Since Portlanders voted to approve city charter reform last November—effectively calling for an overhaul of the city’s government structure—there’s been substantial work to make sure the city is prepared to implement a suite of changes, come November 2024.
Key updates have taken place since the last time the Mercury looked at the charter reform process in April. The Independent District Commission (IDC) and Independent Salary Commission (ISC) have reached major milestones, both releasing draft proposals for Portland district maps and City Council pay rates, which they will seek public input on before making final decisions. A Government Transition Advisory Committee was formed, meeting for the first time in late April.
Additionally, some Portlanders—and City Council members—have shared skepticism about the government revamp process, with some questioning if the makeup of Portland’s new government will have too much influence from people involved in charter reform decision making. Those working on the charter reform haven’t appeared to engage with critics. Instead, they've emphasized opportunities for community engagement from people across the ideological spectrum.
This summer will be the prime time for that community engagement, as independent commissions working on charter reform will need to get the major elements buttoned up before fall.
District maps draw scrutiny
Portland’s new charter will split the city into four geographic districts, each of which will be represented by three city councilors who live in the districts they represent. Since charter reform passed last November, Portlanders have wondered how the new city map will be drawn and which parts of the city their districts will encompass.
With community input, the Independent District Commission (IDC) has drafted and released three proposed City Council district maps—dubbed “Alder,” “Cedar,” and “Maple”—which illustrate potential geographic boundaries for the four new districts.
The three maps share major similarities—at first glance, they are visually very similar. Each map contains all of Portland east of I-205 in a single district, all communities west of the Willamette River in another district, and all of the northern part of Portland in a different district (with the exception of neighborhoods in the Parkrose School District). All three maps also preserve the historic Albina neighborhood in north and northeast Portland in a single district.
According to the IDC, the “Alder” map is “built around preserving established neighborhood boundaries” and divides Portland’s central city into three districts “to promote broad engagement with central city issues and economic opportunities and distribute significant assets and institutions among multiple districts.”
The “Cedar” map is “built around prioritizing transit corridors,” using major transit thoroughfares like Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Northeast 12th Avenue, 82nd Avenue and MAX transit lines to “prioritize the role of these arterial roadways in influencing the use of public space and notions of neighborhood on the eastern side of the city”—in other words, your district cohabitants are who you share transit routes with.
The “Maple” map is “built around keeping much of the central city together” per the city’s Central City 2035 Plan. The map groups renter-heavy neighborhoods together across the Willamette River, lumping the east side’s Buckman, Kerns, and Central Eastside with west side neighborhoods that have high percentages of renters (Goose Hollow, Old Town, South Waterfront, and University District).
In initial responses to the draft maps, some people have raised concerns about the makeup of potential districts. In particular, some are uneasy about the “Maple” map, which puts a portion of Central Eastside residents in the same district as people who live in outer west side neighborhoods. During a roundtable discussion hosted by pro-charter reform coalition Portland United for Change, several speakers said they thought the map has potential pitfalls.
Devin Ruiz, movement building director at Next Up, said she worried the strong youth and progressive voices in the Central Eastside would be diluted if the neighborhood is included in the mainly-west side district.
“Portlanders in the Central Eastside are more progressive than the west side,” Ruiz said. “It just makes me think about what city electeds those Portlanders would want representing them.”
An interactive map in the Oregonian that shows which Portland neighborhoods voted for the charter reform bill last fall depicts the potential ideological differences between people who live in the city’s outer west side and those who live in the Central Eastside.
Members of the Buckman Community Association in the Central Eastside sounded alarm bells about the "Cedar" and “Maple” draft maps, writing in a newsletter that the maps “either greatly diminish/divide the Buckman Neighborhood itself, or include it entirely with all of the west side of Portland for representation.”
According to the IDC, “no district was drawn for the purpose of favoring any political party, incumbent elected official or other person, or drawn for the purpose of diluting the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group.” The IDC also drew the districts to be “contiguous and compact; use existing geographic or political boundaries; not divide communities of common interest; be connected by transportation links; and be of equal population.”
Those involved in the charter reform process say they want the districts to allow for better representation of all Portlanders, including those who have been historically left out of the political process. They hope the new model of governance will encourage new people to get involved in city politics.
“The districting process is super important because we are going to have official representation at the table,” Candace Avalos, a former member of the Charter Commission, said at the roundtable. She said in the past, voter turnout has been lowest in parts of the city with the most people of color and low-income populations.
“That’s because the political power has often resided on the west side and inner east side…it was so important to us that we have these larger districts because we're going to be able to get a better representation of these groups and they'll have a better chance of getting people that represented their interests on council.”
The IDC must adopt a district map by September 1, 2023. There will be opportunities for the public to share their comments on the maps until July 22, either via an online public comment form or at an in-person hearing in July. You can take a look at the full IDC draft plan here.
Commission setting salaries for elected city leaders
Meanwhile, the Independent Salary Commission (ISC) has been deciding what the new pay rate should be for members of the 12-person Council. The ISC’s draft salary proposal report, released June 16, recommends the following base pay rates for city of Portland elected positions:
Elected officials who choose to qualify under the city’s Language Access Program—which compensates multilingual employees who can connect with Portlanders whose primary language isn’t English—would receive an additional 4% base pay rate.
The ISC’s recommended pay rate is an increase from current City Hall salaries. Right now, the mayor’s base pay is $143,666, with commissioners and the city auditor earning $120,973 annually.
