PORTLAND, Ore — It was 1913 when Portland voters first decided the city would have a commission form of government with city council members elected at large. Now, 108 years later, Portland is the only large city in the U.S. to still have the unique system of government and residents have voted eight times to keep it that way.
Under the commission form of government, the whole city votes for each of the five commissioner positions. That's unlike city council style governments where representatives are elected by localized geographical districts.
In Portland's unique commission system, the mayor appoints commissioners to lead a bureau they may have no experience leading. That's pretty much the extent of the mayor's authority and he or she is just one of five votes on the council.
Time for a change?
Critics have said it's time for a change and cited the system of government as an obstacle to solving some of Portland's biggest problems.
The City Club of Portland conducted two reports in 2019 and 2020 and concluded: "Our form of government is inequitable and in need of significant reform."
Once in a decade opportunity
Portlanders have a once in a decade opportunity to vote again to change the way the city functions. The city charter is like Portland's Constitution. It requires the city to convene a Charter Commission every 10 years to review and recommend amendments to the charter.
After nearly 300 people applied to be a member of the commission, the Portland City Council chose 20 members with diverse perspectives and experience championing community needs. Three of those members —Candace Avalos, Robin Ye and Debbie Kitchin — were guests on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to give Portland residents insight into the research they're doing, how the process works, and how voters can have a voice in what gets referred to the ballot.
How the city works
The Charter Commission has two major committees. One is looking at the city's form of government and the second is looking at how voters choose their city leaders through elections.
Candace Avalos is the co-chair of the committee looking at the city's form of government. She said members are studying other cities and doing research into two different types of government: the mayor-council type where the mayor has larger executive authority and a manager-council system.
"Where you have a city manager that helps to oversee the functions of the bureaus and the council-with the authority of the council. We are looking at those two things," she said.
Avalos said part of the problem with the current commission form of government is confusion over who has the responsibility and authority to do things. She said supporters of the present system have argued things get done more quickly when a commissioner has direct authority over a bureau, but she said it has another downside.
"It also created these siloed efforts which make it hard for these bureaus to be collaborative on a united strategic vision for the city," she said.
Avalos added there are lot of other questions underneath those bigger picture questions they are also researching.
"Who gets to write the budget? How do you appoint either a city manager or a chief administrative chief? How do you write and make laws?" she said.
Debbie Kitchin, a member of both committees, said the goal of their efforts is to make local government more responsive to the issues.
"... Able to cope with some of the big picture problems that our city faces such as houselessness or police oversight," Kitchin said.
How Portlanders elect their representatives
Robin Ye is co-chair of the charter commission's elections committee. He said the committee has spent a lot of time setting its 'north star' for coming up with any recommendations for change.
"We are really interested in lowering barriers for [voter] participation, so more voices can be heard. And we want to make sure our government reflects the city that it leads. We want a more trustworthy government. One with more accountability," Ye said.
At its committee meeting this week, Ye said members agreed to advance some changes to elections for more research.
"We are looking at increasing the size of city council. Because we need more councilors tackling the big issues of our time," he said.
The committee is also exploring electing city leaders in just one election without a primary. They also want to do more research on ranked-choice voting.
How does a measure for change get to the ballot?
The Charter Commission has unique power. If 15 of the 20 members agree on a recommendation, it will go directly to the ballot. If only 11-14 members can agree on a recommendation, then it will go the city council for a vote and the council can refer it to the ballot. If 10 or fewer Charter Commission members can agree, then there is no recommendation and nothing changes.
"So, the goal is to come to a great consensus of over 15 [commission members] so we can send things directly to voters," Avalos said.
The commission hopes to get its recommendation on the November 2022 ballot.
Building a strong foundation
Debbie Kitchin, whose family business is a remodeling company, said the commission spent a lot of time preparing and building a foundation for its research.
"Since I work in construction, I'll tell you foundations are very, very important. We are moving now into other parts of the house, if you will, and we are actually doing the framing. I think it's been a great process, open and transparent," she said.
A third Charter Commission committee is focused on community engagement.
Voters are encouraged to visit the Charter Commission's website to sign up for the mailing list and listen in to its work sessions. All meetings are open to the public via Zoom. Additionally, past meetings are posted along with summaries.
"We have put a lot of thought into bringing the community with us in a public process with a focus on public education and wanting to hear voices we don't typically hear from," Ye said.
Citizens can make public comment through a form on the commission's website.
Avalos said changing Portland's government won't be a panacea for solving all the city's problems, but she said how the city functions matters.
"We are really looking to improve the functionality and efficiency of the government in order to better deliver services for Portlanders. And for Portlanders to feel like their elected leaders are representing their needs and are acting on them," she said.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday at 9:30 p.m. "Straight Talk" is also available as a podcast.