Without the marquee of presidential elections, bi-annual elections tend to draw paltry crowds--something at the rate of 40 percent of voters usually weigh in for these off-year elections. Worse yet, primary elections lack the same gravity as full-fledged elections. But the results from several of the current political races and ballot measures may have deep and lasting effects. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she takes the office (otherwise, the two candidates with the most votes will run-off in November's general election). In addition, several ballot measures are pending that may fundamentally rearrange Portland's park system and even the City's form of government itself. But many of those automatically fail without 50 percent voter turnout, which in half of the cases is not so bad.

With so few people likely to vote, this means that your single vote has extra potency! Hell, even Ralph Nader could get elected during a primary like this one.

Balancing City Council

Putting together a quality City Council is like assembling a well-orchestrated band or an all-star sports team--different talents are needed to balance out the strengths and weaknesses. With Mayor Vera Katz quarterbacking City Council with a penchant for big businesses' interests, City Council is in need of a person for the people. During May's primary election, Portland voters will potentially decide two of the four seats on City Council (seats currently occupied by Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman). And, with Councilman Charlie Hales announcing last week that he also will step down from his position, these elections are an opportunity to radically alter city council. (A special election will be held in September.)

On occasion, Councilman Erik Sten has played the role of dissenter and ruffled Mayor Katz' feathers. But that is not the primary reason to re-elect Sten. Sten's staff rocks! Yes, his office bungled water bills for thousands of residents, but Sten's staff has also targeted and eliminated several duplicate administrative services within the city, an initiative that has saved the city $10 million.

His opponent, Liz Callison, is a solid, but perhaps slightly green candidate. She is a hardcore environmentalist and advocate for women's rights.

Dan Saltzman's seat is also up for grabs. Like a meek dinner guest, Saltzman has produced few unique contributions or examples of leadership. With Katz' firm control of City Council, there is a desperate need for dissention and lively dialogue.

Peter Alexander is excited to stir up the dust. The current Executive Director of the Center for Energy Efficiency, Alexander puts his money where his mouth is: He has conducted his entire campaign by foot and Tri-Met. His viewpoints reflect the best of social consciousness in Portland: campaign reform, affordable housing, stopping low-income displacement. Moreover, with an unbendable philosophical backbone, Alexander is sure to spark City Council in much needed dialogues and debates.

Not-So Good Government

Unfortunately, 26-30 is a flawed document. The initiative so badly wants to re-do City Council--both in form and function--that it skipped over a few vital details, like correlating the dates when the old system would cease and a new one begins.

But the surface blemishes run much deeper: The initiative would demand two major changes to the design of city government. First, residents would vote for 7 of 9 representatives by district; the idea is to provide a stronger and more consolidated vote for each neighborhood so that, for example, those votes from North Portland concerned about displacement and development would not be mingled and diluted with votes from the West Hills. The second--and more controversial--alteration would remove council members from administrative control over city bureaus like water and police; those responsibilities would be handed to non-elected managers.

Portland's City Hall is definitely broken and needs fixing. This ballot measure is the democratic and gentlemanly equivalent of loading fifty pounds of C-4 into the foundations of City Hall; it will absolutely remodel Portland's governmental structure. Yet, in spite of the initiative's well meaning intentions, its approach is more like a blind man lobbing grenades than a steady-handed sniper. Nine council members (as called for by the initiative; a marked jump from the current four) would be an unwieldy group. Plus, the addition of bureau managers could simply add additional and unneeded wheels of bureaucracy.

The Mercury strongly believes that voting for council members by districts is a first, positive step towards a more representative government in Portland. It is idea that we hope survives this initiative. But we also believe that an overhaul this grand and fundamental needs to be a more collaborative, deliberate, and exhaustive effort.

Vote NO--for now. (But prepare to vote YES for districting in upcoming elections.)