Four Myths about the Portland City Charter Measure
with Francoise Brun-Cottan
What does the ballot proposal for a new form of city government really do?
In November, Portland voters will decide whether to change Portland’s form of government. Since 1913 Portland has been “run” by five commissioners who wear two hats:
- The legislative hat: Listen to voters, make policy, pass laws
- The executive hat: Implement policy, manage city bureaus to get things done, spend tax dollars, hire and fire city bureau chiefs
Needless to say, the combination of two very different jobs for one elected official does not work in a city of 650,000. Just look around.
This very old form of Portland city government is not working. In 1913 we had 200,000 people, but half of these citizens (women) had just won the right to vote in 1912. We have had five representatives elected at-large in one large district for more than 100 years. Current city council elections start with a spring primary for candidates where only a minority of eligible voters – 30 to 50 percent – participate and select those for who will run in the fall.
The commissioners, wearing their executive hats, manage bureaus and budgets and often have absolutely no background knowledge about how a water system or housing or police or any other bureau should work, or about how to manage the water system or police or parks or housing or permits. Infighting often breaks out. Priorities get pushed aside. Our tax dollars are misspent.
What to do? Fortunately, every 10 years the five members of the city council appoint a group of 20 citizens to look at the city Charter (constitution), to see what could be changed. The all-volunteer Portland Charter Review Commission (CRC) was selected in 2020 to try to figure out what could be done to improve city government. Check out all the CRC has been doing here.
First, the CRC worked for two years to understand the depth of the problems. They listened
- to the people in their own city government,
- to elected reps from many other cities who do not have the problems Portland has now,
- to experts who study cities to understand how cities work … and don’t work.
The CRC talked and listened and talked some more and, because they were so tech savvy, they put all they were doing online with videos from Zoom committee meetings and with PowerPoint attachments so that everyone could think about and analyze and examine and discuss and dissect and evaluate their ideas. (You may view these at https://portland.gov/charter.)
Second, the Charter Review Commission was granted the power to make recommendations, and, if at least 15 out of 20 members agree, the recommendations go directly on the ballot. Thus, based on all their research, the CRC decided to not nibble at the edges of the problems but tackle the fundamental structural problem with the government. Since 17 out of 20 agreed (85%), we have the Portland Charter Review Ballot Measure 26-228.
Inevitably, there has been a considerable amount of discussion around the possibilities and potential opportunities with this basic change in the structure of our city government. In fact, a lot of misinformation and even myths are floating about. Let’s look closely at these myths.
MYTH 1. Ballot measure was created by a small, unrepresentative group.
The CRC was appointed by the City Council to represent a diverse cross-section of the city. Many were activists in different community organizations. Many had worked in government. Look at the tab “Meet your Commissioners” on the Review Commission Website.
MYTH 2. Ranked choice voting (RCV) is too complex.
Other cities have used RCV. Cities in US and internationally (Ireland, Australia, New Zealand) use RCV and have used it for years. Willamette Week cites Jack Santucci’s book More Parties or No Parties about election reform: “Minneapolis adopted it in 2006. Benton County, Oregon, jumped on board in 2016.” A recent Oregonian article quotes a political science professor: “No election system is a panacea, problems can occur in any type of system, but ranked choice voting is a much better system than what we have to both improve and provide representation. It does a much better job ensuring that all votes count.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Arden, Delaware, have used RCV since before WWII.” Click Fair Vote’s explanation here to understand Portland’s suggested version of RCV. One difference for Portland is that the new Charter sets up RCV with three members elected in four districts; Cambridge employs RCV with multi-members who are all in just one district, encompassing the whole city.
“The goal of Ranked Choice Voting is to capture the greatest possible voter sentiment and seek as much consensus as possible,” Willamette Week reported as they examined the impact of RCV. In ranked-choice-voting to rank candidates, voters will need to look more closely at candidates and their positions. No longer can they just say, “oh, he’s a Dem and she’s a Republican, I always vote blue.” And not look at the candidates. Candidates must distinguish themselves as well.
People wrongly say that RCV is untried. Even with that caveat, why would we not want to be first, a trailblazer? It is in Portland’s DNA to think outside the box. In 1989 Oregon was first in nation to Vote by Mail, something other states are just starting to adopt.
MYTH 3. The proposed ballot measure does not give the mayor enough power.
The mayor will have plenty of power and plenty of accountability on how he or she uses that power. All the city elects the mayor at large. The mayor hires and can fire the city manager (called “administrator” in the charter reform proposal) with approval by the city council of 12. The mayor submits the budget and manages the police and auditor’s office. The mayor also votes in cases of ties on issues, actions, and policies created by the city council. A city manager is a professional position like a lawyer or doctor with high ethical standards.
MYTH 4. If voters do not approve the ballot measure, the current council will come up with a better plan.
Psychology tells us that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Each of the five current commissioners now has a lot of power over budgets, management, bureaus, and policies. Who believes that they would give up this power easily? In fact, they have had 100 years to improve the system and make it more representative. And they have done nothing. No proposal has ever come from the city council to the voters to change the power or responsibilities of the council. No proposal has ever been presented to increase the representation across all areas of Portland. If we don’t make these reforms now, we will have to wait another 10 years for a new Charter Review Commission.
What can we do?
VOTE for Measure 26-228 on your ballot November 8.
Next: Be informed. The Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League Communications Co-Chair has gathered a great list of resources to check out. Resources for Measure 26-228
Dannelle D. Stevens is a PCP and active Multnomah County Democrat, with the Campaign Committee and more.