Portland’s elected leaders are pushing back on a key element of the city’s charter transition.

After a lengthy City Council meeting Wednesday, November 1, commissioners voted to approve a new reporting structure for city bureaus and offices, but not before rewriting language to ensure current commissioners will continue overseeing city bureaus through the end of 2024. 

Come January 1, 2025, Portland will be managed by a city administrator and an interim city administrator, along with an elected mayor. Twelve elected city councilors will oversee four new geographic districts

A proposed organizational chart crafted by the city’s current chief administrative officer (CAO), Mike Jordan, recommends the city administrator oversee a team of six deputy city administrators to manage the city’s bureaus, which are currently managed by city councilors. The chart also recommends lumping bureaus together into six larger service areas. 

To ensure a smooth transition to the new structure, a transition team has been fast at work, crafting a proposed command and management framework, planning for a major City Hall remodel, and figuring out logistics of how to move management of the city away from elected commissioners and toward a professional leadership team. 

Members of the transition team, who came up with the organizational structure based on public feedback and discussion with current city employees, said the deputy city administrators would play a key role in carrying out the city’s day-to-day management. 

The deputy city administrators will oversee six new service areas: Budget and finance, community and economic development, city operations, public safety, public works, and vibrant communities. The service areas consist of complimentary bureaus. For example, the vibrant communities service area will be made up of the current arts and parks bureaus, and include Portland Children’s Levy oversight. Vibrant communities will also oversee citywide natural areas and tree management. The public works service area will consist of the environmental services, transportation, and water bureaus. 

It’s a big endeavor to reorganize a city government’s entire structure. To that end, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has pushed for the city to start transitioning to the new management structure well before the January 1, 2025 deadline. Wheeler has advocated hiring an interim city administrator and getting deputy city administrators in place no later than July 2024, with Jordan, the city’s CAO, overseeing the transition process. 

But an amendment proposed by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez and approved by the council Wednesday could postpone that management transition and weaken the proposed executive authority of the CAO.  Gonzalez’s amendment stipulates that commissioners will continue managing city operations through the end of 2024, while a transition team works to carry out other elements of the charter transition.

“Portlanders expect the existing city council to continue to administer the city effectively until the new form of government becomes effective on January 1, 2025,” Gonzalez’s amendment states, noting a “multitude of challenges facing the city, including public safety, drugs, shelter, and housing,” that require continued oversight from current elected commissioners.  

The amendment was among a slew of changes–some minuscule, and some massive– put forth for consideration by commissioners and voted on by the council Wednesday, November 1. 

Gonzalez’s amendment was approved by all but Wheeler, who called the amendment “inconsistent with the transition goals.”

“My concern here is this just cements what we’re already doing,” Wheeler said. “There's no point continuing the transition if you have commissioners in charge of vertical sleeves and an interim city manager has no authority.”

Wheeler was pointed in his criticism, saying the change amounts to “scrapping the transition process.”

Gonzalez pushed back.

“There’s still a clear, important role for the CAO,” he insisted.

Shah Smith, Gonzalez’s chief of staff, later clarified that commissioners could hire temporary deputy city administrators at any point. It’s unclear if any of them will do that.

He noted the proposed change was embraced by the majority of City Council, and isn’t intended to interrupt or slow down the government transition. 

“Oversight of the transition process by elected officials within each service area is expected to be more effective, accelerated by existing working relationships and critical operational knowledge within and across bureaus they already oversee,” Smith told the Mercury. “It will also come at no additional cost, as they will draw from existing resources and the many talented professionals already working closely with them.”

In a joint memo to the city’s finance and administration offices last month, Gonzalez, along with Commissioners Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio, pitched the idea of commissioners serving as deputy city administrators, rather than hiring new staff, as a way to save money on costs associated with voter-approved charter transition.

Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez (left) visits a fire station in Southeast Portland in his capacity as commissioner of public safety. Under Portland's current form of government, commissioners oversee city bureaus, like Portland Fire & Rescue. Courtney vaughn

Current estimates peg the annual cost for the new government structure at nearly $24 million– about $13 million more than the existing $10.9 million budgeted for the mayor’s office and council. 

Other, less consequential amendments were also approved by City Council on November 1. The changes included plans to hire a sustainability officer and consolidate permitting and development services into a single entity. 

Despite considerable support for a proposal by Commissioner Mingus Mapps to add a natural resources department to the city’s Public Works bureau, the council opted not to approve that amendment, but instead approved a similar amendment by Commissioner Ryan to add a new bureau dedicated to citywide tree management and natural areas.

The new organizational structure was approved, but not without pushback from the public.

One Portlander noted a disability coordinator position added to the city in 2021 appears to be going away under the reorganization. This position currently resides in the Office of Community and Civic Life. 

“Under the current proposed city organizational chart, disabled folks are not being adequately represented,” Portland resident Peyton Priestman wrote in submitted testimony. 

Another Portlander who addressed the council, Marianne Fitzgerald, said the organizational chart is too top-heavy and adds unnecessary layers of government.

“Like a process flow chart, decision-making and chain of command should be straightforward. Instead, the Mayor, City Council and City Administrator offices have new layers of administration and new staff positions that will likely lead to confusion and reduced accountability to the people who live, work, play and pay taxes in Portland,” Fitzgerald said. “The organizational chart graphic itself includes a wall between ‘Portlanders’ and the bureaucrats. We really need more, not less, meaningful civic engagement in decisions affecting the people of Portland. And a more cost-effective way to deliver services that balances the new charter with realistic revenue forecasts and needs.”

Aside from a new management structure and an expanded City Council, the fundamental role of elected leaders will change to one that is purely legislative.

Portland is the only major city in the United States still operating under a commission form of government, in which elected commissioners are responsible for both leading city departments and acting as the city's legislators. Each city commissioner’s roster is determined by the mayor, and assignments change whenever the makeup of City Council changes, often every two years. 

The commission system has created silos between city bureaus and offices. Since each member of City Council is only responsible for their own portfolio, there’s no major incentive for commissioners to work together across bureaus. The resulting dysfunction has been evident in cases such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) ongoing budget crisis. Under the new system, Portland’s elected leaders will be able to take a more interdisciplinary approach to governance. 

In addition to the deputy city administrators, the organizational chart reforms will create other new positions in city government, including new roles for officers of equity, sustainability, central communications, and community and civic life engagement. Other new positions include a council operations manager and a Portland Solutions manager, who will oversee programs addressing homelessness, including the Joint Office of Homeless Services Intergovernmental Agreement, temporary shelters, Safe Rest Villages, and more. 

Christine Llobregat, public information officer for the charter transition team, told the Mercury the organizational reforms “will shift the roles and responsibilities of the city council to work together as a legislative body with a focus on creating policies to achieve desired community outcomes.”

Llobregat says the new system is designed to foster better engagement between the public and elected leaders, and ensure Portlanders have more access to their elected leaders.