In a divided city, most Portlanders agree on one thing: their city government isn’t working.
Portland stands alone as the last major American city using 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.
Critics of the structure say it’s led to a broken city government. City Hall has proven ill-equipped to deal with some of Portland’s biggest problems, namely homelessness and gun violence. Bureaus, particularly those overseen by different commissioners, seldom work well together. The wait time to get permits processed and 911 calls answered is, leaders concede, far too long. Polls show Portlanders are beyond fed up, with a vast majority of constituents viewing the council as ineffective.
This November, voters will have a chance to try something new. Portlanders will consider Measure 26-228, a massive overhaul of Portland’s charter, a document akin to the city’s constitution. If the measure passes, the size of the council would swell from five to 12 members, voters would use ranked choice voting to pick their leaders, and the city would be split into four districts, among other momentous changes.
Four months ago, it seemed like the package of changes would be an easy sell with voters. The Charter Commission, a 20-person volunteer group appointed by city leaders, spent over a year talking with experts and studying the government structure of other cities before making their recommendations. A super majority of commission members — 17 out of 20 — then referred these recommendations to the November ballot. Around that time, Portland leaders — including the mayor — were telling voters to vote yes on whatever package of changes the commission came up with, framing it as an antidote to a broken city.
The support quickly fractured.
While advocates promise the sweeping changes are a surefire way to make the city’s government more responsive to voters, critics warn Portlanders will simply be swapping out one dysfunctional system for a different one if they vote in favor.
The vote yes camp is composed largely of government wonks and progressive groups, who say the proposed structure is perfectly tailored to Portland’s needs. Dozens of these groups have endorsed the change, including the League of Women Voters of Portland, the City Club of Portland, the Urban League of Portland, Unite Oregon and Latino Network. The Portland Tribune has urged voters to say yes to the measure, and recent polling suggested a majority of voters are leaning that way.
Yet the bench of critics is just as deep. Former commission member Vadim Mozyrsky, one of three group members who voted not to send the measure to voters, has formed an advocacy group called Partnership for Common Sense Government to campaign against the measure. The group has so far raised $105,000. City Commissioner Dan Ryan has said he will vote no. So has Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who has his own proposed charter reform he says he wants to bring to voters next year if this ballot measure fails. The Portland Business Alliance has urged members to vote no, as have the editorial boards at The Oregonian and Willamette Week.
Despite the many problems Portlanders have raised with the city’s unusual government structure throughout the years, they seem to like it. Portlanders voted to adopt the so-called commission system of government in 1913 by a thin margin. Since then, they’ve voted against changing it seven times.
This November, voters will either make it eight — or overhaul nearly every aspect of how Portlanders select their leaders and what responsibilities those elected officials have.
A new role for council and the mayor
The first — and least controversial — part of the November measure would get rid of Portland’s unique commission form of government.
Under the commission form of government, council members are responsible for the day-to-day management of a portfolio of bureaus assigned by the mayor. Critics say the structure is dysfunctional and outdated, as elected leaders are tapped to be the top administrator for critical public services — and large bureaucracies — in which they rarely have expertise.
Under the new form of government, the commission structure would be ditched. City Council members would no longer directly manage bureaus. Instead, they would spend their time passing laws and meeting with constituents.
The mayor, meanwhile, would no longer be part of the city council. Instead, he or she would lead the city’s executive branch and be responsible for the day-to-day functioning of city government.
The mayor would also nominate a professional city administrator who would directly oversee bureaus, a change long sought by business leaders who believe it will make the government more efficient. The administrator would be in charge of hiring and firing bureau directors, except for the city attorney and police chief. For those two high-profile positions, the mayor would make a nomination and the council would need to approve it.
For the most part, the mayor would not vote on council, though she or he could cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock. The mayor would not have veto power.
While both supporters and opponents say they’re ready to part with the commission form of government and bring on a city administrator, there is a rift over the right job description for the mayor. Critics charge the current proposal will make a weak mayor even weaker by giving the city’s ostensible chief executive little say in the council’s agenda but sticking them with the responsibility of implementing the ensuing policies.
At a recent debate on the ballot measure hosted by KGW, Mapps called the setup a “recipe for passive aggressive government.”
“We enter into a dangerous space when you have one body — council — which is charged with coming up with policy, and then you have another body, say the mayor or the city administrator, who are not involved in that dialogue,” he said. “What you’re likely to see is a mayor ... frankly doing a bad job.”
At the same debate, charter commission member Candace Avalos countered that Portlanders had been adamant with the commission that they didn’t want an uber-powerful mayor., She argued charter review volunteers were striking the balance voters desired by giving the mayor the power to nominate the city administrator and oversee bureaus but not giving him a veto.
“What we heard from Portlanders,” she said, “was they didn’t want a mayor that had too much power.”
Measure 26-228 would create four multi-member districts in Portland with three council members elected per district. This means the size of the city council would expand from five to 12 people. The mayor and city auditor would still be elected citywide.
Supporters say expanding the size of the council is necessary to create a body that is responsive to Portlanders. In the last century, the city’s population has more than tripled, while the size of the council hasn’t changed. That means there’s now roughly one commissioner for every 128,000 residents.
