A package of charter changes that would fundamentally reshape Portland’s government and elections is headed to the November ballot.
The 20-person volunteer group tasked with crafting these changes — called the Charter Commission — voted Tuesday evening to refer a collection of amendments to the city’s founding document to voters. If voters approve the changes, Portlanders would see the city expand the number of city council members from five to 12, implement ranked-choice voting, and hire a professional city administrator, among other momentous shifts.
“The people of Portland are demanding change,” commission co-chair Melanie Billings-Yun said in the lead up to Tuesday night’s vote. “For a year and half, we have worked to craft that change.”
Portland stands alone as the last major American city using what’s known as the commission form of government. Under the unusual system, council members are elected to represent the entire city and serve as both legislators and executives, responsible for the day-to-day management of a portfolio of bureaus assigned by the mayor. Critics say the structure is dysfunctional and outdated, leaving elected leaders serving as administrators for basic public services in which they often have little expertise. Studies have shown the at-large method of electing city leaders also concentrates political power with wealthy, white residents.
Despite the problems many Portlanders have voiced with the structure, they’ve chosen to keep it again and again. Since voting to adopt the commission system in 1913 by a tiny margin, Portlanders have voted against changing it on seven separate occasions.
Supporters of the charter changes say this time will be different with polls showing voters furious at the state of the city and eager to overhaul its governing structure. The package the commission sent to the ballot Tuesday — over a year in the making — would do just that.
Among the biggest changes Portlanders will consider in November:
District representation: The package would create four multi-member districts with three council members elected per district. The size of the city council would increase to 12 people. The mayor and city auditor would still be elected citywide. The mayor would no longer be part of the city council and would only cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a 6-6 deadlock.
The commission says expanding the size of the council is long past due. In the last century, the city’s population has more than tripled, according to the commission’s latest progress report. The size of the council, meanwhile, has remained unchanged. That means there’s now one commissioner per every 130,000 residents.
Under the current system, city leaders have been disproportionately white, rich men who live west of the Willamette River. Civic groups say that’s partly because of structural problems in the way Portlanders elect their leaders. Charter commission members say expanding the size of the council will create more opportunities for people from historically underrepresented communities to win public office.
The three council members coming from each new geographic district will run in the same race at the same time.
If voters approve the charter changes, Mayor Ted Wheeler would then appoint an independent group to figure out how to split the city into four new districts. The members of that group would need to be confirmed by the entire city council.
Ranked-choice voting: The amendments would implement a ranked-choice voting system, in which voters rank their candidates in order of preference rather than simply choosing one.
As of last year, ranked choice voting was used in over 40 places, including New York City, San Francisco and Oakland.
In these cities, voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of their preference – first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. To win, a candidate must reach a certain percentage of the vote; if a candidate hits that threshold with the number of first choice votes in the first round, they win. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and voters who put that candidate down as their first choice have their votes redistributed to their second choice candidates. This continues until one candidate hits the threshold, which in Portland council races would be 25%. (Mayor and auditor would still be elected citywide by a simple majority.)
The idea is to increase the chance voters elect someone they support — even if the candidate was not their first choice — and reduce negative campaigning; candidates may be less likely to disparage their opponents if they’re hoping to later woo their voters. Voting advocacy groups say ranked-choice voting can also help more women and people of color get elected.
Moving to ranked-choice voting would mean primaries were no longer necessary. The charter commission says that’s a good thing, as voter turnout is typically lower in primaries — even though that’s the election where races often get decided. As part of the package of charter changes, voters will be asked to ditch the May primaries in favor of one election in November, when turnout is typically much higher.
A new, simpler role for city commissioners: The charter changes would also stop council members from directly managing bureaus and put most of the responsibility for the day-to-day functioning of city government onto the shoulders of the mayor and a professional city administrator. The mayor would nominate the administrator, who would directly oversee all city bureaus. The person filling this position would need to be approved by a majority of the city council.
The administrator, in turn, would be in charge of hiring and firing bureau directors except for the city attorney and police chief, two high-profile positions that would need to be nominated by the mayor and approved by the council.
City commissioners, meanwhile, would focus on passing laws and meeting with constituents rather than spending most of their time managing bureaus. They would also take a more active role in working on the budget, a process now driven largely by the mayor.
Will there be opposition?
Seventeen members of the 20-person charter commissioner supported the changes Tuesday, framing the package as a surefire way to make the city’s oft-criticized government structure more equitable and accountable. In order to get the changes straight to the ballot, the group needed a supermajority of members — 15 or more — to vote yes.
Federal administrative law judge Vadim Mozyrsky, who lost his bid for Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s seat in the primary election last month, was one of the three commission members who voted no.
In a brief statement, Mozyrsky voiced numerous concerns with the plan. The combination of multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting was, he said, untested in the United States. Electing three people to represent the same district would do little to help Portlanders understand who is actually in charge. With no power to check the actions of the city council, the position of mayor would remain weak. And, he stated, his colleagues had failed to take into account residents’ fears about how this would all pan out.
“We have received feedback from a large and perhaps overwhelming group of individuals who voiced their concerns about various aspects of the recommendation on the form of elections. Those concerns did not resolve in changes to that recommendation,” he said. “Yet when it comes to the November vote, their voices and opinions should be heard.”
Recent polling conducted for the charter commission found widespread support for many of the changes. A citywide survey by FM3 Research conducted in early spring shows voters found the concept of ranked-choice voting “broadly appealing.” A survey of likely voters around the same time by research firm GBAO found a majority of voters liked the idea of hiring a city manager.
All five city council members have said they, too, want fundamental changes to the form of government. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been the most pointed of late, decrying the structure as “systematically bigoted” and “red tape-ridden” in his annual state of the city speech last month.
But charter commission member David Knowles, a former Metro councilor and city planning director, worried voters would look at the proposal and be turned off by what they might view as “more government” rather than improved government. He voted no alongside Mozyrsky and attorney David Chen.
“I am really worried that based on the public testimony we heard in May there will be significant opposition,” Knowles said. “Whatever happens, my guess is that it’s going to pass or fail within a few percentage points of 50%.”
This story may be updated.