Ballot measure to overhaul Portland city government survives legal challenge

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Aug. 15, 2022 9:56 p.m. Updated: Aug. 15, 2022 10:37 p.m.

A Multnomah County judge ruled the sweeping measure does not violate Oregon’s constitution

Portland City Hall.

Portland City Hall.

Amanda Troxler / OPB

A ballot measure aimed at overhauling Portland’s approach to government and voting structure can move to the November ballot, according to a Monday court ruling.


Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong concluded the expansive measure does not violate the Oregon Constitution’s single-subject rule, which requires ballot measures to focus on one topic. The Portland Business Alliance had sued the city last month, arguing the measure was a blatant violation, combining a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects.

The ballot measure was crafted by the city’s Charter Commission, a 20-person volunteer group appointed by the Portland City Council to propose changes to the city’s governing document. Earlier this summer, the group proposed a measure that would overhaul Portland’s commission of government, where council members are elected citywide and oversee a portfolio of bureaus assigned by the mayor. Critics have maintained the structure is broken, forcing elected officials to serve as administrators for bureaus they have no experience handling and fueling constant turf wars within the council.

The Charter Commission voted 17-3 to refer a sweeping package of changes to voters in November. If voters pass it, the council will swell from five members to a dozen. Council members would be tasked with writing legislation rather than overseeing bureaus. And the mayor would no longer be on the council and, instead, oversee executive functions of the city as well as a newly-hired city administrator, who would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city’s bureaus.


City attorneys had argued the package has a unifying principle of “changing the structure of Portland’s government” and therefore complies with Oregon’s single-subject rule. Bushong agreed with the city in Monday’s ruling, concluding there was a theme of “reforming the structure and operation of city government” that logically connected each part of the measure.

“All other matters in the measure — including election reforms, the value and policy statements, and other provisions — are properly connected to that unifying principle,” Bushong wrote.

Leaders of the Portland Business Alliance have said in the past they support bringing on a city manager and ending the commission form of government. But with growing opposition to some parts of the package, specifically combining ranked-choice voting with multi-councilor districts, alliance members had worried these more controversial items would doom the entire measure.

With the package headed to voters in November, the question is whether Portland Business Alliance will try to defeat it. The group said they’re undecided.

“Our members and board will now have to weigh the unfortunate options to either oppose the measure and keep our present dysfunctional system, or to support the measure in favor of a completely improvised one that will likely lead to a different system of dysfunction,” the alliance said in a statement. “We suspect we are not the only ones that feel this way.”

Portland United for Change’s Sol Mora, a campaign manager for the coalition trying to pass the charter measure, cheered the judge’s decision in a Monday statement.

“Now we can focus on voter education without distraction,” Mora said. “Time is of the essence — we should not have to wait any longer for meaningful representation and a form of government that works well for everyone.”

Bushong issued a second decision Monday related to a more minor legal challenge brought by advocacy group Next Up, seeking to have the language that will go in front of voters clarified. The judge agreed the language should be simplified and ordered tweaks, including nixing the terms “single transferable vote ranked choice voting” and “instant runoff ranked choice voting.”


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