In less than six months, Portland will officially implement its new system of government that voters approved in a 2022 charter reform measure. With so many changes on the horizon, government leaders are taking steps to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible. This week, thanks to an executive order from Mayor Ted Wheeler, the city made one of its most significant changes yet to prepare for the incoming shakeup to city government. 

Portland has used a commission form of government—in which a mayor and four commissioners are responsible for the daily operations at two dozen city bureaus and offices—for more than 100 years. But come January, members of Portland City Council will play a different role. Instead of managing bureaus, the 12 city councilors—who will represent four geographic areas across the city—will “focus on developing laws and policies, engaging constituents, and increasing community representation in decision-making.” 

As of July 1, Portland’s current commissioners have taken a step back from their jobs overseeing bureaus and offices, taking on roles that align more clearly with what the future City Council will be tasked with. 

According to Wheeler, who announced the executive order last month, this six-month transition period is necessary to “ensure the success of the next mayor and city council” and will allow the city to “test and refine new processes to ensure a smooth and efficient implementation at the start of the new year.” 

Instead of the current elected commissioners overseeing city departments, their administrative jobs have been handed off to six deputy city administrators, each of which will oversee one of Portland’s new service areas. The six service areas—Budget and Finance, City Operations, Community and Economic Development, Public Safety, Vibrant Communities, and Public Works— encompass the city’s two dozen departments. For example, the Public Works service area includes the bureaus of environmental services, transportation, and water. 

Interim City Administrator Michael Jordan will oversee the work of the deputy city administrators, and Wheeler will serve as the executive administrative authority while overseeing this process over the next six months. 

The road to Wheeler’s executive order was occasionally rocky. The current city commissioners, who have been tightly connected to their bureaus since entering office, haven’t been too keen on releasing the reins. But government transition leaders say the next six months will make the new charter implementation smoother for city staff and Portland residents alike, allowing the future City Council to jump into their roles with ease. 

“This structural change is not just a change in reporting lines, it's a strategic realignment of our resources with the ultimate goal of better serving Portlanders,” Wheeler said at a June 27 press conference. “These changes are intended to streamline operations as well as enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of our city government to the needs of our community.” 

A test-run for the future government

In June, Wheeler announced he would use his mayoral authority to take control of all of Portland’s bureaus and offices, reassigning them to deputy city administrators. Over the past few months, Portland commissioners were tasked with hiring six deputy city administrators to oversee the service areas and bureaus previously run by the commissioners.

All four Portland commissioners—who are all running for mayor or a position on the new City Council—explicitly sought out the ability to hire and oversee the new deputy city administrators, in an effort to maintain some control over the bureaus they’ve long been in charge of. At a City Council meeting last November, commissioners voted 4-1 to approve an amendment put forward by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez allowing them to retain control over city bureaus through the end of 2024. The council ultimately approved a plan that would allow  the four city commissioners to hire and oversee deputy city administrators through the end of their terms. 

Wheeler, the sole dissenter, said the plan would set back the city’s transition. His executive order takes away the commissioners’ power to oversee the jobs of the deputy administrators, instead handing that responsibility to Jordan. 

Still, the commissioners didn’t balk too heavily at Wheeler’s order, acknowledging the move was expected. Wheeler has also made sure to clarify that the current Portland commissioners aren’t going away. They will continue to serve a legislative role, and will still be involved in policy with the bureaus they were previously in charge of. 

“In exchange for their willingness to give up some of the authority they currently have under the charter to be day-to-day administrators, I've committed to working with [my commissioners],” Wheeler said, adding he wants the city’s elected leaders to stay engaged in projects they previously led in the bureaus. “They retain all of their legislative authority. They may still introduce ordinances and resolutions and proclamations and so at the strategic legislative level, they will continue to be involved.” 

On paper, Portland commissioners have transitioned into a similar role that future city councilors will play. But there are some practical differences. The 12 future councilors, to be elected in November, will each represent a geographic district in the city. That means, unlike the current commissioners, much of their focus will be on constituent engagement. 

“I would expect that you're going to see [councilors] more relentlessly engaged with constituent services in their districts,” Wheeler said at the June 27 press conference. “Those [councilors] will work with the mayor and the city administrator to address [constituent issues], or they themselves will continue to advocate for that issue. That will be a significantly different aspect.” 

Wheeler, who is not running for re-election, also said he wants to provide an opportunity for the mayor-elect to work alongside him after they’re elected in November. 

