A fiery work session Tuesday was just the latest example of rifts between Portland city commissioners and the mayor’s office over plans for Portland’s phased-in approach to government transition.

“I have some strong critiques of the way the mayor’s team rolled this out over the last two weeks,” Commissioner Gonzalez said of recent government transition moves afoot.

The charter transition work session was meant to brief Portland City Council on a new budget process, as well as costs and logistics associated with a forthcoming City Hall remodel, but complaints over a perceived lack of transparency and communication from the mayor’s office permeated the meeting.

The discord came as Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has been eager to start implementing elements of a sweeping charter reform measure approved by voters in 2022.

Along with an expanded, 12-person council and a throng of other changes, reforming the city's governing structure calls for hiring a city administrator to manage the city's day-to-day operations, rather than the current, disjointed system of elected commissioners managing city bureaus.  

Michael Jordan, the city’s chief administrative officer, has been tasked with developing a new organizational structure to help transition the city from its current form of government to the one that needs to be in place by January 1, 2025.

Last month, Jordan laid out plans for a citywide leadership team comprised of a city administrator, an assistant city administrator, and deputy city administrators, as well as an equity officer, to “enable better coordination and service to communities.”

Under a draft organizational chart, Portland’s roughly 20 city bureaus would be organized into a handful of service areas, in an effort to create more cohesion. 

Wheeler and his staff have signaled they want to test run the new management structure and start transferring bureau oversight to a city leadership team well in advance of the 2025 deadline. However, recent memos suggest city commissioners aren’t happy with the pace or execution of the proposed charter transition timeline.

In an email sent to Jordan last week, chiefs of staff for Portland City Commissioners Carmen Rubio, Dan Ryan, and Rene Gonzalez suggested the commissioners act as deputy city administrators on the city’s transition team, rather than hiring or appointing new people to help oversee day-to-day operations.

The three commissioners and their staffers say hiring six deputy administrators to help run the city, as was proposed in draft organizational charts, would likely cost more than $3 million. Instead, they suggest reducing the middle layer of government to just three deputies, and having the commissioners-in-charge decide who among them should fill the roles, starting in 2024.

“The driving issue behind all of this is concerns around cost – and being able to better predict those costs,” Jillian Schoene, chief of staff for Commissioner Rubio, said. Schoene said the commissioners would decide who among them should fill the deputy administrator roles in 2024, based on which service areas their bureaus fall under.

“It would all be in partnership. For example, if there are two commissioners with bureaus in one service area, they would agree on a deputy and figure out roles and responsibilities - in alignment with other service areas - to help create that glide path toward January 1, 2025,” Schoene said. “The job description and job delineation between the City Administrator and deputies and current bureau leaders have not been defined, so we see it evolving and taking shape during that last six months.”

The commissioners also suggested minor tweaks to the proposal for transforming the city’s bureaus into service areas, and urged Jordan’s office to “communicate with urgency” regarding government transition plans, moving forward.

Through the transition, Jordan will play a key role. Wheeler previously said he wants the city to bring on an interim city administrator, and has proposed having Jordan serve in that role.

Last month, shortly after announcing he won’t seek reelection, Wheeler said he’ll use his remaining time in office to focus his energy on homelessness, gun violence, livability, and economic revitalization, while ensuring a smooth government transition before 2025.

To that end, his office has scrambled to start shifting the city’s management structure, in hopes of having the new administrative system up and running by July 2024. The plans would essentially strip city commissioners of their current bureau oversight long before their terms end in late 2024. 

Proposed plans would also see the mayor retain oversight over the city attorney, chief of police, and chief of staff, while directly overseeing a new program dubbed Portland Solutions, which includes the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Safe Rest Villages, homeless services, temporary shelters, and other livability-related programs. 

In a letter to city commissioners last week, Wheeler confirmed he wants the council to stop managing city bureaus sooner rather than later.

“Many implementation decisions ask that Council embrace the evolution of its role over the next year, voluntarily ceding day-to-day management authority to the Mayor and an acting City Administrator,” Wheeler wrote to his colleagues. “I understand you have questions and concerns about the path forward, as do I. We are operating within the old model while designing and implementing aspects of the new model – models that are diametrically opposed.”

At one point, Wheeler’s office suggested a test run of the new governing system as soon as November, sending shockwaves through the council. A firm timeline hasn’t been narrowed down yet, but staff in Wheeler’s office say it won’t happen by November. 

Underlying tensions were highlighted in a recent social media post on X, formerly known as Twitter, in which Commissioner Gonzalez’s campaign account (not the one he uses as an elected official) criticized Wheeler’s assertion that voters essentially “fired” the City Council with the November 2022 charter reform vote.

“What was fired on that night was flaccid & ineffective governance,” the September 22 post reads. “Time to lead, not to cower.”


Tensions linger at work session

City leaders were testy Tuesday morning during the charter transition work session. 

Almost immediately, Commissioner Gonzalez asked the mayor, pointedly, why there were no meeting documents or “run-of-show” outlines provided to council ahead of time. 

Wheeler and his staff insisted commissioners had been briefed on several transition topics and plans during the weeks prior. 

City staff attempted to brief council on the cost options and logistics of shuffling offices during a planned City Hall remodel, only to be interrupted multiple times by Commissioners Gonzalez and Ryan, who were adamant that they change course and instead focus on finding spaces for offices in each of the four new council districts.

“We need to prioritize our constituents,” Commissioner Ryan told city staff, asking whether the city’s district coalitions and neighborhood associations had been consulted about potential suitable office spaces. Ryan said he wanted staff to “go back to the drawing board” regarding City Hall remodel options and priorities. 

Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who is running for mayor in 2024, sat nearby, scrolling on his phone through much of the staff presentation.

Staff said major decisions need to be made on a tight timeline, in order to ensure the remodel is completed before a new council takes office in 2025. The remodel, which is necessary to accommodate the future 12-person council, has already been included in the latest budget. The council chambers and nearby commissioners’ offices are overdue for technology, ADA, and security upgrades, staff told the council.

City staffers noted former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office “was shot at nine times” during the course of her term on the council, highlighting critical security concerns that need to be addressed at the city’s current building. 

Remodel plans would move all city commissioners except the mayor into the city-owned 1900 Building downtown, in order to have construction completed before a new council takes office in 2025.

Commissioners weren’t keen on the idea of shuffling offices next year, or the roughly $900,000 costs associated with doing so. Gonzalez insisted the city could find cheaper office space downtown, or hold off until the new council is seated.

City staff said pushing the remodel project out would cause construction costs to balloon, and leasing office space, as Gonzalez suggested, would still require expensive upgrades to ensure adequate security, technology, and accessibility. 

“This is not something the mayor’s office is doing to you,” Wheeler said, addressing pushback. “This was the voters of our community deciding how they wanted to be governed.”

The City Council is expected to firm up more aspects of the charter transition plan in coming weeks.