State Watch

Why Portland voters are considering overhauling their government

Associated Press/Don Ryan

Voters in Portland, Ore., will consider a dramatic overhaul of their government in what supporters say is a bid to bring under control one of America’s most liberal cities after years of chaos, disfunction and riots.

A city commission, convened once every decade to examine Portland’s governing charter and make recommendations for amendments, updates or changes, voted this week to advance the most substantial reform in the city’s history to voters later this year.

If the voters OK those changes, Portland would expand its city council from five at-large members to 12 members elected by districts; hire a professional city administrator who would work alongside the mayor; and implement ranked-choice voting for city government elections.

The changes will reform a system of government that, at present, gives city commissioners the authority to oversee specific departments of city government, in a way that supporters of the overhauls say takes their eyes off Portland’s larger goals.

Portland is the last major city in America to use a commission form of government. Portland voters approved the system in 1913, when the city was less than a third the size it is today.

“Portland is facing challenges that need to be addressed by a City Council that can focus on setting policy and is not weighed down by the day-to-day responsibilities of managing bureaus,” said Melanie Billings-Yun, a professor at Portland State University’s Business School and a member of the Charter Commission.

The City of Roses has struggled in recent years to balance its progressivism with growing challenges posed by the drug epidemic, rising homelessness and lawlessness downtown.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Portland became the target of right-wing agitators who clashed with members of antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement in roving street battles. Then-President Trump sent federal agents into the city to contain the violence; Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) called the deployment an “illegal occupation.”

In comments to the Charter Commission in the month before this week’s vote, many residents said the city needed a substantial overhaul to restore order.

“The city of Portland, Oregon is a failed state,” one resident wrote. “[Our] current [form] of government is a miserable failure, an embarrassment. Run poorly by amateurs,” wrote another.

Other Portlanders said they were concerned about the proposed model of the new city council, which would include three members from each of four districts, rather than a single member from a smaller number of districts — or even a single member from each of 12 separate districts.

“The commission had a chance to get it right, and instead chose to replace one bizarre system with another. Three politicians per over-large district. A recipe to continue the excuse ‘Not my job!’” wrote one opponent.

“Multi-member districts with several officials elected from each seems a confusing undertaking. Single-member representation in each district would offer more advantages and fewer disadvantages than multi-member districts,” wrote another.

The Charter Commission, comprised of 20 community leaders ranging from a former top aide to Gov. Kate Brown (D) to nonprofit executives, attorneys, a real estate executive, a city planner and social justice advocates, needed 15 votes to forward their proposals to voters. Seventeen of the 20 members voted in favor.

But even that support is no guarantee that Portland voters will adopt a change: In the 109 years since adopting the commission form of government, voters have voted against ditching the system on seven different occasions.

Tags government reform Portland, Oregon

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