A sweeping November ballot item aimed at fundamentally changing Portland’s form of government and elections received a lukewarm reception Wednesday from the Portland City Council.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Mingus Mapps — the two council members who had been the most vocal in favor of changing the city’s charter — voiced the deepest reservations during a Wednesday presentation on the potential amendments, which would mean a dramatic rewriting of their job descriptions.
Mapps said he felt the volunteer group that proposed the amendments was trying to cram too many changes into one ballot measure. Wheeler said he was concerned any future mayor would be “an employee of the legislative body.”
Under the proposal to change Portland’s governing charter, the mayor would no longer be a member of the council and would be responsible for implementing laws and regulations. The city commissioners, meanwhile, would serve solely as legislators. (The mayor would still get a tie-breaking vote, but no veto power).
“In the absence of that tool, where does the buck stop?” Wheeler said. “If the council gives for any reason a flawed or not fully baked proposal to the mayor, and the city manager and says implement it and then it blows up, couldn’t you conceivably get into this finger-pointing game?”
Wheeler and the four commissioners have previously expressed support for changing the commission form of government; the unique system is often criticized for creating a turf-war-like atmosphere within City Hall as commissioners defend their bureaus and have little incentive to work together.
Studies have also shown the at-large method of electing city leaders concentrates political power with wealthy, white residents.
The Portland Charter Commission, a 20-person volunteer group, spent over a year crafting changes aimed at solving these problems by rewriting the city’s governing document. The group voted earlier this month to refer the sweeping set of charter amendments to the November ballot.
Wheeler and Mapps’ reservations won’t make a difference in what voters see on their ballot in November. The charter commission needed a supermajority of members — 15 or more — to vote for the changes to avoid needing City Council approval. Seventeen members approved the amendments.
Charter Commission member Vadim Mozyrsky, one of the three no votes earlier this month, has said he’s launching a campaign to fight the measure. Mozyrsky unsuccessfully sought a City Council seat in the May primary.
And Mapps, who had started a political action committee last October that he said was meant to support charter changes now says he too will fight to prevent them, as Willamette Week first reported.
At Wednesday’s meeting, both Wheeler and Mapps had questions about the new voting system the charter commission wanted to create. Wheeler wanted to know why the commission didn’t opt for a “plug and play form of government that already exists.”
The November proposal would create both ranked-choice voting and multiple multi-member districts in Portland – making it the first city in America to do so. (According to the charter commission, a jurisdiction in Australia has implemented a similar method of electing local leaders).
Mapps also questioned whether the proposed changes — which combine amendments to how city leaders would be elected and changes in the overall structure of city government — ran afoul of an Oregon state law that says ballot initiatives should deal with one topic. Mapps said he viewed the various charter changes as dealing with “fundamentally different questions” and believed they should be broken out into separate parts for voter consideration.
“My deepest disappointment with the process and the products that we’re seeing today is that voters will not have a chance at considering each one of these questions separately,” Mapps said. “But that is not my choice.”
Charter commission member Becca Uherbelau said she was confident the changes voters will consider would withstand any future legal challenge, as there is a “unifying principle” thread between each aspect.
“I fundamentally believe all these policies are on a general topic, which is changing the structure of the city government,” she said.
Commissioners Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio asked several questions of the charter group but did not make it clear from their remarks whether they supported the proposal. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was not at Wednesday’s meeting.
The hearing was the first chance the city council had to comment publicly on the final package that would overhaul Portland’s elections and government structure. Under the proposal voters will consider in November, Portlanders would be able to vote for multiple candidates for council seats, ranking them in order of preference. The city would get broken up into four yet-to-be-determined districts. Each one would send three people to City Hall. And the size of the council would swell from five to 12, among other notable changes.
The job description of the five council members would also change dramatically under the proposal. With the current commission form of government, 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. In the new form of government, the city administrator, who would be chosen by the mayor and approved by the council, would take over the day-to-day management of city operations.
Charter commission members staunchly defended their recommendations Wednesday, saying they were the product of years of research into best practices and would make the city more equitable.
“What we risk by not moving forward is to continue along this dysfunctional path that we have been on,” said member Raahi Reddy “I encourage you as city commissioners — I know you have your various pet peeves on what we put together — but in the big picture and the grand scheme of things, I think you’re going to see we are going to be a better city because of these reforms.”