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Charter commission approves proposal to remake Portland's form of government

If passed by voters in November, the package would expand the Portland City Council, add geographic districts and consolidate administrative power under the mayor.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland’s charter commission held a final vote Tuesday night on a package of proposed reforms that, if approved by voters in November, would fundamentally reshape the structure of the city’s government and elections.

During a hybrid meeting, commissioners voted 17 to 3 in favor of the charter amendments — meaning voters will determine whether to overhaul Portland's government on the November 2022 ballot.

“This isn’t just fixing around the edges,” said Melanie Billings-Yun, co-chair of the 20-member commission. “This is a big change.”

The Portland City Charter requires the City Council to convene an independent commission at least every 10 years to review the charter and recommend amendments. 

Portland’s commission form of government is a rarity, especially among large cities, and this isn’t the first time a charter commission has recommended big changes — but Portland voters have consistently shot down major overhauls.

“This form goes back to 1917 when we had 200,000 people, and there have been several — I believe seven — attempts to change it. The last one was in 2007,” Billings-Yun said. “And I will tell you that it failed by about three to one. The most common reason given by people was that, ‘Why should we change? The city is great, we don’t have any problems.’”

This time around, things might be different. Portlanders have grown increasingly despondent in recent years as the city has struggled through multiple crises, and polls show frustration with the city’s government is running high.

RELATED: 'Voters are in a really sour mood': Poll finds Portlanders frustrated by homelessness, crime, city leadership

“We spent a lot of time looking at what Portlanders are unhappy about and trying to fix that,” Billings-Yun said. “Basically, what we heard was that they wanted a complete change of government.”

Portland’s own mayor, Ted Wheeler, has been a highly vocal critic of the commission-style system, arguing that it’s outdated and hampers the city’s ability to respond to crises by dividing up administrative power into separate silos.

The charter committee unveiled its recommendations in March, sending a preliminary package of reforms to the City Attorney’s office for review and formal drafting. 

Before the proposal can be sent to voters on the November ballot, the charter commission had to approve the final version of the amendment package. That’s what Tuesday night’s vote was about, and it required a supermajority.

“If 15 of us, 15 of the 20, agree to go forward, it will go straight to the voters, and then it will be up to the voters to decide,” Billings-Yun said before the meeting Tuesday. “I am pretty confident that we are going to hit that number.”

The commission’s proposed overhaul has three main components:

Ranked choice voting

Portland’s current system uses a set of two elections: the primary election in May and the general election in November. 

All the candidates for a given position compete in a single race in May, and voters select just one candidate per race on their ballots. If a candidate gets at least 50% of the votes, they win the seat outright. If none of them hit that mark, the top two finishers move to a runoff on the November ballot.

With the proposed ranked choice system, there would be just one election in November, but voters would rank all the candidates for a given position by order of preference instead of choosing just one. So instead of a voter’s filled-out ballot looking like this:

Portland Mayor
_ James Kirk
_ Jean-Luc Picard
x Benjamin Sisko
_ Kathryn Janeway

…it would look more like this:

Portland Mayor
4 James Kirk
2 Jean-Luc Picard
1 Benjamin Sisko
3 Kathryn Janeway

The initial vote tally counts the first choice on each ballot, but if no candidate receives enough votes to win, the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated and the voters who ranked that person first will have their votes switched to whoever they ranked second, essentially allowing for an instant runoff without another round of balloting. The process continues until one candidate gets enough votes to win.

City Council with 12 members and four geographic districts

The current council consists of the mayor and four commissioners, each of whom are elected at-large, meaning all the voters in Portland get to vote in the race for each seat.

The commission proposal would remove the mayor from the council and expand the roster to 12 council members. It would also divide the city into four geographic districts of equal population, each of which would elect three people to the council. Only the mayor and city auditor would still be elected at-large.

The three councilors for each district would be chosen in a single ranked-choice race, with a lower threshold for victory to allow for three winners.

“People really demanded district representation,” Billings-Yun said. “We especially heard that over on the east side, where they feel that there is no one really paying attention to their needs.”

The district borders have not been determined; they would be drawn by an independent commission, utilizing existing geographic or political boundaries where possible while avoiding dividing communities of common interest, according to a progress report from the charter commission. 

The districts would be redrawn every 10 years based on the most recent U.S. Census data, starting in 2030.

Executive mayor, legislative council

Under Portland’s current system, the mayor and four commissioners share legislative and executive power, with all five serving as voting members of the city council. 

The council sets policies for the city, but the mayor and commissioners also each directly and individually manage several of the city’s bureaus, essentially dividing up day-to-day administration of the city among the five elected officials.

RELATED: Should Portland shed its commission-style government?

The charter commission’s proposal would switch council to a purely policy-setting role while putting the mayor in charge of all the city’s day-to-day operations, similar to the relationship between Congress and the President or a state legislature and governor — although in this case the mayor would not have the power to veto council decisions. 

The mayor would not have a vote on the council except as a tiebreaker.

The mayor would be tasked with hiring and supervising a professional city administrator, who would in turn be in charge of hiring, supervising and firing subordinate professionals to run the bureaus. 

The city administrator would need to be confirmed by the council, and could be fired either by the mayor or by a vote of at least ¾ of the council.

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