It’s been nearly five months since Portland voters approved a slate of substantial changes to the city’s form of government. Since then, agencies have been working behind the scenes to shore up operational gaps in time for the November 2024 charter reform rollout.
While the slew of changes was transformative, the steps to eventually get there have been incremental. With such a long list of critical tasks to complete by next fall, it begs the question: Can they get it all accomplished in time?
To quickly recap, Portland’s incoming government system calls for an expanded, 12-person city council that will span four new geographic districts, each represented by three commissioners. The mayor will no longer be a voting member of council, unless a tie-breaker vote is needed.
The first election will see the mayor and half the council elected to four-year terms, with the auditor and rest of the council elected to two-year terms.
That means Portland's current mayor, Ted Wheeler, will be the last to serve the city under the current model of government.
Wheeler was an advocate of changing Portland's charter last year, but when the ballot measure surfaced, he was less enthused about a system that would ostensibly weaken the mayor's power on council.
Still, Wheeler said the new system presents opportunities to fix parts of the city's current system that aren't working.
"It's no secret that Portland's form of government was outdated," Wheeler told the Mercury. "The Charter changes we are working to implement present a lot of opportunity to the City and the community it serves. An experienced City Administrator working alongside the Mayor will bring invaluable management expertise to the bureaus. The bureaus and the services they deliver will benefit from less silos and greater resource and program coordination. As for Council, the elected officials will have the time they need to dig in on policy issues, provide thoughtful direction to the City, and help solve problems on the ground in their districts.”
Measure 26-228 also ushered in ranked-choice voting–a system that allows voters to choose not just one candidate, but their top, second, and third-choice candidates, if applicable. The lowest ranked candidate is eliminated from a race, with votes for that candidate being redirected to voters’ next choice. Votes are then tallied in rounds until there is a winner.
During the November 2022 election, Multnomah County voters also approved a separate measure to adopt ranked choice voting in county races, a measure that won't take effect until 2026. The measures require substantial changes to voting infrastructure.
Elections office preps for new voting mechanism
Moving to ranked choice voting means the Multnomah County Elections Department needs to buy upgraded voting software. While the elections office contracts with Clear Ballot, the company currently doesn’t offer that option.
However, county elections director Tim Scott said steps are being taken to expand the ballot counting software.
“We’ve been in contact with [Clear Ballot] since before the election,” Scott said. “They’re at the stage in their development where they’re ready to finalize their software and get it into the federal certification process.”
Scott expects Clear Ballot to have the necessary certifications in place by the 2024 election. However it's unclear how much this expansion of the county's voting software is going to cost taxpayers, and Scott declined to offer a ballpark figure. A records request submitted by the Mercury for financial estimates is still pending.
Previously, the city estimated the overall cost of the government transition would be between $4 million to $6 million per year for the first three years, with an additional $1 million to $8.7 million needed to maintain it.
Portland voters could also be getting two ballots in the 2024 election, rather than one, to fit additional text and options under the ranked choice platform.
As for what a more complex system will mean for election night results? Scott said there are still unknowns.
“Voters can expect to get some preliminary information, but we won't be able to do the final tabulation of ballots, the round-by-round elimination, until we have all ballots in hand,” Scott noted. “I don’t want to over-promise, but I want people to understand that they will have preliminary data like they do now.”
"Three buckets" of work
Changing Portland’s charter triggered the creation of three commissions: an Independent District Commission, tasked with formulating maps for the city’s new voting districts; a Salary Commission to decide how much future city commissioners, the mayor, and city auditor should be paid; and a Government Transition Advisory Committee which is tasked with making sure changes get implemented effectively.
In a March 8 quarterly progress report, Portland’s chief administrative officer, Michael Jordan, said a team has been assembled to help carry out the administrative work.
“The City has assigned staff and hired new team members to manage the transition, develop necessary policies, prepare for a city administrator reporting structure, and manage the Salary and District Commissions as well as the Government Transition Advisory Committee,” the report states.
