Politics

Portland commissioners win fight to retain bureau control throughout government transition

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
PORTLAND, Ore. Nov. 3, 2023 4:20 p.m.
FILE: Commissioner Mingus Mapps glances around the Portland City Hall chambers during a public work session on city charter reform on July 18, 2023. Portland remains the only major U.S. city to operate on a commission form of government. City Council members are all given city bureau assignments from the mayor, currently Ted Wheeler.

FILE: Commissioner Mingus Mapps glances around the Portland City Hall chambers during a public work session on city charter reform on July 18, 2023. Portland remains the only major U.S. city to operate on a commission form of government. City Council members are all given city bureau assignments from the mayor, currently Ted Wheeler.

Caden Perry / OPB

As the sun sets on Portland’s commission form of government, City Council members aren’t eager to relinquish their political power.

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In a tense Wednesday meeting, city commissioners sparred with Mayor Ted Wheeler over the city’s plans to switch over to a new form of government by January 2025. The commissioners ultimately scuttled a plan endorsed by both Wheeler and city staff appointed to orchestrate the transition.

“Needless to say, I’m deeply disappointed,” Wheeler told his colleagues. “I think this sets us way back.”

Related: Portland's Wheeler has a chance to lead differently before leaving office. Will he take it?

Portland is required to have an entirely new system of government up and running by Jan. 1, 2025, per a voter-approved plan. The City Council will triple in size, from four to 12 members, and feature four geographic districts (each represented by three council members). This means council members will no longer be elected citywide, instead voted into office by their district residents.

Unlike the current model, council members will no longer oversee city bureaus, allowing them to solely focus on policy making. Bureau management will be handed over to a new city administrator, appointed by the council.

This switch is meant to remove politics from the leadership decisions of the departments that keep the city running, a fraught relationship that has impacted bureau budgets and programs in the past.

Portlanders will elect a new 12-person City Council in November 2024, whose terms start in January. Under this plan, all current council members — Commissioners Dan Ryan, Rene Gonzalez, Mingus Mapps and Carmen Rubio, and Mayor Ted Wheeler — will see their terms end in December 2024. While Wheeler won’t be seeking another term in office, all four other commissioners have signaled their plans to stay in City Hall. Mapps has announced a run for mayor, and his three colleagues have all hinted at joining the mayoral race.

It’s up to the current council to transition the city government into its new format in time. It’s become a polarizing goal.

The latest debate centers on a proposal that commissioners hand over control of their assigned bureaus to an interim city administrator in July 2024. This plan was drafted over the past few months by staff with Portland’s Office of Management and Finance, informed by input from council offices, city employees, and members of the public. That plan offered a six-month adjustment period to iron out any issues before the new council took office. While Wheeler strongly backed this proposal, his fellow commissioners did not.

On Wednesday, all four commissioners successfully adopted a new plan to allow their offices to retain bureau control until their final days in office in December 2024. The plan, hammered out through a flurry of last-minute amendments, also ensures that council members have a hand in any final decisions in their bureaus before their terms conclude.

The vote seemed to cement council members’ interest in prioritizing their office’s political power over leading the city smoothly into a new chapter of governance.

It’s also potentially more expensive, despite several commissioners grousing previously about the inflated cost of the transition.

The city’s initial plan had suggested clumping bureaus into six “service areas,” which would be overseen by deputy administrators. These deputies would report to the city administrator. The city suggested hiring interim deputies to take over bureau management in July 2024 to be directed by an interim city administrator.

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The plan approved Wednesday allows for this July handoff to deputies, but ensures that deputies are hired and overseen by the four city commissioners, not a top administrator — allowing commissioners to still have power over bureaus next year. The six deputies will begin reporting to a city administrator in January 2025.

To Wheeler, this change undermines the entire goal of the voter-approved government overhaul — to keep politicians from controlling departments like parks or water in a unilateral or “vertical,” approach.

“Clearly, the voters have directed us to transition to a more horizontal structure by Jan. 1, 2025,” said Wheeler, who cast the lone vote against the proposal. “I don’t see how we go cold turkey from Dec. 31, 2024, to Jan. 1, 2025, with a new mayor and a new city council under a completely different structure. With this [plan], we are scrapping the transition process.”

Gonzalez rejected this characterization.

“That is utterly false,” Gonzalez said. “We’re all duly elected to serve the city of Portland until 2024 … we are all committed to servicing our areas to do the best job we can.”

Gonzalez, who accused Wheeler of “grandstanding” Wednesday, argued that the voter-approved plan directs the city to adopt a new form of government by January 2025 — and not any earlier.

The argument is similar to an earlier council debate over another major aspect of the transition. In September, commissioners quarreled over having to move out of City Hall before the end of their terms to accommodate office renovations for the incoming expanded council. Commissioners tentatively agreed Wednesday to leave their City Hall offices in July.

Related: Portland commissioners clash over plans to renovate City Hall

Commissioners used other amendments to tinker with the staff-proposed original transition plan Wednesday, including adding a “chief sustainability officer” under the city administrator’s office and authorizing commissioners to alter the proposed budget of the overall transition plan if necessary.

It currently costs the city around $11 million a year to operate the legislative offices. Before Wednesday, budget staff estimated the new structure to cost about $24 million annually. Commissioners will be tasked with securing those extra funds — or finding ways to cut costs — in the upcoming year’s budget cycle.

Wheeler warned that the changes would likely cost more and place added pressure on future elected officials.

“I think this is going to have the collective impact of slowing down the process, under-resourcing the process and quite possibly the operations of the city under the next City Council,” Wheeler said.

It’s up to the Office of Management and Finance to determine how much the plan approved by the four commissioners will cost. That work is led by Portland’s Chief Administrative Officer Michael Jordan, who has called the amount of time his office is expected to complete the government transition “stupid fast.”

“Now that we’ve reached this milestone, we begin the behind-the-scenes work to prepare for a new organization structure—and there’s a lot,” Jordan wrote in an email to OPB.

That includes evaluating changes in human resources, office technology needs, accounting systems — while managing the demands of city commissioners.

“Last night, City Council signaled they may adjust the organizational chart during the budget process if they are not comfortable with options to pay the projected costs,” Jordan said. “To that regard, we hope to maintain a dialogue and transparency throughout the process.”

Despite characterizing his colleagues’ plan Wednesday as “confusing, poorly vetted” and wrapped under “a thin veneer of wishful thinking,” Wheeler left the meeting pledging his support to carry it through.

“I’m an expert at taking garbage and turning it into something great,” Wheeler said.

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