PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland is now a little more than a year away from the election that will transfigure the city's government, bringing in a new mayor and expanding the city council from four citywide seats to 12 elected from four districts. There's no doubt that it's a big change for city hall — but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
This week, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that he will not run for reelection, leaving the field wide open. So far, current city Commissioner Mingus Mapps has said that he'll run for mayor, but none of the other commissioners have made their plans official as yet.
Any current commissioners who want another term on city council will need to run for a seat again, this time from whichever district they live within. In August, a city commission finished dividing Portland up into those four districts, roughly equivalent in population. You can check those out in the interactive map below, or visit portlandmaps.com to look up your address and see which district you fall within.
Several people are already planning to run for seats on the new council. While they can't officially file until next year, same as the mayor, these folks have filed with the city's small donor elections program and made announcements to their supporters.
Whoever wins a seat will be earning a pretty good living; the city's salary commission determined that city councilors will earn just over $133,000 a year when the new regime begins. The city auditor will earn just over $168,000 and the mayor would earn just over $175,000. Currently commissioners earn about $125,000 and the mayor earns $143,000.
The Portland city shuffle
But another big part of the overhaul won't begin until after the election, just as everyone is sworn in and begins the work of governing. A draft organizational structure released by the city government transition team gives us an idea of what the whole thing could look like.
Under the current commission-style government, the mayor assigns city bureaus to each of the commissioners to oversee. It doesn't matter if any of them have expertise with those bureaus — they're in charge. But come 2025, the new crop of city councilors will only work on developing and voting on city policy. Running the city's departments will be the domain of a new city administrator, appointed by the mayor.
The draft proposal lays out the city's current 26 bureaus, grouping some of them together into departments. The idea is to have similar services under one umbrella: "Budget and Finance" composed of things like budgeting, revenue and financial services; "Community and Economic Development" will handle permitting, the Housing Bureau, Prosper Portland and the Children's Levy; "City Operations" for human resources, facilities and 311; "Community Safety" combining emergency management, police and fire; and "Public Works" to include things like parks, the arts, water and transportation.
Each of these five departments will report to a separate deputy city administrator, with those five roles reporting to the city administrator.
But to some Portlanders, this structure might sound a little too familiar. Right now the five commissioners, including the mayor, each oversee a portfolio of like bureaus. So will the new system be so radically different?
We took that question to the man in charge of the transition team, Michael Jordan (but not that Michael Jordan), chief administrative officer for the city of Portland.
"The difference between five deputy city administrators and five elected city commissioners is one, we will hire for those positions and I'm anticipating that the new city administrator will hire for those positions with specific kinds of backgrounds, experience, training in the area that they're being hired for," Jordan said. "That isn't always the case that occurs in elections when people are elected to office. The other thing that is important is that today, while the bureaus report to commissioners, there is no one of those commissioners that has authority over the others, they are not accountable to any one person. In this structure, those five deputies are accountable to the city administrator."
Jordan said that the new city team will be responsible for treating the city like an enterprise, and that each of the five deputy administrators will be expected to work together for the good of the city — instead of forming "silos" with little communication between them, as is often the case with the current commission-style government.
But some roles will not be reporting to the city administrator. The city attorney, the chief of staff and the chief of police will instead serve at the mayor's pleasure. If you recall, the rest of the police bureau falls under the "Community Safety" department, overseen by a deputy city administrator. But under this structure, the mayor will hire the chief of police and they will need to be confirmed by the city council. The mayor will also have the power to fire the chief.
"The history in Portland around police services I think was part of the thinking by the charter commission that made this decision — and of course was voted on by the voters of Portland," Jordan said. "So they basically said, 'Yeah, the chief should be appointed and can be removed by the mayor, who's the only person other than the auditor that is elected citywide.' So I think the charter commission felt, and voters agreed, that the chief of police position … that the mayor should be able to hire and remove the chief of police unilaterally."
A new program being proposed in this structure would also fall under the mayor's duties; it's called "Portland Solutions," and will handle things related to homelessness, including the Joint Office of Homeless Services, temporary shelters and Safe Rest Villages.
This proposal for the new city organizational structure will go before the current city council next month, on Oct. 19. They'll decide whether to start implementing this scheme or send it back to the drawing board.
But before that happens, Portlanders get a say. There will be an online community information session later this month, scheduled for Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. The Zoom link is accessible from Portland's transition page, and city residents can offer feedback from now until October by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The transition team will review those comments and forward them to the city council.