In 1977, when San Francisco changed to a voting system in which City Hall officials were elected not by a popular citywide election, but by districts, the results were staggering. Harvey Milk--a gay storeowner--was swept into office as the first representative for the Castro District, the city's notorious gay neighborhood. It was an election that political analysts say changed the way San Francisco does its political business, as the mixed demographic in City Hall finally began to better represent a cross-section of the city.

Now, more than two decades later, Portland may be on the verge of so-called districting and a similar shift in its political tectonics. With Portland's four commissioners elected by a citywide vote, many critics charge that City Hall does not give sufficient voice to minority groups in town and neutralizes the ideological differences between various communities in Portland.

"Look at the current City Council," says Taro O'Sullivan, a local activist and journalist who recently announced his candidacy for a commissioner seat in 2002. "Is that rank and file in Portland? I don't think so."

While O'Sullivan has no gripes with any current commissioners, he does believe that voting by districts--a system similar to that used to elect state and federal representatives--would better represent ethnic and minority interests.

Paring off the wealthier mostly white Southwest hills of Portland from the working class neighborhoods in North Portland would concentrate the voting power of each community's interests and, O'Sullivan believes, provide greater leverage to neighborhoods for specific political concerns.

"It would help give a community identity," points out O'Sullivan, "and ownership of that identity."

As O'Sullivan will have his hands full managing his city commissioner campaign, he hopes to hand off this part of his platform. Currently, in an effort to form a coalition, O'Sullivan is mediating between various activist organizations and community groups interested in districting. He hopes that within the next month, this coalition will file a voter initiative and begin to gather signatures for the 2002 ballot. Already one other voter initiative for districting--with slightly different demands--has been filed with City Hall by another group for 2002.

Over the past decade the concept for district voting has been raised several times at City Hall--the last time in 1999--but quietly has faded from debate. Opponents have pointed out that the ramifications to the structure of city government in Portland could be extraordinarily complex. Unlike any city the same size or larger, the political power in Portland is divided between the mayor, the city commissioners, and the bureaus they run. Instead of a pyramid structure, where power is concentrated at the top with the mayor, Portland spreads its management power throughout the five elected officials. For example, the mayor oversees the Bureau of Police, while Commissioner Jim Francesconi governs the Bureau of Fire and Bureau of Parks & Recreation. This system came about in 1913, after rampant negligence by the mayor forced City Hall to revamp their management structure and diffuse the mayor's power.

Commissioner Francesconi, who empathizes with the goal of diversifying City Hall, worries that districting may not be the correct means to that end. Yes, he says, representatives from neighborhoods will be able to carry forward interests such as needs for development in their home territory. "But," he points out, "I don't have to live there to be sensitive to those issues."

Moreover, with the current form of management where commissioners oversee a citywide bureau like the fire department, districting runs the risk of creating a system where commissioners favor their own neighborhoods over the interests of the city. It's a complaint often leveled at national representatives who prioritize bringing home the pork for their home state.

Francesconi also worries districting could backfire on the intentions of its proponents. "It would bring more power to the mayor," he says, implying that instead of diversifying City Hall, districting runs the risk of returning the bulk of management power to a single person.