By Andrew Wilkins
Portland’s commission form of government is rare and has its weaknesses, but after eight public votes over 100 years, a panel of local government said the system and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
A panel discussion on the form of government was sponsored by the League of Women Voters (LWV) Sept. 8 for its general meeting. About 60 residents attended.
The panel, including a city council member, the city auditor, an educator, and a neighborhood activist, discussed the pros and cons of the system — and despite some weaknesses — the consensus found that the system works well for Portland.
In Portland’s system, voters elect four commissioners and a mayor. Each of the five run several city bureaus each. Supporters of the system say it promotes accountability and access, while opponents say it put politicians without proper experience in charge of essential and complicated city services.
The commission system was enacted in 1913 after being proposed by Joseph Gaston, a local writer and activist. The new system reduced the commissioners from 15 down to five, and eliminated a layer of bureaucracy. It was passed by just 600 votes, he said, and part of a nationwide push to reduce corruption in government.
“It essentially eliminated an entire layer of bureaucracy and, most importantly, put the four commissioners and mayor in charge of bureaus. It sort of flattened out the system and made the politicians accessible and responsible to the voters,” Chet Orloff, professor and historian said.
Love it or hate it, eight public votes over 100 years proves the commission system of government is here to stay, said LaVonne Griffin-Valade, city auditor.
“Council members are officially on the hook for being good managers even though they don’t have the experience, the qualifications, or the aptitude,” she said. “And there are only two ways to fire them if they turn out to be bad managers: recall them or vote them out of office the next election.”
Another weakness of the system pointed out by Griffin-Valade is: the leadership of the bureaus have a lot of power because they are assigned by the mayor, and the council must rely on that leadership to know what’s happening.
She said the City Council could function better as a legislative body if they were less distracted by the bureaus that are temporarily in their portfolio.
Orloff said Oregonians like to stay within tradition, and the commission system has given Portlanders good service, been relatively free of scandal, and kept power away from a single individual, which can happen with a strong mayor system. He also said it gives us access to elected and appointed officials, as well as enhancing citizen participation through various commissions and boards.
He quoted a 1991 LWV report that concluded the commissioner system is “accountable, flexible, and responsive to citizens, and preferable to other alternatives.” He said it’s been effective in fighting corruption and avoiding the extreme political divide that has paralyzed many governing bodies.
Portland Councilor Amanda Fritz said she likes the system, because when she started in civic affairs as a community activist, and now too as a councilperson, she knows who to go to to get things done. Professionals run the bureaus, but she said the City Councilperson provides oversight and directs policy within them.
Fritz said she likes not representing a specific area of the city, because her passions don’t correspond to geography. A district-based system for electing city leaders would make it easier to campaign in neighborhoods, she says, because it’s expensive and time consuming to try and reach an entire city.
She also said the commission system prevented her from voting on controversial issues like the Water House, (a house built to demonstrate water efficiency that has been held up as an example of government waste), but through budgetary oversight, held by the entire commission, she said she had the right to vote on other issues within a bureau like a proposed filtration system in Bull Run Watershed.
Steve Johnson, professor and an expert on civic engagement, said the city needs to incorporate the new crowdsourced voices of millennial voters, and address development issues that threatens the city’s historic homes.
Portland’s most successful leaders have read the public as well as led them, and new input in any system is needed to reflect the city’s new population, he said.
Born and raised in East Portland, Johnson said a geographically-based form of government could give a stronger voice for parts of the city — like East Portland — that have been denied the representation and investment offered the rest of the city.
Arthur Wilson, a member of the league who attended the discussion, said the commission form of government works for the most part, but he said he would like to see Portland add a city manager to its current form of government.
“Any city would benefit from a city manager: a professional running the business aspects, and giving direction,” Wilson said.
One of the benefits of the current system is that it promotes more accountability, Wilson said. Voters know which commissioners are responsible for what, and during elections they will be “patting themselves on the back” so the voters will know what they are doing in their bureaus.
Change only happens if people want it badly enough, and Wilson says Portland is accustomed to the current system. Any form of government can be corrupt, and he believes more participation and voting would make for better government.
“This is the biggest problem in America: all the voices need to be heard and not enough people vote,” he said. “ It’s a chore, but, by God, you have to do it. It’s the only way democracy works.”
This was the first of the LWV’s Government in Our Daily Lives series. The first voter forum on local measures, the labeling of genetically modified organisms, and the legalization of marijuana, will be held Oct. 14 from 5 pm to 8 pm at the Multnomah County Board Room.
See lwvpdx.org/events for a full events calendar.