Portland is one big step closer to voting on sweeping changes to the city’s form of government and elections.
The Portland Charter Commission unanimously approved a major package of reforms to the city’s charter on Thursday night, in a preliminary vote that triggers the city attorney’s office to begin drafting a potential ballot amendment to go before voters in November.
“I’m very proud of us,” commissioner and former city council candidate Candace Avalos said. “I’m grateful to the community for the way they’ve engaged with us, and I think we have a solid plan.”
The changes the volunteer commission settled on are wide-ranging. Under their proposal, the city would move away from its current commission form of government—in which the mayor and four commissioners are elected in citywide elections and run city bureaus—and adopt a new system in which a city manager would be responsible for running bureaus, leaving the city council free to set policy for the city.
That city council would be considerably bigger—expanding from five city commissioners to 12 city council members, with three each representing four distinct geographic districts. Those members would be elected by ranked-choice voting, in which voters would rank candidates in order of preference instead of choosing just one. The proposal would do away with May primaries. Instead, voters would elect their representatives in a single November election, when voter turnout is typically much higher.
This set of potential changes, particularly to the city’s system of government, is a long time coming.
Portland is the only major city in the United States that still uses a commission form of government, a style of government that originated in Texas in 1901 and began falling out of favor nationally after World War II.
Historically, Portland voters have been reluctant to part with this particular anachronism. City voters have seven times voted against changing the form of government—most recently in 2007, when a proposal to ditch the system was overwhelmingly defeated.
Fifteen years later, however, there is ample evidence that the city is eager for change. In addition to the full charter commission, all of the city’s current commissioners, the mayor, and organizations from the City Club of Portland to the League of Women Voters support moving to a new system.
Two recent polls suggest that Portland voters want change too. Eighty percent of respondents in a mid-March poll said that the current commission form of government is not serving the city well, while a late March poll found that more than 60 percent of voters supported a change in government system.
The polls also found that majorities of voters support election reforms, including ranked-choice voting and geographic representation. In the late March poll, 57 percent of voters said that they supported passing election reform with changes to the system of government, while just 31 percent said the city should focus exclusively on changing the system.
The proposed changes are designed to increase the effectiveness of city government, with professionals in charge of city services and council members allowed to focus exclusively on legislating.
But the proposed adoption of geographic representation and multi-member districts is aimed to both increase the responsiveness of council members and reduce barriers to participation in city government for lower-income, BIPOC, and eastside Portlanders who have historically struggled to access it.
“From the beginning, some of our priorities have been looking for a package of reforms that uplifts the priorities of Portland's most disenfranchised communities, Sol Mora, civic engagement manager for the Coalition of Communities of Color, told the Mercury. “So seeing that the commission not only supported changing the form of government, which is crucial, but also supported the election system [reforms]... this is a comprehensive package.”
At Thursday night’s three-plus hour meeting, commissioners—who were appointed by city council and began their work last year—were in full agreement about the fundamental changes they are proposing.
The only disagreements were about the details, such as how many geographic districts the city should adopt, whether the expanded council should have 12 or more members, and who should have the power to fire the city manager.
“My heart wants more,” Commissioner Robin Ye said. “I would love more districts and more representatives, period, but I am admitting right now for the public that the constraint was council size for me… 12 was a number that, as we surfaced it, much of the concern about increasing [council size] too much died down.”
Ultimately, every member of the council agreed on just four multi-member districts—a plan that Mora said is tailored to Portland’s specific geographies.
“In Portland, gentrification has caused so much harm and destruction that you cannot actually draw a single district in which communities of color are the majority,” Mora said. “So if we were to have smaller districts with one elected leader per district, voters of color would not... be able to elect the candidate of their choice.”
The charter amendment language is slated to be released to the public in early May, after which the commission will solicit public comment at a series of meetings in the following weeks. They will then vote on a final set of recommendations on June 29.
If 15 or more members of the commission approve potential changes, they will be advanced directly to the November ballot. If a majority of less than fifteen approve charter amendments, it will be up to city council to put them to voters or not.
Mora said that she expects debate about the details of the proposed amendments to continue in the coming weeks and months. But the contours of the plan, which would fundamentally change how the city is run, seem set.
“I think with how many Portlanders have weighed in so far [and] the community engagement that the coalition has supported, this is a package that tracks with what the community has been calling for,” Mora said.