A group considering sweeping changes to Portland’s unusual form of government took its most significant step yet on Thursday night.
The 20-person Charter Review Commission unanimously agreed on changes they want to make to the city’s oft-criticized form of government. The preliminary vote allows city lawyers to begin drafting a possible November ballot measure that could see Portland more than double the number of council members, implement ranked-choice voting and ditch May primaries, among other changes. The volunteer commission will take a final vote on the charter amendments at the end of June.
Under the city’s unique commission form of government, council members are elected citywide and assigned a portfolio of bureaus by the mayor. Opponents say the structure is dysfunctional, leaving too much political power in the hands of wealthy and white residents and forcing elected officials to serve as administrators for departments in which they have little expertise.
Despite the persistent criticisms, Portlanders have voted against changing the form of government on seven occasions since voting to adopt the form of government in 1913 by a margin of a mere 300 votes. Portland is the only major U.S. city that still has a commission system.
This could soon change. After over a year of debate and research, the city’s Charter Review Commission, a group of 20 civic-minded Portlanders hand-picked by the council, is considering several momentous changes to the city’s founding document.
Changes the group agreed on Thursday night include increasing the size of city council to at least a dozen people; creating multi-member districts in which multiple council members would be elected per district; implementing a ranked-choice voting system in which voters can rank their candidates in order of preference; and ditching May primaries in favor of one November election. Under the current model, voter turnout is typically higher in the fall general elections, though many races are decided in May primaries.
Jay Lee, who researches democracy for progressive think tank Sightline, said he believed the changes under consideration — particularly ranked choice voting and multi-member districts — would lead to a city council more representative of Portland, empowering factions of the city that have historically been ignored such as renters and people of color. While today’s city council is the most racially diverse in history, historically the council has been dominated by white and rich members. Officials elected to represent all of Portland have disproportionately lived west of the Willamette River.
In addition to election reforms, the commission agrees Portland’s form of government needs an update. The group supports shifting away from a system where council members manage bureaus, and instead hiring a professional city manager, who would be in charge of coordinating city services and policies. The current thinking is to have the manager picked by the mayor and approved by the council.
According to the latest progress report from the commission, the city manager would have the ability to hire and fire bureau leaders, “insulating the bureaus from political jockeying while prioritizing continuity of service and longer-term planning.”
Now that the commission has decided which reforms to send to the city attorney’s office, city officials can begin drafting language for a charter amendment. The commission is expected to vote in late June on a final set of recommendations for voters to consider on the November ballot.
If 15 or more members agree on a charter amendment during that final vote, the question will be put to voters during the November general election. Otherwise, the recommendations will be routed through the city council, which can decide whether to approve the proposal, ditch it, or make changes.
While Portlanders have historically rejected big changes to the form of government, spectators say this time feels different as frustration with City Hall has reached a boiling point. Recent polling found more than half of Portland voters would support changing the city’s form of government. Another recent survey found that 80% of respondents believe they are not being served by the commission form of government.
All five city council members have said they also want to see fundamental changes to the form of government.
“I think that there really is this appetite for change and folks are really seeing the cracks in the system in a way that in previous years have not shown up as much,” said Sightline democracy researcher Lee. “And, right now, a lot of that is really showing.”
The public will have more time to give feedback on the proposals before the charter commission takes a final vote on what to refer to on the ballot. The commission will host a series of public hearings for Portlanders to give input between now and late June.