Portlanders have had enough of our city's clearly dysfunctional form of government, which is why they voted by a large margin (nearly 60 percent) to reform the city's charter.
So why is the current City Council so intent on trying to sabotage charter reform?
Deep behind the scenes, city commissioners (particularly Gonzalez and Ryan, and less recently Mapps) have been scheming to overturn the will of the voters, and after failing to sink charter reform at the ballot box last November, are now committed to watering down its provisions to ensure that those who've held the majority of power in the city for decades retain their stranglehold.
Despite the fact that the many members of our Charter Reform Commission spent months deeply researching how to most effectively rebuild our stumbling government—which included months of inviting the community to offer feedback and input—our current City Council is weirdly convinced that their uneducated predictions or "feelings" automatically trump the hundreds of hours of research that's gone into this voter-mandated project. (Let's call this "council-splaining.")
Realizing charter reform will significantly reduce the power they and their wealthy pals have long enjoyed, City Council is desperately fighting to hobble the reform we voted in favor of, by proposing the following:
• Reducing the planned 12-person City Council to eight members. While the current council claims that paying 12 commissioners (three in each of the new Portland districts) would be too expensive, they never seem so theatrically concerned about spending taxpayer money to bolster wealthy neighborhood associations, or military-grade gear and other questionable toys for the police. But that's not really the point, is it? There's a reason the city's power brokers desperately want these changes to charter reform: The smaller the council, the easier it can be controlled. More on that in just a bit!
• Reworking the proposed ranked choice voting system. Despite claiming they're smart enough to hold their current offices, commissioners continually moan that the voting system proposed by charter reform advocates is "too confusing." It's true: "Math" can be very hard for some people (like me! Hi! 👋). But that's why we have these things called "computers," which have been tallying votes accurately for decades—so in actuality, when it comes time to vote, math haters (like me! Hi! 👋) won't suffer from a cerebral melt-down. Guys, it's really this simple: On your ballot, vote for the person you like best for your #1 choice, the person you like second-best as your #2 choice, and the person you like least as your #3 choice. AND COMPUTERS WILL DO THE REST. Easy, right? I'd ask a kindergarten teacher to explain this to our current crop of commissioners, but we all know they're actually more intent on sowing distrust in the new system rather than any so-called confusion over "math."
And most tellingly: • Giving the mayor veto power instead of just a tie-breaking vote. Whooo-whee! Council is really showing their cards with this one! Okay: Imagine in your worst nightmares, the conservative, blustering, and increasingly cruel Commissioner Rene Gonzalez becomes mayor (brrrr!!). If the current council's plan was implemented, he'd have the ability to veto every single piece of progressive policy brought before the council. Think city policies are unnecessarily cruel now? Oh. Just you wait!
[Psst! By the way, didn't you think it was FUNNY that Commissioner Mapps announced his intention to run for mayor just a few days before it was revealed that Council would be pushing for a mayor with veto power? Pretty much the same plan he floated last October? Wait... when I said "funny," I actually meant "not at all coincidental."]
BUT! Let's give credit where credit is due, shall we? Because this scheme to sink charter reform didn't start with this current crop of truly terrible commissioners.
The Portland Business Alliance (who recently changed its name to Portland Metro Council—probably due to their terrible reputation) has spent decades fighting to be the primary decision makers for the city. In fact, city records show that over a 10-year span, the Alliance has lobbied City Hall a whopping 3,198 times—that's six times more than the second most prolific lobbying group (Uber, who nagged the city a comparatively scant 494 times). And of the top five most prolific lobbyists, three of them hold high-level positions in... you guessed it: the Portland Business Alliance. (One might say these guys have a real "Lobby Hobby." 😏 Ugh. I'll show myself out.)
But wait, that's not the worst of it: In 2020 alone, the city auditor caught the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) violating lobbying rules an astounding 25 times. And though they could've/should've been fined up to $75,000 for their blatant disregard of the rules, instead they were only given a quick slap on the wrist and told to pay a mere $450—roughly the cost of a side salad at the Multnomah Athletic Club.
Anyway, what does one get in return for this type of incessant lobbying? Here's just one tiny example of many: During a 2022 public hearing on the council's plan to criminalize homelessness, Commissioner Dan Ryan and Mayor Ted Wheeler made sure to let proponents from the wealthy business community speak first, before any of the public. So refresh my memory... has city hall ever put you at the front of the line with your concerns, or welcomed your input more than three thousand times? And knowing that, are you still under the impression the city prioritizes you over any wealthy person or lobbying group?
The PBA has always been threatened by charter reform, donated a whopping $131,000 to oppose it, and even filed an unsuccessful legal challenge last year to keep it off the ballot. And lest we forget, they also endorsed and helped seat every current member of City Council—except for Commissioner Rubio... who actually just joined her male cohorts in also casting doubt on the charter reform process. (The Alliance should send her a thank you note for being such a team player.)
So to assume the current city commissioners are not under the thrall of the Portland Business Alliance, is to admit naivety at best, and willful ignorance at worst.
The PBA desperately needs charter reform to fail, and here's why: Influencing the voting decisions of five commissioners may be very difficult, but it's still attainable (as we all currently see). However, controlling 12 people? Who may be from diverse, less wealthy backgrounds? That's too big of a job even for the ultra-rich, influential members of the Alliance. That's why, though not ideal, the PBA still sees a narrow window for success with eight commissioners. In this scenario they just need a majority of votes (only five)—and if the mayor gets veto power, too? Suddenly, their dreams of continued domination are not impossible at all—and not very different from the current dysfunctional government that the majority of us clearly VOTED AGAINST.
So here's my prediction: In the coming months, you're going to see a full court press against charter reform—not only from City Council, but their co-conspirators in the Portland Business Alliance, People for Portland, and the various monied conservative factions of our city (as well as a PBA board member who also just so happens to be on the Oregonian's Editorial Board), all of whom see this as their golden opportunity to maintain control over every major policy decision made in Portland.
This probable full court press will include negative billboards, fear-mongering email campaigns, glossy political fliers, and slanted, unreliable push polls whose results are often parroted without scrutiny by local media. So how much money does the Charter Reform Commission have in their budget to combat this coming onslaught of lies? Let me get out my calculator... oh, never mind... it's ZERO.
And this is exactly why we need charter reform, to protect Portland from those who want to torpedo progressive policies... like charter reform! So for every disparaging remark you hear about charter reform in the coming months—about how it's going to cost so much money, or how terribly "confusing" it all is... and, trust me, you're gonna hear A LOT MORE of these howls of desperation—just remember this one thing:
The powerful will do or say anything to protect their power.
Supporters of charter reform will be holding a rally on Tuesday, July 18 at 9 am in front of City Hall to tell City Council to "do their jobs: uphold the will of the voters and don't interfere with implementation." Protesters are asked to wear blue.