On Tuesday, January 23, City Commissioner Sam Adams announced he will be voting to refer the Charter Review Commission's recommendations to the ballot this May, setting the stage for a springtime battle over Portland's longstanding—and unique—form of government.
Portland is the last city of its size to still have a "commissioner" form of government, in which power is essentially equal among the mayor and city council. Six attempts to replace that shared power—with a "strong mayor" form of government—have been made in Portland over the last century, and all of them have been shot down.
But that historical fact didn't dissuade Mayor Tom Potter, a vocal proponent of the "strong mayor" idea, from establishing a Charter Review Commission in 2005, with the purpose of examining whether Portland's commissioner form of government was still working. A year and a half later, the commission presented its final recommendations—a government that puts all city bureaus under the mayor, with a Chief Administrative Officer (accountable only to the mayor) to run the bureaus on a day-to-day basis, and a city council that is strictly legislative.
Last Thursday, January 18, the commission presented their findings to a split city council. Potter and Dan Saltzman were enthusiastically on board with the recommendations, itching to put them on the ballot this May. Erik Sten and Randy Leonard continued to question the recommendations, going so far as to challenge commission chair David Wang on the adequacy of the commission's process. Many community members, including representatives from the League of Women Voters, urged city council to delay sending the package to voters, citing the predictably low turnout at an off-year May election.
All that debate became moot, though, when Adams announced his support.
"I'm going to respect the commission's request and their work, and let the voters decide," Adams told the Mercury on January 23. "I've felt like they've clearly done a lot of research and work."
But, he added, he is unsure whether he'll ultimately support the changes. Specifically, he's worried that the recommendations give the mayor too much unchecked power.
"I remain very concerned about the power of the mayor under this proposal," he said. "My passion on this is to have more checks and balances, but this proposal makes for a very strong mayor. I'll decide later whether I'm going to support it [at the ballot], oppose it, or just stay neutral."
Sten, though, still plans to vote against sending the changes to the ballot.
"It's a change from an open, responsive form of government to a more corporate structure," he said. "I get that the citizens group worked hard, but at the end of the day, it's an advisory group, and I don't think it's appropriate for me to send something out that I don't agree with."
Technically, city council will vote on the recommendations in four parts—form of government, reforms to the civil service system, periodic charter review, and the city's relationship to the Portland Development Commission. On the PDC, the review commission recommended leaving the PDC as it is, much to the chagrin of a majority of city council. Sten has proposed amending the recommendation, making city council the "budget committee" for the agency—a majority of council, including Adams, is expected to vote for it.
Curiously, none of the commissioners who will be voting to send the changes to the ballot have actually endorsed the changes in a vocal way—instead, their talking points have revolved around the need to "let the voters decide."
Even among the Charter Review Commission, the vote was split—of the 20 commission members still attending meetings as of January, 13 supported the recommendations, while seven were opposed. And there have been murmurs that many of the commission members—who were appointed by the mayor—were predisposed to support the strong mayor form. (Wang, though, insists that the commission was diverse and completely independent.)
Local activist Christ Smith—a vocal advocate of the commissioner form of government—lobbied to be on the commission, with support from Sten, but was shot down.
Smith had hoped for a more vigorous debate within the commission over the form of government. "I don't see any evidence that the debate happened," he said. "Whether the composition of the commission allowed for a robust debate, I don't know."