PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland United for Change, a political group advocating for charter reform Measure 26-228 on Portland’s November ballot, said that a personal presentation given by Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps on Oct. 3 is aimed at undermining the public’s opinion of charter reform weeks before the general election.

Mapps, who has been publicly critical of the charter reform measure, outlined his own ideas for charter reform in the presentation — ideas that Portland United for Change Communications Manager Damon Motz-Storey said were considered by the Portland Charter Commision long before the measure was put forward to voters.

“Yes, we do think Mapps is trying to undermine the work of the city’s own Charter Commission,” Motz-Storey told KOIN 6 News. “The Charter Commission considered the proposals that are in Commissioner Mapps’ 11th-hour distraction, and found them to be unsuitable for Portland.”

Great explainer: Portland Proposed Measure 26-228

In an interview with KOIN 6 News on Oct. 4, Mapps rejected PUC’s claims, saying that the weeks leading up to the election are the best time for Portlanders to debate a ballot measure.

“No, this is not designed to undermine the November ballot proposal,” Mapps said. “We have a very important ballot proposal that’ll be coming to voters in November, this is exactly the moment in time when Portlanders should come together and debate the merits and demerits of various ideas.”

If approved by voters, the measure would result in drastic changes to Portland’s city government. Currently, the city operates as a commision form of government led by the mayor and four city commissioners. These commissioners serve different executive roles, like managing the city’s fire department, the Bureau of Environmental Services or the Portland Housing Bureau. 

Proposed charter reform changes in Measure 26-228 would alleviate commissioners of these executive roles and pass them on to appointed city administrators. The measure would also implement the creation of four geographic districts, which would each be overseen by their own set of four elected representatives, raising Portland’s total number of city council members from four to 12. Unlike the city’s current system, the geographic districts would also require council members to live in the areas they represent — a system that the Portland Charter Commission said will improve representation within the city. The mayor and city auditor would still be elected citywide.

Mapps has been vocally supportive of some of these changes in the proposed charter reform measure, including the disbandment of Portland’s commission-style government.

Portland City Councilman Mingus Mapps poses in front of his house in southwest Portland, Ore., on Nov. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

“One of the reasons that Portland City Hall fails our people is our antiquated form of government,” Mapps said in his presentation. “Portland is the last major city in America to use a commission form of government. There’s a reason why every other major city in America has abandoned commission forms of government: Commission forms of government do not work well. It is obvious that Portland’s century-long experiment with a commission form of government has failed, and it is time for Portland to modernize the way we organize City Hall.”

However, in his 34-minute online presentation, Mapps also challenged a number of the Charter Commission’s ideas in in the November ballot measure, including its plan for a new ranked-choice voting system, which Mapps calls a “single-transferable-vote system welded onto a multi-member district system.” Under the proposed voting system, voters would “rank” their favorite candidates in order of preference. These votes would be tallied in rounds until an ultimate winner was declared.

“There are also elements of this proposal which are highly problematic and very unusual,” Mapps said. “The charter reform proposal on the November ballot would take Portland from being the last major city in America to use a commission form of government, to being the first city on the planet to use a single-transferable-vote system combined with multi-member districts to elect members of their city council.”

Motz-Storey said that Mapps’ comments about Portland being the only city on the planet with this voting system are inaccurate.

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“It’s frustrating that we are still having to answer and fact-check Commissioner Mapps,” Motz-Storey said. “The Oregonian and other outlets have repeatedly corrected the record by pointing out that ranked-choice voting used to elect multiple City Council members at once is used extensively in the U.S. and abroad for City Council elections in places like Cambridge, Mass., Eastpointe, Mich., Albany, Calif., Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand, to name a few.”

He added that Mapp’s description of the ranked-choice voting is intentionally confusing and frightening to dissuade voters.

“Research shows that using ranked choice voting to elect the top three candidates in Portland city council districts will give all of Portland’s diverse viewpoints and identities greater representation on Portland City Council,” Motz-Storey said. “We do believe that Commissioner Mapps is intentionally trying to make this sound untested and more complicated than it is as an attempt to scare voters into voting no. The truth is that it’s very simple: Voters rank candidates in order of preference and the top three candidates in their city council district win seats. This is one of the most common forms of democracy in the world.”

KOIN Coverage: Portland Charter Reform

However, Mapps, who has a Ph. D. in government from Cornell University, argued that the combination of ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts is what makes Portland’s proposed measure unique, saying that there are a handful of cities that use one or the other, but none that use a combination of the two.

“We’re all used to filling in the bubble of the person you want to represent you,” Mapps said. “It’s not clear what kind of representation we’re likely to get from the system. Nor is it clear how it’s going to make Portland better at housing people or filling potholes or combating climate change. This is an untested, risky set of ideas that actually don’t address the problems that Portlanders care about most.”

Mapps elaborated on why he believes this style of voting could impact smaller, regional elections.

“I expect that that system would produce some surprising and counterintuitive effects,” he said. “For example: Single-transferable vote system would lower the threshold needed to win a seat on Portland City Council: a new threshold of roughly 23%. This will mean that it will be very difficult to unseat incumbents, because incumbents basically always get 23% of the vote. At the same time, if you are a fringe candidate, who under normal circumstances would never be able to receive a majority of the votes in Portland, it would also pave the way for you. That strikes me as potentially being problematic.”

While Mapp’s visions for charter reform are too tardy to be considered for the November ballot measure, Mapps is telling voters that he believes a new charter reform proposal could be drafted up and put to a vote by the 2023 general election.

“This proposal in November is a good start to the conversation, but I don’t think it’s the reform that we’re looking for,” Mapps said. “If you agree with me and think that the charter reform proposal that we’ll face in November is not the right solution for Portland, I think it’s important for you to know that we do not need to wait a decade to reimagine government here in Portland.”

Portland United for Change supporters, meanwhile, remain skeptical of Mapp’s tactics, saying that the time to reconsider changes to the charter reform has passed.

“The only reason Mapps is dropping his plan now is to disrupt and undermine the years-long public engagement and research process that resulted in Measure 26-228,” Motz-Storey said. “He wants Measure 26-228 to fail so that the Mayor has more power and Portlanders have less representation in City Hall. If he were really wanting to be helpful, he would not have even begun to mention policy proposals until after Portlanders had the opportunity to vote on what’s been in progress since 2020.”