Portland’s biggest business chamber wants a judge to scrap a sweeping November ballot measure aimed at fundamentally reshaping the city’s government and voting structure.
Attorneys for the Portland Business Alliance filed the lawsuit Thursday evening in Multnomah County Circuit Court. The lawsuit asks a judge to rule the measure unconstitutional for violating the legal requirement that ballot measures address only one subject.
Last month, the vast majority of Portland’s charter commission, a volunteer group tasked with making changes to the city’s founding document, voted to refer a ballot measure to voters that would reshape the way the city is governed. The measure, if approved, would see the city broken up into districts represented by multiple elected officials. Portland City Council would also swell from five to 12 members, and a city manager would be brought on to manage the day-to-day operations of city government, among other significant changes.
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Leaders of the Portland Business Alliance have said they support bringing on a city manager and ending 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 and are responsible for the day-to-day management of a portfolio of bureaus assigned by the mayor.
But with opposition rising against some parts of the charter reform package — notably ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts — alliance members say they’re worried those most controversial items will doom the whole thing.
In its lawsuit, first reported by Willamette Week, the business group argues the charter changes “are not logically connected.” The filing, which names Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero and Elections Officer Louise Hansen as defendants, also asks a judge to order Hansen to not file the ballot measure with county elections officers.
Lawyers for the Portland Business Alliance previously asked the city’s elections office to reject the measure on similar grounds. Hull Caballero declined, saying she didn’t have the power to review measures referred by the charter commission.
Members of the charter commission have said it is critical that voters view the ballot measure as one package and not several distinct items. In order for the government overhaul to work, they told the council at a briefing in late June, the entire package of changes needs to be enacted. Voters can’t pick and choose elements of it.
“We have always looked at these reforms as interconnected. In fact, not just interconnected but interdependent,” charter commission member Becca Uherbelau told the council.
Uherbelau said she was confident the measure would survive any legal challenge as all parts of the proposal were tied together through “a unifying principle.”
When the charter commission referred the measure to the ballot in June, commission leaders said they felt confident they would not see the groundswell of opposition that had doomed past attempts at charter change. While there were individual critics during the charter review process, co-chair Melanie Billings-Yun said, they were not expecting an organized oppositional campaign from unions or businesses.
But in the month since the opposition has grown. Portland Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he felt the volunteer group was trying to cram too many changes into one ballot measure. Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was concerned that any future mayor would have no veto power. If the charter reform passes, the city’s mayor would no longer be part of City Council but would rather head the executive functions of the city
Mapps has said he plans to oppose the measure. Vadim Mozyrsky, one of the three members of the charter commission who voted against the package of reforms, has said he plans to form a PAC to oppose the charter change
Meanwhile, a coalition of advocacy groups has formed to champion the charter changes.
Jenny Lee, the managing director of the advocacy group Building Power for Communities of Color, said there was no functional way to separate the ballot items at this point and it should move forward as the charter commission first envisioned.
“We the campaign absolutely believe this is a single one topic,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, this is a tactic to confuse voters and to prevent this change that we so drastically need in Portland.”
The ballot measure was hit with a second legal challenge Friday afternoon. James Posey, the co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon, filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court asking a judge to reject the ballot title for the charter measure. He alleged its current language is insufficient and needs to provide more detail on “the complexity and novelty of these changes.”
The suit names Hull Caballero and City Attorney Robert Taylor as defendants. The city has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.