Portland voters will have the opportunity to seriously overhaul the city’s government structure this November. A majority vote by the city’s Charter Review Commission Tuesday evening advanced a package of three amendments to Portland’s current charter—a document that serves as the city’s constitution—to the November 8, 2022 ballot.
The amendments would greatly change the leadership structure of the City Council and the election process. As a refresher, here’s what each would do:
1. Require ranked choice voting for city elections. Currently, Portlanders can only vote for one candidate running in a city council race—and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote during a May primary election, the top two candidates advance to a run-off election in November. Under ranked choice voting, voters are able to rank council candidates for a particular office in order of preference. The elections office would determine a threshold of votes that must be met in order for the top candidate to win. If no candidates meet that threshold, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and voters who had ranked that candidate as their first choice would have their votes counted for their second choice. This process repeats until someone reaches the threshold. (Here's a helpful video that breaks this process down.) This would also do away with primary elections, which are usually held in May.
2.Expand City Council to 12 members who represent geographic districts. Portland City Council is currently made up of five members—including the mayor—who are all elected in citywide elections. This expansion would boot the mayor off city council, create four geographic districts across the city, and elect three commissioners to represent each district. The mayor and the city auditor would continue to be elected in citywide elections, but commissioners would be elected only by those who live in their district. An independent districting commission would be appointed to draw the initial districts to ensure they are equitably divided.
3. Limit City Council to setting policy, while the mayor and city administrator oversee bureaus. Portland commissioners currently serve as both bureau administrators and policymakers—a responsibility that can often lead to conflicts of interest and general mismanagement. This amendment would remove bureau leadership from commissioners’ portfolios, allowing them to focus solely on crafting legislation. The mayor, who would no longer vote as a member of City Council under this charter update, would be tasked with overseeing administration of the city bureaus with the assistance of a new city employee, a city administrator confirmed by City Council. The new city administrator would be responsible for supervising, hiring, and firing most bureau directors.
These amendments are the result of 18 months of research, analysis, and decision-making by the Charter Review Commission, a volunteer board of 20 Portlanders. The amendments were, in part, shaped by more than eight hours of testimony from members of the community during a May hearing—along with input from city leaders, political analysts, and community groups. All current members of City Council have expressed their support of the general restructuring of the city’s government.
“In my almost twenty years of being engaged in Portland public politics and community, I have never seen such a diverse group of people come together to do work on this level,” said commissioner Debra Porta. “The proposals, I think, reflect that, which I think is also the point.”
Portland is a sole outlier among cities with similar populations when it comes to its current “commission” form of government. Most US cities scrapped this form of government in the 1960s, when federal courts ruled that at-large voting led to systemic underrepresentation of racial minorities. During the Tuesday vote, several charter commissioners expressed emotion over their ability to contribute to a process of removing a layer of institutional racism from the city’s founding documents.
“I believe that we've been engaged in an exercise of creating space—space for a government that can practice another way of being,” said charter co-chair Gloria Cruz before casting their vote. “And space for those who are marginalized to have more opportunity to participate in our democracy.”
Commissioner Amira Streeter said it was clear that those who established the charter in 1913 were not thinking about community, let alone equity, when they penned its first draft.
“That system was built to hold power and create public works without a real understanding of what the city needs,” said Streeter.
The amendments required at least 15 votes in support Tuesday to advance to the November ballot. Seventeen commissioners cast votes in support.
The three who voted against the amendments expressed their concern that the policies wouldn’t garner enough support when placed on a citywide ballot.
“I really believe voters are looking for better government, not more government,” said commission member David Knowles. "Can more government be better government? Maybe. But I’m not convinced multi-member districts will accomplish that. I am worried there will be significant opposition [in November].”
Vadim Mozyrsky was one of those who voted against the amendments’ advancement. Mozyrsky ran for City Council in the May primary race for the seat currently held by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, where he lost a chance at a run-off against the incumbent Hardesty against candidate Rene Gonzalez.
Mozyrsky proposed sending two ballot measures to the November ballot: one that would change the form of government and another that would change how Portland voters elect city representatives.
Yet, the majority vote to send the amendments to the ballot as a package brought Tuesday’s meeting to a close with cheers and applause.
“I am so proud to have been a part of this process,” said commission co-chair Melanie Billings-Yun. “The people of Portland are demanding change. This is about one thing: Whether we are willing to give them a chance to vote on that change.”