Portland voters approved a package of city charter amendments Tuesday that would expand city council, hire a city administrator, and alter the city’s voting system, launching a two year process of significantly overhauling Portland’s governance structure. The new system laid out in Measure 26-228, which had collected 56 percent of the vote as of Wednesday afternoon, must be in place by the November general election in 2024.
“Portlanders made history by demanding a government that is effective, accountable and representative,” said Debra Porta, co-chair of the Charter Commission—the volunteer group that initially recommended voters consider these sweeping changes—during a press conference Wednesday. “Now, a new chapter begins for the City of Portland.”
By approving Measure 26-228, voters approved three changes: expanding city council to 12 members with three people each representing a quadrant of the city, hiring a city administrator to oversee day-to-day oversight of city bureaus alongside the mayor, and adopting ranked-choice voting for city elections. The mayor and auditor offices will continue to be elected by a citywide vote.
In a press conference Wednesday, city staff responsible for spearheading Portland’s transition to a new form of government laid out the significant amount of work that must happen in the next two years in order to bring the voters’ will to fruition.
The city must first develop three new advisory bodies: an Independent District Commission to start drawing the four geographic district maps, a Salary Commission to set salaries for elected officials, and a Charter Transition Advisory Commission to advise staff and city council on the entire process. The district and charter transition commissions will be made up of community volunteers chosen by city council from a pool of applicants. Applications for the Independent District Commission are open now and close December 1. Applications for the Charter Transition Committee will be posted to the city charter transition website soon. Mayor Ted Wheeler will be responsible for choosing members to sit on the salary-setting commission. That commission will be reconvened with new members every two years by the city administrator in order to reevaluate elected officials’ salaries.
Additionally, Wheeler announced Wednesday that in preparation for the charter changes, he will reassign city bureaus to the existing city commissioners in January 2023 by grouping similar functioning bureaus together to “knock down the dysfunctional bureau silos” that exist within city hall.
“[These] silos trap our great workers from being effective, and too often strangle our constituents in needless bureaucracy and red tape,” Wheeler said in a video announcement. “[Grouping similar bureaus] can immediately improve management and focus, and ease the full transition to a city manager and deputy city manager system over the course of two years.”
Per the new charter amendments approved Tuesday, Portland must adopt a ranked choice voting system by November 2024, when all 12 city council members will be elected to start serving in January 2025. (The plan scraps primary elections for city council, which traditionally take place in May.) In order to meet that deadline, Portland and Multnomah County—which also adopted ranked choice voting during Tuesday’s election—elections officials will collaborate to finalize voting system decisions and determine what voting software needs to be changed before the deadline.
The district drawing commission must finalize maps for the four geographic districts by September 1, 2023. The four districts must follow federal guidelines on district drawing, like being contiguous, compact, and of equal population. According to the new charter amendments, “No district may be drawn for the purpose of favoring any political party… or diluting the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group.”
Definitions for all of the 12 city councilors’ roles and expectations will be finalized by mid-2024, in time for all candidates to start campaigning. The city administrator will be hired before January 2025, but a specific deadline has not been set.
The city estimates that the cost of transitioning to this new government structure will range anywhere from $4 million to $6 million per year for three years, and maintaining it could cost anywhere from $1 million to $8.7 million. The city will have a clearer estimate of cost once it has identified the cost of the new ranked choice voting software it chooses, as well as an appropriate staff size for each city commissioner.
During the first election in 2024, half the city council candidates and the mayor will run for four-year terms while the other half of city council and the city auditor will run for two-year terms, to allow for alternating election cycles. In elections following the November 2024 election, all candidates will run for four-year terms. The two districts made up of the most historically underrepresented voters will elect their three city councilors during presidential election years when voter turnout is typically higher, while the other two districts will elect their city council members during midterm elections.
Due to the expansion of city council, City Hall may undergo renovations. As it stands, Portland’s council chambers can only accommodate five city commissioners. Additionally, each city council district will also have a district office that will be sited in their quadrant of the city.
And, of course, while all of these changes are being made, Portland’s government still needs to operate as normal. The city offices in charge of transitioning the city to the new government system have already started planning for the influx of work and anticipate asking city council for $4 million to $5 million from one-time city funds to increase staff.
“Making sure that the city’s business can get done and gets done well is our highest priority,” said Shoshanah Oppenhiem, the project manager for Portland’s charter transition. “One thing is certain: Change is coming.”