Last week, Portlanders voted to change the way some city employees are treated in Portland's charter, but the ambiguity of the change means the fate of city workers is still up in the air.
The ballot measure, 26-90, removes civil service protections from bureau employees who help come up with policies—in lay terms, it means that bureau higher-ups will be considered "at will" and can be fired by city commissioners for no reason. What's unclear, though, is how many bureau employees will be affected by the change, and whose jobs might be at risk when it goes into effect in January.
"I'm deeply concerned about the subjectivity of the new language," says Commissioner Randy Leonard, who opposed the ballot measure. "It's filled with the potential for abuse."
The fear is that the ambiguity could allow commissioners to fire bureau employees for purely political reasons—and install new managers based on nepotism and political patronage.
But the administrative rules for the change have yet to be written, and Leonard wants to have a hand in drafting them to ensure that the law's effects are limited. He plans on co-writing a draft with Commissioner Erik Sten by this summer that would only make deputy bureau directors "at will"—every other bureau employee would still have all the same protections they've always had.
The ballot measure could also make things more difficult for union representatives of seasonal workers, most of whom are parks maintenance workers. Before the election, city bureaus could only employ seasonal workers for a maximum of five months a year—now, that limit has been removed.
"I'm not too worried about the situation right now," says Richard Beetle of Laborers Local 483, which represents seasonal parks workers. "But if the economy tanks and there's a budget turndown, bureaus could replace their full-time workers with seasonal workers, who have lower wages and no insurance."
But that, too, is up for negotiation. In talks with the city's human resources department, Beetle is pushing to have the seasonal parks workers moved into full-time positions.