If Mayor Tom Potter gets his way, a sweeping change to the city's form of government will make its way to the ballot this May—but given how unsuccessful similar efforts have been in the past, Potter could be facing a massive failure on one of the few issues he's championed.
For more than a year, Potter's Charter Review Commission has been building a case for converting Portland to a "strong mayor" form of government—the mayor would be responsible for all city bureaus, and a chief administrative officer (CAO) would handle day-to-day bureau operations under the mayor. The city council members would pitch legislation and deal with citizens, and would not have the ability to fire the CAO.
It's a form of government that many believe Potter—as a former police chief—is more suited to; the mayor doesn't have to collaborate as much with commissioners, and can push his own agenda in a more powerful position.
But in order to get the Charter Review Commission's recommendations—which will be presented on Thursday, January 18—in front of voters, Potter will need a majority vote from city council to refer it. He's already got two votes (his and Dan Saltzman's) and two votes firmly against (Erik Sten and Randy Leonard), leaving Sam Adams as the swing vote. Last Friday, January 12, Adams said he was "open to the idea of referring the recommendations out to voters."
But changing the form of government hasn't been a winning issue in Portland since 1913, when the "commissioner" form was voted in. Since then, Portland voters have rejected changes six times, the most recent being an effort in 2002, which only managed to get support from 24 percent of voters.
Little has changed since 2002 that would improve chances of reform this year. In fact, it may even be a harder sell. The economy has improved, which could mean that voters are less likely to vote for any kind of change. Plus, the mayor and his cohorts will have to harness voter discontent with unpopular projects and/or scandals and tie them directly to the current form of government—that'll be tricky, since doing so will necessarily implicate the mayor, who's been running the city for the past two years.
"We asked the [Charter Review] commission, 'How have you defined the problem you're trying to solve? What are examples of cities you want to emulate?'" Leonard said. The answers, according to Leonard, weren't compelling—in fact, the commission's initial response was that the questions weren't "fair."
Leonard added that if the commission had logged the objections of the majority, even if they ultimately disagreed, "it would have been a more balanced process, rather than a conclusion-driven process."
Yet, despite all of the factors going against the reform, there isn't even a hint of a campaign going yet—Judy Tuttle, the mayor's point person to the Charter Review Commission, says it's too early to start on a campaign, but is committed to getting the reform on the ballot in May, and not later.
Adams could have as late as March to decide on referring the changes to the ballot. "I'm waiting to hear from the full commission before I make up my mind," he said.