HAVE YOU EVER wondered who represents you on Portland City Council? The answer is: no one, specifically. East Portland resident Collene Swenson wants to change that.
Swenson and her Hazelwood-area neighbors feel slighted by the city, and say their complaints about inadequate sidewalks, not enough neighborhood police patrols, and a general lack of representation at city hall go largely ignored.
So in March, along with two neighbors, Swenson—who lives between NE Halsey and Glisan near 122nd—decided they were leaving... and taking the rest of East Portland with them. The trio started a movement to de-annex 13 neighborhoods from Portland and reincorporate them as their own city.
"When you're dissatisfied with something that's happening, what do you do?" Swenson asks. "You either leave or you change it."
Since filing the original de-annexation initiative—deemed unconstitutional by the city's elections office—Swenson's decided she doesn't want to leave after all. She wants to change things.
"People are mad about the sidewalks, but what I care about are the drug houses in the area and the stripped cars," she said during a Saturday interview at her home, surrounded entirely by a chain-link fence to deter would-be intruders. "We pay taxes so we can be represented and protected under the laws."
Portland is weird in many ways, and proud of it, but perhaps weirdest is the configuration of city hall: The Rose City is the last US city with more than 100,000 residents that uses a commission-style form of government, and it's one of only two big cities that elects an all at-large city council rather than splitting the city into districts.
Proponents of districts, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say local representation is the best way to bring new voices to the table. Probably the most famous example of that theory in action came out of San Francisco and was documented in the 2008 movie Milk. In 1977, the city started voting for council members by neighborhood districts. The result of that first election: three women, an Asian American man, and Harvey Milk—an outspoken and openly gay business owner living in the city's Castro neighborhood—joined city council.
"People tend to like districted voting because it gets more minority representation," says Seth Woolley, who twice ran for secretary of state on the Pacific Green Party ticket and is currently active with local campaign efforts. "And districting makes campaigning less expensive and more accessible to people because you're only campaigning in your neighborhood."
But Woolley's got reservations about the new proposal. Swenson's initiative would require that potential councilors live and work within their districts, an idea that Woolley says is impossible to enforce.
Right now, three Portland commissioners—Dan Saltzman, Steve Novick, and Amanda Fritz—live on the west side of the city. Commissioner Nick Fish resides in Northeast Portland, and Mayor Charlie Hales lives in Eastmoreland. The Oregonian reports that only Randy Leonard, a commissioner from 2002 until 2012, lived in East Portland during his tenure.
Of course, Swenson's proposal is far from the first time a change-up has been introduced to Portland governance. Eight other attempts over the years have failed to win voter support, most recently in 2007.
"Portland City Club issued a big report in 1932 saying the commission-style system sucks," Woolley says. "But for some reason it's stuck around even through other government reform. No one really likes it, but no one has been able to change it."
Swenson, who's originally from Southern California but has lived in Portland for years, said she was shocked when she found out about Portland's weird government style.
"Things here aren't like where I came from, and I think other people are starting to realize that too," she says. "When I tried to get city council members to call me back and got no answer, I realized something needed to change."
Swenson's initiative—which the elections office accepted earlier this month—proposes a change from the current structure of four at-large commissioners and a mayor. If approved, Portland City Council would be made up of seven commissioners elected from districts, two council members elected at-large, and a mayor. Seattle voted up a similar system in 2013.
Swenson must collect more than 31,000 signatures by July 2016 in order to get her initiative on the November 2016 ballot. If voters approve, Portland would be separated into districts based on population. But Woolley and others have expressed concern over the proposed districting strategy, because the initiative's language indicates the council would be in charge of creating district boundaries.
"You'd think people would learn not to ever place district drawing power in the hands of the body elected by such districts," he says. "There are literally no reasonable restrictions on district boundaries here."
That's not the only problem Woolley sees with Swenson's initiative, which says the city budget must be approved "by the mayor and a majority of the council" to be effective.
"This language implies the mayor has veto power over the budget," Woolley says. "That's more power than he has now."
The mayor, under the proposal, could also veto laws he or she doesn't like, but the council could override that veto with a two-thirds majority.
"Vetoes are pointless and undemocratic," Woolley says. "It means now you have to elect a mayor that's more than just an administrator, it's somebody who's going to legislate, too. And now your separation of powers are messed up."