Portland hasn’t felt like “The City That Works” for all of its residents for quite some time. Whether it's coming from business owners forced to call five different bureaus to report trash dumped on their property, or people waiting hours to speak with a police officer after someone’s broken into their house, the level of frustration with Portland’s services seems to be at an all-time high.
This upset could be directly addressed in November, according to proponents of a ballot measure that changes how Portland’s city government operates by amending its founding document, the city charter. The charter reform measure proposes many things, including a bid to lessen the power of elected officials by spreading their responsibilities among more people and removing their ability to use city bureaus as political pawns.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that some of Portland’s elected officials—and those in lobbyist organizations who rely on those officials to retain power—have mounted a well-financed campaign against the measure. However, those who spent the past 18 months volunteering their time to cobble together the charter reform proposal, aren’t willing to let city leadership undermine their work.
Portland’s charter review commission convenes every ten years to review what’s working—and what's not—in the charter. The process is meant to be completely independent from the influence of city government—aside from the fact that the 20-person commission is appointed by members of city council—and wholly informed by the desires of Portland residents.
For nearly two years, the commission has worked to collect input on what could be improved in the city charter from thousands of Portlanders through nearly 30 listening sessions, more than one hundred public presentations, and more than 4,000 public surveys. For commissioners, the public’s response was a resounding call for something new.
“People did not feel represented, they did not feel like anyone was looking out for their needs,” said Melanie Billings-Yun, an international negotiations consultant who served as a charter commission co-chair. “They didn’t know who to call in the city to address their problems. Our concerns really were at the high level of unhappiness among Portlanders.”
This anecdotal information is backed by numbers: a January 2022 poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance found that 81 percent of Portland voters consider Portland City Council to be “ineffective in providing public services.” The majority of those dissatisfied voters said that changing the council’s form of government, to better represent voters, was key to resolving this problem.
The charter commission has proposed to resolve this growing civic ailment by expanding the size of City Council from five to 12 and assigning three city commissioners to each represent one of four regional districts—a model called “multimember districts.” Under Portland’s current commission form of government, all five commissioners (including the mayor) are appointed through citywide elections and expected to represent the entire city, while also heading specific city bureaus. The charter commission also proposes moving bureau leadership to a city administrator, to prevent the kind of bureau tug-of-war among city commissioners, removing the mayor as a voting member of council (unless a vote is needed to break a tie), and introducing ranked-choice voting for city elections.
The charter commission submitted their proposal to the City Council in late June, and city attorneys submitted it as an official ballot measure in July. It didn’t take long for it to meet opposition.
In late August, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps announced a plan to create an alternative to the charter commission’s ballot proposal that would appear on the May 2023 ballot. This came as a surprise, largely because Mapps had created a political action committee called the Ulysses PAC in 2020 specifically meant to support the charter reform ballot measure. That was before the charter commission released their proposal.
Mapps told the Mercury that he was particularly disappointed that the charter commission didn’t adopt any recommendations that he made to the group earlier this year. He didn’t feel heard.
“I met with them and raised my concerns, and it seems they didn’t resonate deeply enough for them to be included in the final proposal,” said Mapps. “I'm not at all disappointed in the process, I'm just disappointed with the outcome.”
Mapps’ alternative plan is vague—he won’t be sharing it publicly until early October—but Mapps has said it will propose a council made up of only 7 or 8 commissioners each assigned to their own district, and do away with other pieces he personally disagrees with, like ranked-choice voting and multimember districts.
“I have two instincts,” Mapps told the Mercury. “One, is to increase the size of council, which is a broadly shared value here in Portland. The other thing I've heard over the last three years, is that people really want neighborhood-based representation.”
He said that this move to challenge the charter commission’s proposal shouldn’t be seen as him undermining city procedure.
“I don’t think that debate is a bad thing at all, I think it’s a constructive thing,” he said. “That’s what democracy is about.”
Mapps, who has a political science degree, said the Ulysses PAC will hold focus groups to finalize an alternative proposal. This news came as an affront to those who were appointed by city commissioners to use community feedback to improve the current charter.
“You appointed us to speak with the community—we had over 100 community presentations—and then you turn around and say ‘I have a focus group’,” said Billings-Yun, who spoke to the Mercury as a private citizen, not as a representative of the charter commission. “Does he think all those Portlanders are wrong? Just because they don’t agree with him exactly?”
Mapps is joined by Commissioner Dan Ryan and Mayor Ted Wheeler in openly casting doubt on the charter commission’s ballot measure. All three men have noted their interest in giving the mayor more power over council. Under the charter commission’s proposal, the mayor is only allowed a vote on city council when the 12-person council needs to break up a tie. Wheeler believes that the mayor should be granted veto power on all council votes.
Yet history shows that this kind of unilateral power from the mayor is not what voters want. The past two times Portland voters were given the opportunity to change their form of government, in 2002 and 2007, they declined. Both proposals suggested replacing the current form of government with a “strong mayor” system, which would give the mayor veto power over council decisions.