So far, volunteer members of the public have been appointed to each of the three groups, with meetings taking place virtually. Though their work just started, they’ll need to complete it at lightning speed.
The district commission will deliberate and vote on a plan that follows federal Voting Rights Act guidelines this May, with nearly half a dozen meetings scheduled before then. From there, the commission needs to have its voting district plan with geographic boundaries decided by September 1. If at least nine of the 13 commissioners approve the plan, it will be automatically adopted. If not, it will go to the City Council for review and approval. The districts will get re-evaluated and if necessary, re-shuffled, every 10 years.
Many heralded the passage of Measure 26-228 as the reform of an outdated system that for decades yielded unequal representation and outcomes for Portlanders. And as such, the District Commission is attempting to create a map that will strike a balance between population and common interests. Commissioners said much of what shapes the new district boundaries will be determined by public input.
“I think the bulk of the work is about engaging with community,” Neisha Saxena, chair of the commission, said. “The charter amendment work came out of a community-focused process that really was, in a lot of ways, led by folks who have been historically not as included in city government, or not felt as represented.”
Included in the criteria for district boundaries is a consideration for keeping “communities of common interest” together—though what that means is still being sorted out.
“Communities of common interest [are typically defined by] a shared public policy, pursuit, or interest,” Sharon VanSickle-Robbins, the commission’s co-chair, said. “Our intent is to try not to dilute the ability of those communities to pursue those public policy concerns. But it can be very broadly defined. …I'm interested in hearing how people look at their own communities, and define their own communities.”
What has yet to be hammered out is when Portland leaders will initiate the search for a new city manager. Among the changes called out in Measure 26-228 was a switch from Portland’s current mayoral system to one that utilizes a city administrator to oversee day-to-day operations and run the city’s bureaus, alongside the mayor.
City employees working on the transition project say a recruitment timeline and parameters have yet to be determined.
City Hall is too small... literally
Another constraint is limited space within the current council chambers at Portland City Hall.
City employees working on the transition say a facilities team is devising a plan for a council chamber that will be big enough to accommodate the new, expanded council, as well as workspaces for each of the elected commissioners, and the city administrator when they are eventually hired.
Currently, all five commissioners maintain offices within City Hall. When charter reform changes go into effect, commissioners will also need to maintain an office somewhere within their district.
Locations of those offices have yet to be determined, as the boundaries for the new districts are still being decided.
In short, there's a lot to accomplish to enact the massive government overhaul, and the deadline for completion—November 2024—is tight.
However, the mayor and transition team members insist the process is happening on schedule and can be accomplished, despite the ambitious timeline.
"Portlanders enthusiastically voted to change Portland’s form of government back in November and they expect the City to implement the changes by 2025," Wheeler told the Mercury. "We’re doing everything we can to ensure this happens while also continuing to focus on top priorities like public safety, homelessness, livability issues and the economy. We have put together a strong, dedicated team with the resources they need to ensure we meet the tight timelines to elect a mayor, seat a 12-member City Council and attract, recruit, and hire a qualified City Administrator. They are focused on meeting the major milestones and have clear timelines in place."
Addressing questions about hypothetical snags in the timeline, like the potential for disagreements over district boundaries, Christine Llobregat, a spokesperson for the city's government transition team, said the charter spells out processes for decision making, leaving little wiggle room.
"According to the new voter-approved city charter, if the Independent District Commission has not adopted a plan after taking two votes, the most recent version of the plan voted on by the commission passes to the City Council for its consideration and adoption," Llobregat said. "The plan is effective when the commission or the City Council files it with the city elections officer."
Llobregat said she's "impressed by the progress made since the election."
"Each element of the transition is being managed to drive to key milestones in the project timeline," she added.
- July 2023: Eight public hearings for new district maps held; two in each proposed district
- August 2023: Council and auditor salaries get adopted
- September 2023: Maps finalized by district commission
- November 2024: Portland voters choose new councilors using ranked-choice voting
- January 2025: New elected city leaders take office