“It's very important to me that the transition for the new mayor be a smooth and effective one, because on January 1, they're the ones responsible…for making sure that the lights stay on and the wheels keep turning,” Wheeler said. “After the new mayor is elected, I'm going to open up my doors to them. We will make an office space for the mayor and some of the mayor's transition staff and will work side-by-side. I really want them to see how this machine operates and what my role will have been over the course of the prior six months, and have the best opportunity to come in with a team that understands exactly how things work on day one.” 

New city leadership

The new city leaders—an assistant city administrator and six deputy administrators—were hired on an interim basis, through the end of June 2025. This will allow the future city administrator, who will be chosen by the future Portland mayor, to hire a new staff if they choose.

However, Jordan said he suspected a new city administrator would “likely keep folks on for at least another year to get their team together, and then they may make changes, but that’s up to them.” 

Jordan himself has indicated he is not particularly interested in keeping the city administrator job after January. 

In addition to leading their service areas, Jordan said the new administrative team will be responsible for heralding a cultural change at the government level. 

“Our current form of government is really good at [thinking] vertically. We know who the boss is, and we look up and down quite often and we're really good at doing what we do best,” Jordan said. “I think the primary role of [this new leadership team] is to think horizontally, about the enterprise as a whole. What efficiencies and more effective things can we capture by thinking about what we do at an enterprise scale?” 

Portland’s new assistant city administrator, Annie Von Burg, will be focusing on government relations, civic life, central communications and the new Portland Solutions program “designed to respond to pressing challenges such as homelessness.” Von Burg previously worked as an environmental policy manager at the Bureau of Environmental Services for nearly a decade, and has experience leading large environmental cleanups in the Portland area. 

The six new deputy administrators include: 

  • Jonas Biery (Budget and Finance), who previously served as a public finance banker and municipal advisor to local governments, and has also worked for the city of Portland as a debt manager and business services manager for the Bureau of Environmental Services. 
  • Sara Morrissey (City Operations), who has been Wheeler’s deputy chief of staff since 2021, managing the mayor’s policy team and leading budget development. 
  • Donnie Oliveira (Community and Economic Development), previously the director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability who also has experience at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
  • Mike Myers (Public Safety), who most recently worked as Portland’s first community safety transition director, and has also led the city’s emergency management bureau and served as fire chief. 
  • Sonia Schmanski (Vibrant Communities), was most recently the deputy chief administrative officer for the city of Portland. She was also late Portland Commissioner Nick Fish’s chief of staff for more than five years, and played a particularly important role in developing Portland Parks & Recreation’s agenda. 
  • Priya Dhanapal (Public Works), was previously the public works deputy director for Clark County, and has also conducted wastewater recycling research for NASA, in addition to leading other water infrastructure projects around the Portland area. 

While it may seem complicated to have so many new roles in city government, Jordan said the government structure Portland is transitioning into is “pretty boring, quite frankly.” 

“If you go to almost any big city in America…you will find them organized very similarly. Everybody who lives in a big urban landscape ultimately wants the same things. They want a good job, a predictable way to get around their city safely. When they flush, they want it to go away,” Jordan said. “So, as cities evolve, they end up being organized very similarly…we’re going from being an aberration in city government to being the norm.” 

What’s next? 

While most Portlanders may not notice the structural changes happening within City Hall right now, city leaders want to gear up the public to be excited about the upcoming government transition, and the election in November that will shape the first new City Council. 

“This is truly an opportunity of a lifetime. For the first time in over 100 years,. Wwe are fundamentally shifting how we elect our leaders and govern the city,” Shoshanah Oppenheim, Portland’s transition project manager, said at the June 27 press conference. “The November 2024 election is the most important election in Portland's history, and we want every voice to be heard.” 

Oppenheim said throughout the summer, the transition team will do outreach to make sure all Portlanders are familiar with the ranked-choice ballot system that will be used onduring on the November ballot. 

“We are on track to deliver a government ready to address Portland's biggest challenges and create a brighter future for our city, and to implement Portland's first election using ranked choice voting,” Oppenheim said. 

Jordan said while he has been honored to be a part of “the biggest governmental transformation in the state’s history, not just the city’s history,” he wants Portlanders to know the government is still responsive to their immediate needs. 

“It’s a big change. It's a lot of work, and a lot of things have to get done in the next six months to be prepared,” Jordan said. “”[But] we have to run a city. There are lots of things going on in this city right now… that are huge challenges to Portlanders. And we have to continue to be responsive to those challenges, while we're doing the change management work and preparing for the future, so we can't lose sight [of that] as we move forward.”