The ISC’s draft salary proposal states that “pay will open opportunities for historically marginalized communities and will not be a deterrent to running and holding office.” The report also indicates salary commissioners wanted to ensure Portland’s elected officials would be able to abide by charter rules prohibiting them from working additional jobs and receiving outside income, stating that they “will only consider salaries that allow a person elected to office to plan for their future.”
“We know with the rising cost-of-living that we need a thriving wage for those with the most barriers to be able to serve, not just those with wealth and financial privilege,“ said Andres Oswill, community advocate and campaign manager for Opportunity to Serve Oregon Coalition. Oswill said the salary should “allow folks with various lived experiences to serve in office and make city council their full-time job.”
Salaries of elected officials has been an issue statewide, with some, like former state Rep. Karin Power, leaving office in 2022 due to the low pay. The base pay for a state lawmaker is about $35,000. The issue reared its head again last month, when Oregon’s former Secretary of State, Shemia Fagan, was found to have taken on controversial private consulting work on the side, to supplement her $77,000 annual salary as one of Oregon’s highest ranking officials.
Those tasked with setting the salaries of Portland’s future elected officials say the pay needs to keep pace with professional requirements and the cost of living in Portland.
Eight new City Council members will also necessitate more support staff working in City Hall. The ISC’s draft salary proposal estimates each of the twelve new offices will have an average of three to five full-time staff members supporting the councilors. Some staffers will likely work for all three councilors in a voting district.
The ISC will accept public comment on the draft salary proposal until July 16, via an online survey and community listening session.
Ranked choice voting
Among a host of sweeping changes to Portland’s government and political process, voters in Portland and Multnomah County approved ranked choice voting. Portlanders will start using the new ranked choice system in 2024, while ranked choice voting county-wide will be implemented in 2026.
To accommodate the change, the Portland City Council voted in April to amend Portland City Elections Code to implement ranked choice voting. However, the bulk of the work for implementing ranked choice voting will be in the hands of the Multnomah County Elections Division, which develops and distributes ballots to Portland voters.
According to records obtained by the Mercury, Multnomah County will likely pay $142,070 to Clear Ballot—the company the county elections office works with for creating and distributing ballots—to change the voting system to ranked choice.
In addition to the governmental changes that will result from the charter reform process, there will also need to be logistical reforms at City Hall to accommodate the new government structure. Among the changes will be a reconfiguration of City Council chambers so the building is big enough to accommodate eight new members and a city administrator.
At an April City Council meeting, commissioners and the mayor voted to approve $6.2 million for a construction manager and general contractor to renovate the Portland Building in preparation for new councilors.
Skepticism of the charter reform process
While a majority of Portland voters embraced charter reform and ranked choice voting, others are reluctant.
During a May 17 City Council meeting, Portlander Erica Gustavson expressed concern that people who worked on the charter reform measure will have an unfair advantage if they choose to run for City Council in 2024. She asked the current Council to adopt a resolution stating that “no member of any of the various charter commissions be able to run for City Council for at least two to four years of the [new charter] implementation.”
“The thought of those who created these rules having a chance to exploit that in-depth knowledge to their own benefit would be appalling,” Gustavson said. “It is very obvious that the larger voting population has no idea what we actually just voted on when you get down to the details…it would be a huge benefit to anyone serving on either the original charter commission or any of these newer commissions to run for an open seat. They understand the nuances, intent, and any potential loopholes or ways to run that will give them a leg up on their competitors, which is not what the voters were looking for in trying to create a more equitable system of government representation.”
Though city commissioners said they couldn’t enact such a rule, some were sympathetic toward Gustavson’s concerns.
“I have some pretty deep concerns…that [the people who will be running for Council seats in 2024] are going to be largely made up of folks who are on the Charter Commission,” Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said. “I'm concerned that while voters have consistently rejected extremism in recent elections in the city of Portland, that's exactly what we're looking to get, come November 2024.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler said the public vetting process for candidates who were involved in the charter reform process will have to come from voters.
“If there are people who are shaping the new form of government, who already know that they are going to run for office…that will become a campaign issue for them,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler previously told the Mercury he thinks Portland’s current form of government—which puts elected city commissioners in charge of running the city’s bureaus—is due for an overhaul. Still, the bulk of Portland’s City Council has cast doubt on the process.
Last November, Commissioner Dan Ryan asked city attorneys if serving on one of the charter commissions would constitute a conflict of interest for people who wanted to run for City Council down the line.
"So someone can serve on the [Charter Commission] and then decide to qualify themselves to be on the ballot?" Ryan asked.
City Attorney Linly Rees said the scenario may constitute a potential conflict of interest, but wouldn't "rise to the level of an actual conflict of interest under state law."
Those involved with charter reform say anyone is welcome to run for office, and everyone is subject to the same rules. Prohibiting someone from running for office at this point would require another change to the city's charter.
"There are no secrets about how to run for an elected office at the City of Portland, that information is available to everyone on this webpage,” Shoshanah Oppenheim, charter transition project manager, said in a statement to the Mercury. “Any additional restrictions on qualifications to run for city elected office would require an amendment to Portland’s City Charter.”
What’s next: important dates and deadlines
June 27, 2023: Independent Salary Commission Community Listening Session
July 5-16, 2023: Independent District Commission Public Hearings
July 16, 2023: ISC public comment period closed
August 2023: Council and auditor salaries adopted
September 1, 2023: Maps finalized by district commission