Portland city charter up for review: What you need to know

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland’s charter commission is looking for public input as members review various aspects of the city charter.

The independent commission is comprised of 20 Portlanders whose role is to review the charter and recommend amendments to City Council. Those recommendations can require voter approval or administrative changes can be made without.

This process happens once every 10 years.

In years past, the commission has considered larger questions of policy as well as operational issues in the charter. Julia Meier, the commission’s project manager, says that members are looking into the city’s form of government along with applying a “racial justice framework” to their discussions.

“The charter commission has said, ‘Yes, we need to form a subcommittee to study and recommend amendments related to our form of government,’ which tends to be kind of, what should the roles and powers of a mayor and council be?” Meier said. “How should bureaus be managed? Questions like that will probably be considered, but we need to agree to kind of the discreet questions and talk a little bit about composition.”

This isn’t the first time that the city’s commission form of government has been in the spotlight.

In 2019, KOIN 6 News reported past problems with the charter. The report addresses how Portland has the last remaining commission form of government among large cities throughout the nation.

In this system, voters elect commissioners citywide rather than by district. The City Council includes six elected leaders, including the mayor.

Portland City Hall located at 1221 S.W. 4th Ave.

The mayor also has the right to assign various bureaus, such as the Portland Police Bureau or the Bureaus of Housing and Development Services. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has most recently assigned the police bureau for himself.

Portland isn’t the only city with recent charter chatter.

Neighboring Beaverton began implementing a new city charter this year, which was approved by voters in May 2019. The city moved away from a “strong mayor” form of government to a council-manager structure.

Before, the mayor had strong executive powers, such as hiring city staff or being responsible for city administration. The new form of government requires City Council to hire a city manager to be responsible for the day-to-day administrative operations.

Despite the Portland charter commission meeting once every decade, the review process is fairly recent. In 2007, the group recommended to amend Portland’s charter to provide for periodic review.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the measure with 75% of the vote.

Meier recalled that this is the third time in 100 years that there has been a review of the charter, with the first evaluation in 1922.

There was also a charter appointed in 2011, she said, but their scope was limited.

“It’s was kind of a housekeeping charter commission, which is still important,” explained Meier. “There were a lot of cleanups and updates that do need to happen to charters, but it didn’t necessarily consider like the entire universe of what’s in our charter, which is kind of what’s before us right now.”

As for getting the word out about the charter review, Meier says the commission is working on a request for proposals to allocate resources to community-based organizations for community engagement.

“How the city invests in community education and in the future is going to be crucial to charter review,” she noted.

The group also has a website that accepts community feedback. In addition, there will be a virtual information session with public comment starting at 6 p.m. on June 28.

The commission will review the charter over the next two years.

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