Portland’s government structure will look a lot different come January, when 12 city commissioners representing four geographic districts will take their seats in City Hall, which will be renovated to accommodate them. Portland’s charter reform will also herald in a new system of voting, a reformed organizational chart for governmental departments, and a new role for a city administrator, among other major changes. 

The city’s transition team and members of the Government Transition Advisory Committee (GTAC) are now honing in on the details of day-to-day council operations, and are working on a set of recommendations about how the future council will work. The recommendations will offer a framework for the new council’s policy development, committee formation, and opportunities for community engagement. 

In other words: How will the new city council get things done, and how will the public be involved? 

During a series of community meetings held in the last few weeks, the city’s transition team asked for public input on how they hope to engage with the future council. Charter reform proponents have long emphasized the importance of community input and engagement, saying the new council system will allow more access to elected leaders and opportunities for the public to get involved with local government. 

Advocates hope the new, 12-person council will be an inherent mobilizing force for people who have traditionally been left out of local politics. Thanks to the geographic districting system, Portlanders across the city are guaranteed community representation on the new council. This is most notable for people who live east of 82nd Avenue and in the North Portland peninsula, neither of which have seen much council representation in the past. 

Portlanders will also have easier access to councilors and their staff via in-district offices for council members. According to the GTAC subcommittee, which studied other cities with similar government systems, most cities with district representation don’t have in-district offices. 

While they may encourage local involvement, it’s costly to run permanent district offices, and members of the subcommittee suggested there are other ways to encourage civic engagement, like pop-up office spaces and neighborhood town halls. However, the decision about permanent district offices will be up to the new council after robust community feedback

Another area of concern: Council committees. With a 12-person council, it may not be necessary to involve everyone in the full policy process for every agenda item. Instead, the council would split into committees, hosting public meetings with opportunities for community involvement. The GTAC subcommittee currently proposes seven committees, each with a chair and vice chair, containing either four or six council members. Every councilor would need to chair or vice chair a committee, and all councilors would serve on the same number of committees.

The proposed committees are as follows:

  1. Government Performance & Finance
  2. Public Health & Public Safety
  3. Transportation and Infrastructure 
  4. Community Development
  5. Sustainability & Climate 
  6. Housing & Homelessness
  7. Committee of the Whole

The GTAC subcommittee found that in comparable cities, committee meetings are the main avenue for community engagement, with engagement periods limited at full council meetings. Such a setup would make it easier for members of the public to weigh in on areas they’re most interested in. 

“For example, if you want to hear or speak to council about a climate issue, you can attend or track the committee meeting that has topics most relevant to climate rather than waiting through a full council meeting with a packed agenda,” Tate White, the city of Portland’s strategic projects manager, said at a March 21 community meeting. 

The GTAC is currently compiling public input, and will draft and disseminate initial recommendations in the coming months. The recommendations will be finalized by September. 

“Your insights on how our future City Council works together and with you are important for steering us towards what Portlanders have told us they want their city to be,” Portland’s Transition Communications Manager Daniel McCardle-Jaimes said at the March 21 meeting. “They've told us they want the city to be coordinated, accountable, accessible, responsive, and equitable.” 

The public can weigh in on the future council operations survey, open until April 4.