Last Wednesday, November 9, Mayor Tom Potter announced the members of the city charter commission, officially kicking off city hall's examination of how well local government works in its current format.

Portland's version of city politics is unique among moderate and large cities—instead of having council members who represent specific districts, Portland has commissioners who are elected by the entire city. Each of the commissioners is in charge of a number of bureaus and city services, as determined by the mayor.

During his campaign, Potter pledged that he would open a thorough review of the current charter. As soon as his term began, he started by pulling all of the bureaus under his office for several months before re-doling them back out to the commissioners.

The committee is expected to consider alternatives to the commissioner-based government, and whether the highly influential Portland Development Commission should remain an independent bureau or be reined in under city hall.

One notable name on the committee is developer Robert Ball. Three years ago, Ball pushed through a ballot measure to institute a "strong mayor" system, increasing the number of council seats to nine, and making seven of the seats elected by district. Ball's initiative, like most other proposed major changes to the charter, went down in flames.

The 25-member committee has until July 1, 2006 to review the charter and make recommendations for changes. The updated charter will then go on the ballot next November's general election.

At the same time, there is similar self-examination happening at the state level. Last session, the majority leaders in both houses of the legislature pushed through a senate bill creating the first comprehensive public review of the assembly in the last three decades.

Much of what the public commission is looking at is nuts-and-bolts issues that won't invite much controversy. But, the committee is also expected to reexamine the wisdom of having the legislature meet only for six months every two years, as opposed to having a session every year. Holding sessions biennially means that if important bills get hijacked or tabled (like last session's civil unions bill), legislators can't revisit the issue for another year and a half.

The commission is expected to deliver its recommendations by December 2006, in time to be considered during the 2007 session.