Any day now, you'll be getting a ballot in the mail. Surprise! It's an off-year springtime election, and there's an awfully good chance you haven't been paying as much attention to the issues as you usually do. And the issues on this oddly timed ballot are doozies—one measure could completely rearrange our entire form of government, and three others tinker with parts of the city's charter, which is like Portland's Constitution. (Meanwhile, there are a few people vying to run Portland's public schools—and children, in addition to being smelly, are the future.) But don't panic. The Mercury's here to explain everything, and tell you how to vote. It will all be okay.
Measure 26-91Amends Charter: changes form of city governmentVOTE NO
Measure 26-91 would completely reshape Portland's city government, giving the mayor and an appointed chief administrative officer full control of all city bureaus, while city council would have only legislative duties. In short, it would centralize all city functions under the mayor.
Hands down, the most disappointing parts of the debate over completely changing the city's form of government are that the public process has been a mess, and that the city at large has not been engaged in shaping Portland's future.
There are a number of things in 26-91 that we could actually get excited about. For instance, if city council members only held legislative authority (instead of also heading the bureaus, as they do now), one of their most important functions would be forming committees to develop laws on a number of issues—public safety, say, or the environment. The committees would meet in public, and would be made up of council members and—possibly—citizen activists. Their recommendations would have meaningful political power, as opposed to the numerous advisory groups that the city currently has.
Of course, city council would need to be larger than five people (four, if you don't count the mayor) in order to have successful committees, but 26-91 doesn't increase the size of the council—nor does it break the city into districts to increase representation for underrepresented neighborhoods. In fact, it doesn't contain much that appeals to either traditional "strong mayor" advocates or defenders of the current form of government.
Instead, the Charter Review Commission attempted to find something right in the middle, to appease Portland's love of process—but the compromise endangers the advantages of the current system, and fails to capitalize on the strengths of a council/mayor government.
Sadly, Bob Ball—one of the charter commission members and the de facto spokesperson for Citizens to Reform City Hall—had a pretty great idea five years ago. It was a fairly traditional strong mayor setup; the city was broken into seven districts, kept two city council members elected citywide, and gave the mayor strictly executive power. Fans of the commissioner form of government hated it, but it at least contained the clear, proven advantages of the strong mayor system. Portlanders said no by a 3-1 margin.
The current proposal, though, waters down that idea and inexplicably keeps the mayor as one member of a five-member council. Aside from having one-fifth of the vote, he or she also gets one-fifth of the say in city council's remaining duties—in addition to controlling all of the city's bureaus. It's a daring proposal, but one that we're not convinced will work in the way proponents believe it will. (They argue that keeping the mayor on the council will foster communication and collaboration.)
And why are we not convinced? Because outside of our endorsement interviews, we haven't heard any of this debated at length in the community. The few public forums that have been held in the past month, including our own, have been mostly sound bites and demagoguery from both sides—Efficiency! Power! Accountability! Control! With no time left for "meaningful discussion," both sides of the campaign are pressed to use their simplest, most ear-catching arguments. For most campaigns, that'd be fine. But we're talking about changing the city's form of government.
Unfortunately, it didn't have to be that way. The Charter Review Commission attempted to hold public meetings, and to take their work out to the community. But nobody on city council—or any other high-profile city leader—used their star power to organize public involvement by, for instance, holding town halls. Since this was Mayor Tom Potter's idea, we believe it was incumbent upon him to promote the work of his group.
Instead, the first time most Portlanders heard about the issue was in February, when city council voted to refer the changes to voters this May. Meanwhile, small campaigns—with limited reach—have formed, but the mayor has limited his appearances to a few retirement homes and one neighborhood association forum.
Another reason to vote no: to send a message to the mayor and city council that putting such an important change on the ballot in May during an off year—when turnout is expected to be embarrassingly low—isn't acceptable. Whether 26-91 passes or not, the fact that it will have been decided by as little as 20 percent of the voting population seriously damages the legitimacy of the result.
We're policy wonks in the worst way, and we would have been thrilled to have anything but the stilted, dysfunctional conversation that only a tiny fraction of a fraction of the population is currently having. But what we've gotten instead has been nothing worthy of building a new government on. For that reason, we urge you to vote no—but let's keep talking.
26-89Amends Charter: requires city to periodically review charterVOTE YES
Like we said, vote no on overhauling the city's government after so little debate—but vote yes on this proposal, which calls for a periodic review of the city's charter. In other words, this is one way to keep talking about the city's structure. Here's how it would work: A group of 20 citizens would be appointed every 10 years (with the first group convening in two), to debate and recommend further changes or tweaks to the city charter. They can send ideas straight to the ballot with a supermajority vote; other ideas have to go through the city council. Sure, they might come up with really awful ideas—but we trust that the voters are smart enough to vet those ideas as they arise.
26-90Amends Charter: updates and clarifies civil service provisionsVOTE YES
Currently, there's a section in the city charter that outlines how the city treats its workers—how people get promoted, what the city values in an employee, and how workers are protected. This measure essentially tosses all of those nitty gritty details out, and replaces it with a more general, constitutional framework. The details—which will be in "administrative rules," instead of the charter—can then be changed as needed. One detail in particular—the city's definition of a temporary worker—is a contentious one, and we hope that the city will hammer out a compromise rule, instead of relying on an outdated city charter. Vote yes.
26-92Amends Charter: defines mission, increases oversight of Portland Development CommissionVOTE YES
This charter reform measure would give the city council control of the Portland Development Commission (PDC)'s budget. Right now, the PDC sets their own budget—which means the council has little say in what sorts of projects the PDC prioritizes, and how much the development agency spends in different parts of the city. Handing the purse strings over to the city council would change that, bringing a much-needed layer of accountability to the PDC—while still giving PDC the flexibility it needs to adjust their budget. Vote yes.
Only two of the seven spots on the Portland School Board are being challenged this year, but with the board facing contentious issues like school closures, both challengers are seizing on the same message: They hope to involve the community more in tough decisions.
ZONE 1—SW PortlandRuth Adkins vs. Douglas MorganVOTE ADKINS
In SW Portland, Ruth Adkins—founder of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance activist group—has led an outspoken campaign against the "railroading" of parents, teachers, and community members by the school board's often opaque process.
Adkins contends that hearing from everybody is just as important as getting things done, and her opponent, Douglas Morgan, is viewed as siding too often with the superintendent, Vicki Phillips, behind closed doors. Adkins is more likely to stand up to Phillips, she says.
Adkins also has the support of Portland's public process monarchs, Commissioner Randy Leonard and former city council candidate Amanda Fritz. The Mercury feels Adkins would bring a more balanced and much needed new approach to the school board.
ZONE 2—NE PortlandMichele Schultz vs. David WyndeVOTE SCHULTZ
Social worker Michele Schultz has less of an activist streak than Adkins, and describes herself as a "collaborator"—but like Adkins, she also wants to improve communication between the various interest groups in Portland's public schools.
Schultz is less well known in the wider schools community, but the Mercury supports her calls for more communication between the school board and its various constituents.
"Will the board continue to rely primarily on its own expertise, alienating families and risking apathy?" she asks. "Or will it communicate with families in a way that encourages them to be engaged with and invested in their schools?"