PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – With two weeks until Election Day, voters will be faced with the decision to reform Portland’s form of government — a proposal more than two years in the making.

Nearly everyone KOIN 6 News has spoken to over the months agrees the city’s form of government needs to change — saying the city has grown too big for its commission form of government over the past century. They also argue the commission form is too complex for elected leaders running city departments — rather than responding to the people they represent.

“We haven’t grown in terms of our councilors in 110 years. Meanwhile, our city has more than tripled, and believe me our bureaucracy has more than tripled, and our problems have more than tripled,” said Melanie Billings-Yun, former co-chair of the Portland Charter Commission.

Melanie Billings-Yun of the Portand City Charter Reform Committee, October 25, 2022 (KOIN)
Melanie Billings-Yun of the Portand City Charter Reform Committee, October 25, 2022 (KOIN)

Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps explains “Portland is the last city in America to use a commission form of government, so this is a uniquely Portland problem.”

The “uniquely Portland problem” pits elected representatives running city bureaus –acting as department heads instead of responding to the people who vote for them.

“If you’ve been in Portland for any amount of time, you’ve heard about our silos down at City Hall. The fact our bureaus basically operate independently,” Mapps said.

In the city of 650,000, there are five commissioners elected city-wide, leaving several areas of the city overlooked.

“Far more as you move out of the central district is the sense that no one is representing me, no one understands my issues, no one is looking out for me. I don’t know who to call, and if I were to call somebody, would they even pick up the phone?” Billings-Yun said.

After nearly two years of public meetings and countless hours of testimony, on a 17-3 vote, the charter commission proposed a city-wide mayor and city administrator to oversee city bureaus.

Under the reform, four City Council districts will be formed with three members from each forming a 12-member City Council.

A graphic showing the new layout of the proposed Portland City Charter plan, October 25, 2022 (KOIN)
A graphic showing the new layout of the proposed Portland City Charter plan, October 25, 2022 (KOIN)

Portland voters would also decide to adopt proportional ranked-choice voting, also known as single transferable vote. 

In ranked-choice voting, for example, say the election is between the KOIN 6 News anchor team. Voters would rank their preference of candidate first second, third and so on.

First, the number of first-place votes are counted. Because voters will elect three councilors per district, the threshold is 25% plus one vote.

For example, if KOIN 6’s Jeff Gianola hits that threshold, the excess votes are proportionally picked and those voter’s second-place votes are redistributed, for example, to Elizabeth Dinh and Natasha Stenbock.

If three members are not elected after that, the last placed candidate is eliminated, and the voter’s second-choice votes are redistributed among the candidates.

“We created a system in which we created big districts, so we don’t have one small little district only looking out for one part of the city. We are going to create something which our city councilors are also looking out for the whole city,” Billings-Yun said.

Additionally, Mapps thinks the mayor should have a stronger role than just a tie breaking vote –wishing for veto power for the executive as well.

Mapps explained when it comes to the charter there are “some good ideas, there are also some deeply concerning and unusual proposals in that ballot too.”

He released his own proposal, that is more of a wish list than a formal proposal, which he hopes to bring to next year’s ballot. In it, he called for seven-single member districts.

“I think it’s not clear what kind of representation we’re likely to get from the system nor is it clear how the single transferable vote system is going to make Portland any better at housing people or filling potholes or combatting climate change,” Mapps noted.

Billings Yun says, as opposed to majority rules all, this system would give minority groups a voice, who she says have been underrepresented in the city’s past.

“When we tried to draw seven individual districts, every single one was dominated by white voters, every single one was dominated by house holders, every single one was dominated by people who had incomes of $70,000 a year or more,” Billings-Yun explained.

Overall, Mapp says “getting charter reform correct is the single most important thing Portlanders can do to make our city work better.”

Billings-Yun and Mapps agree that Portland’s government needs change, with the test for voters deciding if the proposal in front of them is the right one.

While ranked-choice voting is growing, pairing it with multimember districts is more rare. The system is practiced in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dublin, Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland.