What’s What in Our Government? Let’s Get Smarter about Portland, Oregon

Contributed by Dannelle D. Stevens, Chair of the Election Integrity Platform Sub-committee

Portland City Hall

Portland used to be called “the city that works”.  Now, it doesn’t seem to work!
What can YOU do about it?  A lot!

First, note that a citizen-oversight group is working on making a difference and has the power to make a big difference!  The Portland Charter Review Commission was created by law and meets every 10 years to assess how our city government is working. Check out the Commission here!. This current citizen-oversight group of 20 mostly young, diverse, and politically active people can recommend to the current council and send to voters their recommendations for changes in our city government STRUCTURE and OPERATIONS!

Second, recognize that this Portland Charter Review Commission needs to hear from all of us.
Submit only your email for updates for Review Commission meetings and activities.

Third, ACT!  Pay attention to the Commission website because they are in “the-seeking-public-comment” mode.   To comment on changing the form of government, you can enter your comment here: PublicComment Form of Government. Submit your comment by 8:00 AM two days before the meeting.To attend the Form of Government meeting via Zoom, go to the EVENTS page on the Review Commission website and click the Zoom link on the day. There are other meetings on the Events page that you might want to attend, as well.

Form of Government Sub-Committee: Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, 6-8 PM and Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, 6-8 PM

Here is a quick summary of the problems and suggestions for improvement in Form of Government.

Fundamental problems with the structure of the city of Portland government

Currently, there are only five Council members.  We have a COMMISSION form of government. All Council members are elected at large, meaning by all the people, not by geographic districts. The Mayor is elected at large and is one of the five members of the City Council.

After Commissioners are elected and as a commission form of government, the Mayor divides up all the city agencies and each Council member manages that agency. They must manage key city agencies like housing, water, police, parks and recreation, development services, social services, etc.

None of these commissioners are elected with the idea that they know anything about managing, for example, the water bureau. None are prepared to manage these large and complex agencies. It takes a long time to learn how to work with the agencies, implement policies, and meet the city’s needs like addressing the homeless crisis.

Many observers have concluded that the commission form of government might work for a city of 10,000, but, not for a big city of more than 800,000.

There are experts who do know and can manage these vital departments in a non-partisan way. These experts would be accountable to the City Council. Many cities around Portland have a city manager-council form of government.

Suggested Ideas for addressing these structural problems.

1. Fundamentally change the form of government from the commission form to a form with a City Manager who is hired and can be fired by the City Council, and a City Council of at least nine members with or without a mayor elected separately.

 2. Fundamentally change job descriptions. City Council members would maintain its legislative role–making policy and allocating money to implement policy.  The City Manager would manage all agencies.

 3. Elect a non-partisan mayor in a city-wide election. Elect non-partisan council members by districts that are drawn by an independent, non-partisan commission. Districts should be equally populated, contiguous and compact, and represent the diversity of the city’s residents. Each district would have the same number of representatives; 1 or more.  4. Create citizen oversight and advisory boards to to inform bureaus and departments–such as policing, land use, homelessness, civil rights, parks and recreation.

This is part of a series of articles about how government works. For more information about the Election Integrity Study Group, visit the Volunteer Opportunities page. To contact Dannelle D. Stevens, email

photo credit: Wikipedia