The proposed ballot measure that could change Portland’s government structure can move forward to the November ballot, a Multnomah County judge ruled Monday. The legal challenge was launched by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—an influential business lobbying group—which claimed that the ballot measure was unconstitutional because it made three changes at once.
The ballot measure was born out of the charter review process. Every ten years, a volunteer committee is convened to review Portland’s charter—the city’s version of the constitution—and propose possible changes to the voters. During the review process this year, the 20-person committee proposed that the city council expand to 12 members representing geographic areas of the city, add a city manager to oversee day-to-day operations, and introduce ranked-choice voting to city elections. Charter committee members assert that the changes will redistribute political power more equitably throughout the city.
“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 commission co-chair Gloria Cruz of the proposed amendments during a commission meeting. “And space for those who are marginalized to have more opportunity to participate in our democracy.”
The PBA sued the city’s elections office over the constitutionality of the ballot measure in July, claiming that because the measure would make three changes to city governance, it would violate a legal requirement for ballot measures to only address one subject.
During arguments last week, city attorneys stressed that the three changes made by the ballot measure were like a three-legged stool. The city also pointed to its current form of government, which was created by a single ballot measure and challenged all the way up to the Oregon Supreme Court.
“In 1913, the Supreme Court ruled that it was necessary to vote on the reforms as one package, because separate votes might destroy the efficacy of the reforms to city government,” said city attorney Maja Haium. “This is no different.”
On Monday afternoon, Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong ruled that the ballot measure meets the single-subject requirement because the three changes proposed are connected by one unifying issue.
“Here, defendants identify a single unifying principle connecting the provision of the measure referred by the Charter Commission: Changing the structure of Portland’s government,” Bushong stated in his ruling. “The court concludes that the measure complies with the single-subject requirement.”
Bushong’s ruling notes that while some voters may want to vote on the three changes separately, the Charter Commission’s choice to combine all of the changes into one measure is legal.
According to members of the charter committee, including the charter amendments in one ballot measure was a critical choice, because it isn’t possible to disentangle the voting process from the governance process.
“We presented [the intent of amendments] as one big package because that's how people live their life,” Charter commission member Robin Ye told the Mercury in July. “You don't separate these things out. How we elect our decision-makers impacts the decisions those people make for the city.”
In a statement shared on Facebook, the PBA expressed disappointment with the ruling.
“Our members and board will now have to weigh the unfortunate options to either oppose the measure and keep our present dysfunctional system, or to support the measure in favor of a completely improvised one that will likely lead to a different system of dysfunction,” the statement read. “We suspect we are not the only ones that feel this way.”
Bushong did agree with a separate legal challenge that the proposed description of the measure that would appear on the ballot was confusing. The new ballot title and language will read as follows:
Amends Charter: Changes Portland’s government structure and process for electing city officials
Should Administrator manage city government, 12-member Council (three from each district) make laws, voters elect officials using ranked choice process?