Odd City Out 

Portland's Government Is Unique. Is That a Problem?

WHERE GOVERNANCE is concerned, Portland's long been a proud holdout.

We're the only major US city to still use the antiquated "commission" form of government—where commissioners get to make laws and control city bureaus. Voters have turned down changing it eight separate times.

Now, thanks to changes approved by Seattle voters earlier this month, we're stuck in another increasingly rarefied group—something that experts say makes Portland's elections more expensive, less accessible, and less representative than they might be.

Of large American cities, only Portland and Columbus, Ohio, elect all their leaders via citywide elections. Every other city with at least 500,000 people carves its electorate into districts that vote for their own candidates to represent them.

So what's the deal? Are we a bunch of rugged individualists who know something the rest of the country doesn't, or are we foolishly holding on to a relic of governance?

The Mercury asked around. It wasn't pretty.

"Rugged individualists?" asks Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College. "Quite the opposite. In fact our system is stacked against individuals and in favor of incumbents and the entrenched powers that be."

Researchers say district-based elections address those criticisms. They make minorities and relative unknowns more likely to run for elected office. They tend to create city councils that better resemble the makeup of a city. And they help ensure that traditionally underrepresented portions of the city—think East Portland—have louder voices in city hall.

"There's greater access to elected office, and more importantly less monied special interests," says Jason Malinowski, who researched district elections as part of his graduate work at the University of Washington.

Malinowski's research suggests another crucial advantage of district races: They each cost about $76,000 less to run.

All of this has swayed communities throughout the country. Early last year, only five big US cities used exclusively citywide council seats, down from 16 in 1970. Now Detroit, Seattle, and Austin are all switching to district-based elections—at least in part.

"There are very few downsides," says Eric Lindgren, a political science professor at Whittier College who studied district elections while earning his doctorate from the University of Oregon. "People get better representation. It increases participation all across the board, and it costs a lot less money to be competitive."

And yet Portland has opposed changes to the commission system time and again.

The last defeat of district-based elections came in 2002, when developer Bob Ball advocated a sweeping change in city government.

Ball's proposal, like the one just approved in Seattle, would have created seven council districts, and kept two at-large positions. The executive powers currently enjoyed by city commissioners would have been handed to the mayor.

"This just pissed me off," former Mayor Bud Clark told the Mercury at the time. "I found out how much power it gives to the mayor and it really sickened me."

Then-Commissioner Charlie Hales also opposed the change. It went down in flames, garnering less than 24 percent of the vote.

The Mercury reached out to current city commissioners—and Mayor Hales—about Portland's increasingly rare governance. Those who got back to us—Amanda Fritz, Dan Saltzman, and Steve Novick—aren't against a change, they say. But they're not advocating one, either.

Novick, who raised more than $260,000 for a relatively uncompetitive race last year, sees where critics are coming from.

"Where everybody's at large, it's really hard to win a city council seat unless you can raise a large amount of money," Novick says. "That's a problem."

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