Hall Monitor is a regular column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves.
There are no fewer than five city bureaus in Portland that are responsible for trash cleanup in public spaces. Depending on the location, need, and availability, one of them might be able to address the growing dump site that’s popped up down the street from your house. If that fails, maybe you can just call the office of a city commissioner and ask for help.
Navigating Portland’s government can often feel like a version of “Who’s on First?”: One bureau that might seem like the obvious department responsible for an issue might point you to another to solve a problem, which may in turn shrug the responsibility off to another department. By the time the issue is resolved, a handful of city employees may still be chasing the initial request. In some cases, the duplicity allows bureaus to throw their hands up and absolve responsibility, like the case of Portland Parks and Recreation during the city’s recent deadly heatwave, where a lack of preparedness meant the bureau was unable to open cooling centers for the public.
Doing away with these confusing (and dangerous) overlaps is one of the many priorities facing Portland’s Charter Review Commission, a board of 20 volunteers tasked with reviewing the city’s charter—a document that serves as the city’s constitution—and proposing needed updates. The group, which has just begun its two-year review process, might consider replacing the city’s current system of government with one that includes a city manager, a non-elected administrator to oversee city operations, or maybe condensing certain responsibilities under the same mega-department.
This is just one of many bureaucratic issues up for debate during the charter review process. Commission members will also consider whether the person in charge of city elections should be an elected official, if city commissioners should represent geographic districts, or if the city needs a municipal bank.
The boundaries of this process, which takes place once a decade, has few limitations.
That’s because the answers to almost all of the “But why, tho?” questions you might have about how this city operates can be found within the 206 pages of the Portland Charter. The charter establishes the responsibilities and rules of City Council, creates a framework for city utilities, sets guidelines for annual tax collection, establishes employee benefits, and dictates how municipal elections should be operated. From the duties of the mayor’s office to the definition of the term “sewer,” the charter lays the groundwork for most city operations.
It’s up to the charter commission to decide if any of these operations need retooling—or removal—to allow the city government to better reflect the values of the populace it works for. The group will spend the next two years researching, brainstorming, and collecting public input on the charter’s effectiveness. If the commission deems the charter is due for a change, it’ll need the support of voters to make those changes.
Past charter commissions have used the review process as a glorified copy edit. The last time the city reconsidered the charter in 2012, commissioners proposed nine changes, most of which were characterized as “housekeeping” items. Some of the recommendations were meant to align city rules with state law. Others got rid of outdated and offensive sections, like one area that required the city to punish or restrain “vagrants and paupers,” or the other that allowed the city to “prohibit the exhibition of deformed or crippled persons.” Another suggestion axed a section prohibiting the distribution or sale of “obscene” material in the city. Portland voters approved all nine of the uncontroversial changes in a May 2012 election.
This year’s review process, however, is primed to be a little more disruptive. The past year has brought racial justice, biased policing, economic inequities, and voting rights to the forefront of our city’s conversations about democracy.
These conversations have called to question the city’s archaic commission form of government—one in which commissioners represent bureaus instead of geographic regions of the city, and are elected in citywide elections (instead of limiting votes to the region of the city they represent). As underscored in a 2019 Portland City Club report, this system consistently funnels those with the most wealth and political clout into elected office, and makes sure minority voices and people of color remain underrepresented in City Hall (I wrote about this being not ideal before). It also appoints city commissioners to serve as department heads, often turning managerial or budgetary decisions within major bureaus into political games.
Charter commissioners, who began meeting virtually in June, have already centered these issues in their preliminary meetings. In a June 28 meeting, members outlined their priorities, which included centralizing city services to reduce bureau overlaps, rethinking campaign finance policies, and reevaluating if commissioners should be in charge of some bureau budgets. The priorities also reflected the public’s larger priorities: Commissioners mentioned that police accountability and tools to address homelessness should be included in the updated charter, and could be influenced by a change in the form of government. These priorities open the door to cascading questions.
“If the governance structure changes, how will that affect the accountability of police?” asked Commissioner Karol Collymore at a recent meeting. Currently, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) reports to Mayor Ted Wheeler, who appointed himself the city’s police commissioner. Is that fair? Does it work? Does it pose a conflict of interest? If the charter chooses to restructure the government system so that commissioners and the mayor are no longer in charge of bureaus like PPB, who is responsible for police oversight? These questions aren’t only to be answered by the commission’s members.
As the charter review commission dusts off Portland’s founding document and reevaluates its purpose, it’s critical that the public it governs—especially those who’ve never felt truly represented by those in power—has a chance to influence the process. Fortunately, the commission is relying heavily on community input to shape their findings. Members of the public can sign up to comment at the charter commission’s next virtual hearing Thursday, July 22 here and can stay attuned to future events here.
“I have a prediction,” said Wheeler at a recent City Council meeting. “I believe the actions of this particular charter review commission will prove to be historic, and quite possibly be remembered after everybody forgets everybody sitting on this city council.”
Let’s make sure of it.