12 person Portland City Council?
Reddy: I think that we will need more immediately right after the election to really establish a process for creating districts, and so I think that I think we’re anticipating that these changes will take place ultimately in 2024. Is that, Melanie, is that your understanding? We really, we think it’s so important to have democratic participation in the creation of districts and to really make them effective for the way Portlanders live and how they want to be governed. And so I think some of those changes, we want to do them well and really have this built toward a 2024 change.
Billings-Yun: Just to add on to that, Raahi, the one thing that can be done sooner is this hiring of a city administrator to begin managing city operations because the mayor currently has within his power the ability to take away bureau management from city councilors. So that could be theoretically done earlier.
Miller: Raahi Reddy and Melanie Billings-Yun, thanks very much.
Billings-Yun: Thank you.
Reddy: Thank you.
Miller: Melanie Billings-Yun is an international negotiation consultant and mediator. Raahi Reddy is the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Program Director at the Metro Regional Government. They are both members of Portland’s Charter Commission. Here’s a quick update to our recent conversation about proposed rules for flying drones in Oregon’s parks and along the coast. The state’s Parks and Recreation Department announced yesterday that the public comment period for their draft rules has been extended, it now goes through April 15, that’s next Friday.
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