Politics

Overhaul to Portland city government leading, in early returns

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Nov. 9, 2022 4:41 a.m. Updated: Nov. 9, 2022 5:54 a.m.

Portlanders have voted against changing the commission form of government seven times since 1913.

Portland City Hall, as seen in September 2022.

Portland City Hall, as seen in September 2022.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

In a potentially historic night for Portland governance, early election returns Tuesday show voters approving a ballot measure to overhaul the city’s unique government structure and fundamentally change the way the Portland City Council is elected.

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With Measure 26-228 headed toward passage Tuesday night, Portland’s charter, the city’s version of a constitution, will be rewritten and Portland will lose its status as the last major U.S. city with a commission form of government.

“With a 16,000 vote lead, we’re feeling very optimistic — so much so that we’re acting like we won,” said communications director for the Portland United For Change campaign Damon Motz-Storey.

Vadim Mozyrsky, who led Partnership for Common Sense Government, which was pushing against the charter changes, said he’s not ready to say the race has been decided.

“It’s a pretty close election and speaks to how divided our city is on what they want for the future,” Mozyrsky said Tuesday night.

Under Portland’s unique commission form of government, each council member wears many hats; they are at the same time an administrator, executive and legislator. Each is responsible for overseeing a portfolio of bureaus assigned to them by the mayor.

Since 1913, Portlanders have voted against changing the commission form of government seven times. That trend appears to be coming to an end with Measure 26-228 in 2022.

Under the changes proposed by this year’s measure, Portland would no longer have a commission form of government. Instead, the city would be broken up into four multi-member districts. Each district would have three council members, meaning the size of the council would expand from five to twelve people. The mayor would appoint an independent group to figure out how to best split the city into four new districts. The first elections under the new system would be held in 2024.

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Council members would act solely as legislators, while the mayor, who would no longer be part of the council, would be in charge of overseeing the executive functions of the city. The mayor would hire a city manager who would directly oversee bureaus. The mayor would no longer vote on council, though they could cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a deadlock.

The way Portlanders elect their leaders would also change dramatically. Voters going forward would rank their candidates in order of preference, a form of voting known as “ranked choice voting.” This style of voting would be used in each district to pick three winners in the same race.

The vote comes after a contentious debate over how Portland’s government should be reshaped. Both sides agreed that Portland’s unusual commission form of government was outdated and left many Portlanders feeling poorly represented. But the city was divided on what to replace it with.

After a year and a half of studying other local governments and talking with experts, a 20-person volunteer charter commission had come up with a plan to overhaul Portland’s government. A supermajority of the commissioners — 17 of the 20 — voted to refer the proposal to the November ballot.

Supporters of the measure — a camp composed largely of government wonks and progressive groups such as the League of Women Voters of Portland, the City Club of Portland, the Urban League of Portland, Unite Oregon and Latino Network — promised the massive changes would be a fail-safe way to make the city’s government more responsive to voters. They said electing three members per district will give Portlanders the chance to find an elected leader who will champion the issues they care about and ranked choice voting would increase the chance voters elect someone they support.

On Election Night, supporters of the measure indicated Portlanders were finally able to approve a major overhaul to city government in Oregon’s largest city.

“This is the first time Portland has changed the structure of its government since 1913. It’s been over 100 years and we are finally getting rid of the archaic, commission form of government that is holding us back on some of the region’s most urgent issues like housing and homelessness. This new form of government is going to be so much more effective, responsive and accountable to Portlanders and this will also bring our democracy into the 21st century,” Motz-Storey said Tuesday night.

The measure’s opponents included two sitting commissioners, the Portland Business Alliance and the PAC formed by Mozyrsky, who was one of the three charter commission members who voted not to send the measure to voters. The no camp argued Portlanders would be switching one dysfunctional system for a new one. On Election Night, Mozyrsky suggested the close vote suggests more debate and discussion is needed on such a big change to city government.

“There’s still a lot of work to build Portland back and it’s not about 55 percent of the people winning and 45 percent of the people losing,” Mozyrsky said. “This has been about having a shared vision.”

“People wanted their city council to be accountable to them and to get results, and so the question going forward is not about whether we have three representatives from four districts or seven districts. It’s how to ensure that whoever we elect is accountable to the people and will listen,” Mozyrsky said. “And that’s gonna be an ongoing conversation, whether three days from now or three years from now.”

Critics contended the plan would have made a weak mayor even weaker by giving the city’s ostensible top leader little say in the council’s agenda, and they worry having three representatives per district would lead to more finger-pointing. The proposed voting structure, they argued, was too complicated and could lead to candidates without much support earning a city council position.

Mozyrsky’s PAC, called Partnership for Common Sense Government, spent roughly $175,000 advocating against the measure. Portland United for Change, a campaign arguing for the measure’s passage, spent roughly $900,000.

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Portland voters consider massive overhaul of city government on November ballots

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.