Becca Uherbelau, who serves on the charter commission but was speaking in her personal capacity, said electing three members per district will give Portlanders the chance to find an elected leader who will champion the issues they care about.
“There might be a city councilor in your district who cares about affordable housing … and that’s your issue, so you have a pathway to work in collaboration with that city councilor to advance policies around affordable housing,” said Uherbelau. “You’ll have multiple pathways to access services and multiple pathways to ensure that you can connect with someone on a policy agenda, and someone who shares either your lived experience, your world view, or your ideology.”
Critics say three representatives per district will just lead to more of the finger pointing that is already rampant within City Hall. If a constituent brings up a problem occurring in their district to a council member, that council member could just blame their other two colleagues in the district.
“When you have three people elected from a district, how do you know who’s responsible and who’s accountable and whom you want to keep in office and whom you want to vote out of office?” said Mozyrsky, who is leading the campaign against the measure. “The number one thing Portlanders wanted was a change in the commission form of government. The second biggest thing Portlanders wanted was more accountability from their representatives. This does not help with that accountability.”
If voters approve the charter changes, the mayor would appoint an independent group to figure out how to best split the city into four new districts. The city council would need to confirm the members. A separate committee would also be formed to work out the salaries for the new elected officials.
City budget officials have estimated the measure could cost anywhere between $900,000 to $8.7 million annually to implement. According to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, these estimates don’t account for the amount the city will save by consolidating “bureau functions and streamlining of the city’s structure and services.”
Ranked choice voting
If voters pass Measure 26-228, the days where voters picked just one candidate to win would be over. Instead, voters would rank their candidates in order of preference, a form of voting known as “ranked choice voting.” Voters could rank as many or as few candidates as they want.
The idea is to increase the chance voters elect someone they support — even if the winning candidate is not their first pick. Supporters of ranked-choice voting say the process can also reduce negative campaigning as candidates may view it as too risky to badmouth their opponents if they’re hoping to later take their supporters. Ranked-choice voting is used in a small but growing number of cities, including New York City, San Francisco and Oakland.
But the form of ranked-choice voting on the November ballot is more complex than what is used in these other cities. In most places, ranked-choice voting is used to pick just one winner. Under this proposal, ranked-choice voting would be used in each district to pick three winners in the same race.
This is known as “single transferable vote.” And it has easily become the most controversial — and complicated — part of this ballot measure.
Under this form of voting, any candidate who gets over 25% of the first-choice votes wins a seat on the council. If only one or two candidates pass that 25% threshold, the candidate with the fewest number of first-choice votes is booted from the race. Voters who picked this candidate as their first choice will then have votes for their second-choice candidate counted. Voters who picked the candidate who surpassed the 25% threshold as their first choice will also get a fraction of their vote redistributed to their second choice. This cycle continues until either three candidates pass the 25% threshold or there are only three people left. (If that sounds overly complicated, this explainer video produced by Minnesota Public Radio might clear it up.)
Opponents of the charter reform measure say this unusual voting structure, similar to the system used in just one other U.S. city, could lead to candidates without much support earning a city council position In their editorial urging readers to oppose Measure 26-228, Oregonian editors fretted the 25% threshold to win would “lead to unqualified or fringe candidates gaining a seat on the City Council,” while Willamette Week worried that voters would end up with “City Council members who are unqualified and have little genuine support.”
Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, said he doesn’t believe that will happen.
“There’s a very strong incentive under these systems for folks to get together and reach agreement,” he said. “That’s why these systems actually are less likely to result in extremists. They’re less likely to result in narrow candidates because they’re designed to encourage alliances.”
If the charter changes pass, there will no longer be a need for primaries in Portland. Everyone would run in the November general election.
There is only one measure on the November ballot that will reshape Portland’s government.
Yet critics of the proposal are promising voters, if they say no to these changes, a chance to vote on a simplified package in less than a year.
They point to a proposal spearheaded by Mapps, who is pushing a package of charter changes that he says is better than Measure 26-228. Mapps, a former political science professor, says that if voters reject this ballot measure, he will ask the city council to place his alternative plan on the May 2023 ballot. He would create seven districts with one commissioner elected per district. Like the proposal from the charter commission, he wants the mayor to run the city’s day-to-day operation alongside a city administrator. But Mapps also wants the mayor to have veto powers over city council votes. He says there would be a separate question on ranked-choice voting.
Many of these people and groups that have have come out against Measure 26-228 are urging voters to wait for Mapps’ plan.
“This is as good as it gets,” said Mozyrsky. “I think the fact that it’s actually based on what we know works in other cities is exactly the thing that we need here in Portland. We need things that work rather than philosophies that fail us.”
But no one can say for certain what will happen months down the road —a fact supporters are emphasizing as they try to keep voter’s attention on what’s in front of them this November.
“When voters get their ballot, they need to ask themselves, is the city of Portland working for them?” said Uherbelau. “And if the answer is no, which we heard repeatedly from everyone that engaged in this process over the last few years, then they should vote yes on this measure. … There is no other measure on the ballot.”
If the measure passes, the first elections under the new system will be in 2024.