“While it was always very clear Portlanders didn’t want a strong mayor form, they also didn’t want gridlock,” explained Billings-Yun. “The tiebreaker option was added to prevent gridlock. We wanted to get away from this idea of a city where everyone is divided and can’t come to an agreement unless the mayor vetoes.”
City Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Carmen Rubio have not said whether or not they support the charter reform measure. On Wednesday, however, Hardesty issued a statement condemning her colleagues' opposition.
"What’s being proposed are big changes, and all Portlanders are entitled to their opinions on the measure. I personally am still evaluating the proposal myself and look forward to the upcoming public discussion that will occur leading into the election," said Hardesty. "However, I am troubled by recent attempts by elected leaders that go beyond simply expressing opinions. Instead, we are witnessing the undermining of 2 years of exhaustive volunteer work by a diverse committee that was unanimously appointed by all of Council."
Those in favor of the charter reform measure represent communities that have largely been underrepresented in City Hall. On September 1, a group of state and regional elected officials who represent areas of Portland that lie east of 82nd Avenue announced their support of the charter changes, as the new districts would mandate East Portland representation in council chambers.
“It’s about more than just district representation—this charter reform measure will fundamentally connect East Portlanders to city services and bureaus for more efficient and coordinated approaches to improving the communities’ quality of life,” said Ashton Simpson, councilor-elect for Metro District 1, in a statement. “This measure presents an incredible opportunity to make Portland the city that works for everyone.”
The measure has also garnered the support of the city’s NAACP chapter, the ACLU of Oregon, the Portland Association of Teachers, Portland Tenants United, and a wide slate of culturally specific organizations.
Mapps said he won’t be actively campaigning against the November ballot measure. He’s leaving that up to another political action committee dubbed Partnership for Common Sense Government (PCSG), led by failed Portland City Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky and two former City Hall staffers, Steven Moskowitz and Chuck Duffy.
That alliance goes further than Mapps in deeming the entire charter commission process a “failure.”
“I think this group was coalescing around certain ideas—like multimember districts, and they drank the Kool-Aid,” said Bob Weinstein, a PCSG spokesperson. “Regardless of public input, their decision was made. It became an instrument to get to a specific end.”
But Mapps’ fingerprints are still on the opposition campaign. Ulysses PAC’s campaign consultants helped bring a lawsuit against the current charter measure in court, which argued that the ballot measure was poorly worded. That challenge, along with another lawsuit against the measure filed by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), was dismissed by a Multnomah County judge on August 15.
The PBA is one of several local lobbyist groups that has learned how to navigate the current form of city government to their advantage, and proponents of the measure argue that the group’s opposition stems from PBA’s fear of no longer holding that same level of influence under a new system. The PBA has yet to announce whether they will join the campaign opposing the charter measure this November.
But city commissioners have been hearing heightened panic from their big-business donors regarding the charter measure, according to several City Hall staffers. Much of the funding coming in for Mapps’ Ulysses PAC and the PCSG PAC have come from Portland-area CEOs, primarily in real estate and financial management work.
Mapps said his interest this fall is educating the public on what the charter does—and how it can help the city’s government work best. A big fear, Mapps said, is that “Portlanders will show up in November and say, ‘I’m mad as hell at the city and I don’t care about the details I just want change.’”
“I don’t want their fear, out of frustration and exhaustion, to drive them to embrace a highly experimental package of government reforms,” Mapps said.
All amendments included in the proposed charter measure have operated in other cities and states—just not all at the same time. That’s led Mapps, Ryan, and others to characterize the proposal as “experimental.”
At least four states have legislative bodies with multi-member districts. More than 20 US cities rely on ranked-choice voting in their local elections—the state of Alaska just used it to elect a new US Representative. And the structure of city government called “council-manager,” which the ballot measure proposes Portland enact, is the most popular form of government among US cities.
Research has shown that blending these concepts can be beneficial. A 2021 study out of Cornell University illustrated how ranked-choice voting, combined with multi-member districts, specifically leads to fair jurisdictional representation of voters.
Those who stoked distrust in these systems are largely from conservative camps eager to point blame on a “rigged” election system. After Republican Sarah Palin lost the US House race in an Alaska special election on August 31, she didn’t hesitate to blame her loss on the state’s newly-adopted ranked-choice voting system, calling it a “crazy, convoluted, confusing” system.
Mapps has also suggested that the ballot measure—and the ideas it proposes—is too confusing for Portlanders to understand.
“The nature of the proposal is inherently muddied and compromised,” he said.
More than anything, this analysis may be the hardest for Billings-Yun and her peers on the charter commission to digest.
“They’re saying, ‘We oppose it because it's too complicated for Portlanders to understand,’” she said. “Excuse me, but Portlanders are not idiots. If our leaders think that, then we really do need a change in our city’s government.”