UPDATE: July 13, 5:00 pm

Portland City Council will hold a Charter Reform Amendments Referendum Work Session on Tuesday, July 18, from 9:30-11:30 am, to discuss the proposed ballot initiative altering aspects of the voter-approved charter reform measure. Proponents of the original charter reform measure are planning a rally at City Hall at 9:00 am on July 18 to demonstrate their opposition to the changes and tell Council not to interfere with charter reform implementation.

Original story: 

Portland Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan want to make significant changes to the charter reform measure voters easily passed last November, threatening to undermine years of work from community advocates and city of Portland staff. 

According to the Oregonian, Gonzalez and Ryan are exploring a ballot measure referral that would call for several major changes to the new government structure and ranked-choice election system detailed in the charter reform measure.

The Oregonian states that their proposal would reduce the planned 12-person City Council to eight members, two from each of the four geographic districts, and change the ranked-choice voting system to match the one Multnomah County will implement next year. The ranked-choice election system in the initial charter reform ballot measure requires each candidate to earn only 25 percent of the vote to win. Importantly, Gonzalez and Ryan's proposal would also give the mayor veto power instead of simply serving as a tie-breaking vote, as laid out in the current charter reform measure. 

If Gonzalez and Ryan go ahead with the ballot measure referral, it would need to be approved by a majority of City Council this month to qualify for the November 2023 ballot, where the issue would be handed back to Portland voters.

Portland City Commissioners Rene Gonzalez (left) and Dan Ryan


When word got out about Gonzalez and Ryan's supposed plan, proponents of the initial charter reform measure immediately expressed their frustration. 

Candace Avalos, who served on the city-appointed Charter Review Commission ahead of the November 2022 vote and worked to engage voters to support the ballot measure, told the Mercury in a statement this morning that people hashing out details of Portland's new system of government—set to be in place by January 2025—don't have time for "games." 

"The voters have already spoken about what they want and to do this would be so chaotic and disruptive to city government," Avalos said. "[Gonzalez and Ryan] didn't do the research and community engagement that the charter commission did, so they don't know what's best for Portlanders. [The charter reform measure] was crafted with major input from community members. The amendments Gonzalez and Ryan are floating haven't had the same process, and won't garner the same support."

The majority of current city commissioners, including Gonzalez and Ryan, but also Commissioner Mingus Mapps and Mayor Ted Wheeler, have expressed concern and skepticism about the current charter reform structure. Mapps even proposed putting a competing charter reform measure on the ballot, which similarly suggested giving the mayor veto power. But in announcing his 2024 Portland mayoral campaign, Mapps has recently appeared more willing to embrace the new government structure that voters approved.

Gonzalez and Ryan have also both gone on the record in the past to say they'd support the charter reform measure approved by voters: in an August KGW interview, Ryan said he'd be "all in" for the new government structure if voters approved it, and Gonzalez told OPB after he was elected in November that "we’ve got to implement charter reform as approved by the voters." But they seem to have changed their tune.

To charter reform skeptics on City Council, the new government structure and electoral system are overly confusing and complex. To charter reform proponents, however, Gonzalez and Ryan's proposal represents a "power grab." 

"Putting something last minute on a low-turnout November 2023 ballot to modify what 58 percent of voters said they wanted in a highly-discussed, big turnout ballot in November 2022 is exactly the sort of anti-democratic tomfoolery that we are working to eliminate," Avalos told the Mercury. "We spent hundreds of hours of research, discussing with experts around the globe, engaging a vast array of Portland's communities, to create a deliberative and inclusive process... Council should not alter the charter without similar engagement, period."

Avalos added that the changes proposed are "substantive" and would "completely create a different system and undermine the will of voters."

The city of Portland currently has multiple committees working on aspects of the government transition effort, and some of the processes are set to be finalized soon. Other groups, like the Our Portland political action committee led by Sarah Iannarone, have formed in response to the charter reform measure as well, hoping to train candidates to run for one of the 12 council seats set to be up for grabs in the next general election. If Gonzalez and Ryan's ballot measure is approved, all of their work could be derailed completely. 

Christine Llobregat, a city public information officer for the Portland transition team, didn't wade into whether a potential shakeup of the charter reform plan could create headaches for those tasked with implementing it, but in an email to the Mercury, she reiterated the terms of the measure that voters overwhelmingly approved last year. 

According to Ryan's office, there is "not an official proposal or amendment in play." 

"Currently we have an executive Commission form of Government. As we move to an executive and legislative form, I am interested in aligning with national best practices and believe it would be beneficial to add veto power to the Mayor's role and corresponding override authority for the new Council," Ryan wrote in a statement to the Mercury. "I am committed to extensive discussion and seeking input from my colleagues and community members before making any referrals to the ballot for voters to approve or oppose. We need to ensure all perspectives are considered and that the decision-making process is transparent and inclusive. I look forward to an upcoming work session."

But Ryan and Gonzalez will need to work fast if they decide they do want to put a measure on the November ballot. 

The Mercury did not hear back from Gonzalez's office by press time.