Study recommends fixes for ‘city that doesn’t work’

Special Reports
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A study conducted by the City Club of Portland found that Portland’s current form of government is inequitable and is no longer the most effective way to operate. 

Portland has operated under the commission form of government since 1913. This form, often referred to as the Galveston Plan, was first introduced in Galveston, Texas, in 1901. 

In Portland’s case, that means we have six elected leaders — the mayor and five commissioners in charge of city bureaus. 

Portland is the only major US city that still uses this form of government. Even Galveston abandoned the commission in 1960. 

A study conducted by the City Club of Portland recommends Portland rethink its 100-year-old system. 

Read the entire City Club of Portland report at the bottom of this article

Policy analyst Kristin Eberhard told KOIN 6 News for a special report last week that this form doesn’t represent Portland very well. 

“You have this history of under-representation of people on the east side under-representation of renters, under-representation of woman, people of color and that’s a lot due to the way that we vote,” Eberhard said.

Read Jeff Gianola’s special report: Portland, Oregon: The city that doesn’t work?

The study pointed out that only 9 women and three people of color have served on the Portland City Council. Until this year with the election of Jo Ann Hardesty, the city council had never had a woman of color. On top of that, most members of the city council have lived on the west side but 80% of Portlanders live east of the river. 

It isn’t saying the city council intentionally favors certain people or groups, but the east side is just underrepresented. 

The study recommends increasing the size of the council from five members to between 9 and 13. That would put Portland on the level of similar sized cities and better represent the growing and diverse population.

Amanda Manjarrez worked on a City Club of Portland study that recommends changing the structure of Portland city government, February 10, 2019 (KOIN)

“(A)re there enough councilors on the commission to actually represent the City of Portland?” City Club research committee vice chair Amanda Manjarrez said. “Considering that when we started this process or this system 100 years ago, we had about 200,000 residents and we’ve tripled that number to over 600,000.”

The study also recommends changing the way we elect the council. In the commission form of government, voters elect commissioners citywide rather than by district. It recommends Portland elect council members by geographic districts, preferably with multiple councilers in each. 

“Among the benefits of multi-member, district-based elections are greatly increased geographic representation on the city council and a lowering of the financial and other barriers to entry into the political process for traditionally underserved groups,” the study said. 

The Portland Business Alliance conducted a poll, which found 70% of voters are in favor of electing in districts.  

A City Club of Portland study recommends changing the structure of Portland city government, February 10, 2019 (KOIN)

Other cities with more than 100,000 residents use systems known as the strong mayor/city council form or the city council/manager form. In the strong mayor/city coucil form, the mayor is the chief executive officer with a legislative council to set policy. In the city council/manager form the council hires a non-political city manager to implement its policies and administrative needs. 

The City Club of Portland recommends Portland hire a city manager. This would put Portland more on track with what similar-sized cities like Las Vegas, San Jose, Phoenix and Dallas are doing. 

Manjarrez said there is also a of misunderstanding of what commissioners do and how it’s different than other forms of government.

“It’s very confusing so I would say at best it’s confusing and that keeps the system locked in place, at worst it’s leaving certain voices out of the process who aren’t engaged and coming forward to say hey ‘I don’t feel represented in this process,'” Manjarrez said.

While these are just recommendations, the City Club of Portland hopes to spur a discussion about the way Portland is governed.

“We hope that this becomes a community informed process where folks start engage with it give feedback on the ideas and come up with a really community informed robust ballot initiative,” Manjarrez said. 

The City Club of Portland is hosting a forum on Feb. 12 for its members to learn more about the report. 

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