The changes are being proposed as a measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot by the appointed 20-member citizen Portland Charter Commission. The council does not authority to change the measure or delay the reaction. It will receive a report from the commission on the proposed measure as part of the referral process.
Portland currently is the only major city in the country where the City Council is elected citywide and its members both set policies and oversee bureaus assigned to them by the mayor without a professional manager. Critics say the system is outdated and dysfunctional.
The proposed changes would:
• Create a City Council that focuses on setting policy and a mayor elected citywide to run the city’s day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional city administrator. The mayor could only vote to break a tie and would not have veto power.
• Expand the council from four to 12 commissioners with three members elected in four newly created geographic districts.
• Allow voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, with the top three candidates in each district winning without runoff elections.
Changes debated before approval
The changes were supported by 17 of the commission members who said they would increase representation of marginalized communities, allow the council members to focus on important policy issues, and eliminate the “silos” among bureaus that have hampered cooperation.
“No other city in the country is asking people who are supposed to be focused on policy, and big vision, to also be managing the day-to-day operations,” said commission member Robin Ye. “Portland hasn’t increased its size of council in over 100 years, and our city has changed dramatically in 100 years. It’s time we invest in our democracy — we should give Portlanders a government that better represents their viewpoints and lived experiences.”
Three members voted against them, however. They included David Knowles, who said he multi-member district are experimental and could have unintended consequences.
“This has never been done in the U.S. before. It’s an experiment and I am very concerned that at this point in our city’s history we shouldn’t replace the form of government unique in the country with a form of government that hasn’t been proven,” said Knowles, who served as the city’s planning director in the 1990s before leaving for the private sector.
The 20-page report to the council is available here.
Additional cost estimates offered
Among other things, the report includes a link to a memo from the City Attorney’s Office that said such a complex measure is legal despite a provision in the Oregon Constitution that has been interpreted to prohibit ballot measure with more than one subject.
The report also said increasing the size of the council so much will likely require them to have offices in their districts and offices near City Hall, which already houses the council, City Auditor’s Office, and City Attorney’s Office.
The report said future salaries for the mayor and council members will be recommended by a salary commission that will be appointed if it passes.
A fiscal impact statement submitted to the council estimates one-time transitional costs of the changes at approximately $4 million to $5.9 million per year for three years. It estimates annual ongoing costs of the changes at between $0.9 million to $8.7 million. The statement notes those are small percentages of the overall annual city budget.
Steps to come
According to the Portland Elections Office, these steps need to be completed before the measure qualifies for the ballot after the June 29 hearing:
• The City Attorney’s Office must draft a ballot title and explanatory statement and files these items with the City Elections Office.
• The City Elections Office must publish a notice of ballot title challenge period in the local newspaper.
• Voters wishing to challenge the drafted ballot title must file a petition with the court within seven business days from the date the ballot title was filed by the city attorney with the City Elections Office.
• If a voter files a ballot title challenge with the court, they must notify the City Elections Office of the challenge within one business day of filing with the court.
• Once the ballot title challenge process has been completed and any ballot title issues resolved, the City Elections Office may file the Notice of Measure Election form with the County Elections Office at any time before the 5 p.m. Sept. 8, 2022, deadline.
• After the measure is referred to the ballot, any person may file with the an argument in favor or opposition to the measure County Elections Office to be included in the voters’ pamphlet. The deadline to file an argument for the voters’ pamphlet is Sept. 12.
The full City Council agenda and opportunities for public comment can be found here.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.