PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The City Auditor’s Office has declined a request from the Portland Business Alliance to conduct a constitutional review of the Charter Commission’s ballot measure to transform Portland’s form of government.
City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero said in a Tuesday, July 12 letter to the alliance’s lawyer that her office does not review measures approved by a Charter Commission. Constitutional reviews conducted by the Auditor’s Office are authorized in City Code for proposed initiative petitions prior to the signature-gathering required to qualify them to the ballot.
“A referral by a Charter Commission is different,” Hull Caballero said. “Code affords special consideration to a Charter Commission when a supermajority of its members refers measures to the ballot. My office plays a ministerial role in communicating the Commission’s wishes through Council to county elections officials to place them on the ballot.”
The alliance had asked city elections officials to reject the ballot title of the measure proposed for the Nov. 8 general election to change Portland’s form of a government.
In a July 8 letter to Hull Caballero and Elections Officer Louise Hansen, alliance attorneys said the measure violates the Oregon Constitution’s prohibition against multiple subjects in a proposed law change submitted to voters.
The proposal would amend many sections of the charter dealing with elections, administration of city bureaus and more. The City Attorney’s Office filed a ballot title on Thursday, July 8, that reads: “Should city administrator, supervised by mayor, manage Portland with 12 councilors representing four districts making laws and voters ranking candidates?”
The letter said the city had previously rejected a similar proposed initiative — 2020-PDX01 — with even fewer subjects for that reason.
“2020-PDX01 does but comply with the single-subject analytical framework because it seeks to amend multiple provisions of the City Charter, and not all of the amendment are connected by a single unifying purpose. For example, the operation of City Council is not logically connected to changing the voting system for all elected City officials,” read the City Elections Office determination of Dec. 16, 2020.
The City Attorney’s Office said the single-topic requirement only applies to initiative petitions in a March 2 memo to the commission. But the opinion admits the council has historically limited measures referred to Portland voters to single subjects to avoid legal challenges.
The alliance’s lawyers argue that reasoning is faulty, however, saying the prohibition applies to both citizen-sponsored initiatives and government referrals. The proposed measure is being referred to the ballot by the 20-member Charter Commission appointed by the City Council.
“Your duty is especially important because numerous Portland voters, such as members of my client the Portland Business Alliance, support many reforms proposed by the Charter Commission but not others. By rejecting the current proposal promptly, you leave time for the Charter Commission to re-submit the same reforms to the voters in multiple measures that ensure voter choice and follow single-subject requirements,” reads the letter from Sherman Sherman Johnnie & Hoyt. It asks city officials to response by July 13 because any challenge in Multnomah County Circuit Court must be filed by July 15.
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. Changes proposed by the Charter Commission 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.
Supporters say the changes will 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.
Critics say the multi-member districts with rank-chosen voting are experimental and could have unintended consequences.
Although it has yet to decertified for the ballot, campaign committees have already been formed on both sides of the issue.
The measure is supported by Portlanders for Charter Reform, a political action committee supported by Building Power for Communities of Color, the political engagement arm of the nonprofit Coalition of Communities of Color. It is opposed by the Partnership for Common Sense Government, which was founded by two former staff members for the late Mayor Bud Clark, Chuck Duffy and Steven Moskowitz, and charter commission member, administrative law judge and former council candidate Vadim Mozyyrsky. The measure is also opposed by the Ulysses PAC, which was originally formed by Portland City Commission Mingus Mapps to support charter reform.
The alliance letter can be found here.
Hull Caballero’s response can be found here.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.