Politics

Portland commissioners want to overhaul voter-approved changes to city government

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
July 13, 2023 1:35 p.m. Updated: July 13, 2023 1:45 p.m.

Portland is in the midst of a historic government overhaul set into motion by voters last fall. Yet, months before some of those changes are in place, some city officials are asking for a do over.

City Commissioners Dan Ryan and Rene Gonzalez are joining forces to pitch a last-minute plan to alter key features of the voter-approved measure.

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“Voters wanted change, and they voted yes, and now we have to figure out how to land this,” Ryan told OPB Wednesday. “Last fall there were a lot of [components to the measure]. But I think the devil was in the details. It’s now becoming more apparent what we actually voted for.”

Ryan and Gonzalez are hoping to send another ballot measure to voters later this year to give Portlanders an opportunity to make changes to the initial plan. Both fear the current plan doesn’t give the mayor the kind of executive power that’s been long missing from the office.

The original amendments to the city charter were approved with the passage of Measure 26-228 last November, with nearly 60% of voter support. The plan, which was proposed by the council-appointed charter review commission, expands the City Council to 12 members and instructs the city to divide Portland into four political districts. Under the new structure, voters will elect three council members to represent each district. These council members will solely serve as legislators and will no longer be responsible for overseeing city bureaus. The city will hire a city administrator to take over bureau management.

The mayor, who will no longer serve as a member of City Council, will still be elected citywide. The mayor will only intervene in council work to cast tie-breaking votes when needed, but will not have veto power to stop council-approved policies from becoming law.

The plan also introduces a form of ranked choice voting into city elections. Under the voting system, each of the three candidates per district will need to win at least 25% of district residents’ votes. Ranked choice voting has become increasingly popular across the United States in recent years, but Portland’s form of ranked voting is notably unique for allowing voters to elect three politicians at once.

All of these changes must be in place before the November 2024 election.

FILE - Portland Commissioners Rene Gonzalez, left, and Dan Ryan listen to testimony at Portland City Hall, Jan. 25, 2023. The commissioners are interested in advancing a ballot measure that would change key aspects of a voter-approved plan to overhaul the city's form of government.

FILE - Portland Commissioners Rene Gonzalez, left, and Dan Ryan listen to testimony at Portland City Hall, Jan. 25, 2023. The commissioners are interested in advancing a ballot measure that would change key aspects of a voter-approved plan to overhaul the city's form of government.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Ryan and Gonzalez opposed Measure 26-228, but publicly pledged to support the plan if voters approved it.

Now, eight months after the measure’s passage, they want voters to consider a new ballot measure that would alter this planned overhaul. As first reported in the The Oregonian/OregonLive, officials have floated the idea of downsizing the size of City Council to eight people, with two commissioners representing each district, and transitioning to a more commonly used form of ranked choice voting, like the format approved by Multnomah County voters last year. They also want to give veto power to the mayor.

Ryan said he and Gonzalez began talking after both hearing feedback from Portlanders who were puzzled about the coming changes. Ryan said he was particularly struck by comments he received from people who had supported Measure 26-228 who said they were confused with the new voting and legislative system.

“My job is to listen to that,” Ryan said. “I didn’t want to sit idle and not listen to constituents.”

Gonzalez was not available to comment on the proposal before publication.

Ryan and Gonzalez aren’t convinced that all their proposed changes need to make it onto a ballot. But they both feel strongly about allowing Portland’s future mayor to veto City Council decisions.

One of the chief criticisms of Portland’s current system of government is that the mayor has certain powers — like budget writing and assigning bureaus — but effectively serves as an equal alongside the four other commissioners. By removing the mayor from council but not allowing them the ability to override council policies, Gonzalez and Ryan believe the new changes further weaken the mayor’s ability to govern.

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Ryan said he believes it’s best practice for city governments to allow mayoral veto power, especially if the mayor is not a member of council.

In previous discussions, the commission that drafted Measure 26-228 said they chose not to grant the mayor veto power to avoid infighting and delayed policymaking in City Hall.

Commissioners have yet to draft any official ballot measure language to override the government overhaul as the city moves forward with numerous time-sensitive and costly issues related to the changes. Commissioners hope to discuss these proposed changes in a work session next week, before sending it to a council vote.

It’s not clear how much time council has to advance a measure to make it onto the Nov. 8 ballot.

Related: Portland's political makeover is underway

Several City Hall staffers said they believe council has to submit a measure at least 90 days before election day, giving them an August 10 deadline. Yet city elections analyst James Eccles said a city administrative rule appears to give the city until August 18 to submit a ballot measure.

The discussion comes in the middle of the city’s work to transition into the approved form of government and election system. Committees and city staff have spent months hammering out proposals to establish district lines, create new salaries for elected officials, update voting machines, and make space in City Hall for a newly expanded council. Many of these decisions are poised to be finalized next month.

Since news of this proposal was first made public Tuesday morning, supporters of Measure 26-228 — including members of the volunteer commission who wrote the ballot measure — have expressed anger over the commissioners’ proposal.

“Portland spent enormous time and energy working with community members to research and develop the best system of government and elections for our city and the voters said yes,” said Samantha Gladu, director of Portland United for Change, the organization that led the campaign in support of Measure 26-228. “Commissioners Gonzalez and Ryan are undermining the will of Portland voters, which they both publicly committed to implement.”

Ryan said he’s simply offering voters another opportunity to be heard.

“If it does go on the ballot, it gives everybody a chance to take a breath and look at the specific details to see if they actually want a more traditional executive and legislative branch,” he said. “They would have another chance to weigh in.”

Ryan and Gonzalez aren’t the first city commissioners to suggest their own solution to overhaul the government. Prior to the November election, Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he was prepared to introduce an alternative ballot measure if Measure 26-228 failed. His alternative would have created seven city commissioners, done away with ranked choice voting, and given the mayor veto power. It’s similar to Ryan and Gonzalez’s proposal. Yet Mapps’ office says Mapps currently has no opinion on his colleagues’ game plan.

Related: Mingus Mapps is running for mayor

Last week, Mapps announced his intent to run for mayor in 2024. Notably, the proposed changes would strengthen the mayor’s control over council by allowing them veto power and shrinking the overall size of the legislative body.

Ryan said he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll also run for mayor.

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who is rumored to be interested in a mayoral run, declined to comment Wednesday. Her office said Rubio is interested in having a work session to discuss the ideas in a public forum.

If Ryan and Gonzalez draft a ballot proposal that reflects their proposed changes, they will need agreement from at least one other member of City Council.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also has been critical of aspects of Measure 26-228 and is expected to consider running for a third term in 2024, said he “has not been involved” in Gonzalez and Ryan’s proposal. Last June, Wheeler advocated for the charter amendments to include a mayoral veto.

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