By Stephyn Quirke
The state of Oregon has a unique history of promoting civic engagement. Between 1981 and 2000 voting by mail was steadily increased from local to federal elections in an effort to increase voter turnout and decrease costs.
In 2000, Oregon became the first in the country to vote entirely by mail in a presidential election, and in 2015, Oregon became the first state in the country to implement automatic voter registration for anyone with a driver’s license.
At the same time, the city of Portland has struggled over the idea of democracy and the appropriate form of government. The city has voted eight times on changing its form of government since its commission form was adopted in 1913. All of those changes were voted down, though the city nearly adopted the council-manager form of city government in 1958.
Last September, the City Auditor’s office approved a ballot measure from the Hazelwood neighborhood in E. Portland that may put this very proposal before voters in November of 2016.
Collene Swenson, one of the chief petitioners, says Portland’s form of government is antiquated, and allows for the neglect of too many neighborhoods. Her hope is that the initiative will give voters better representation while reducing the cost of running for office, thus reducing the impact of wealthy donors on local politics.
In 2005 the city created a public financing system for local elections to do just that, but the program was discontinued five years later after complaints were lodged by Portland Business Alliance. The program was narrowly defeated by voters in November 2010.
The initiative, called the Portland Community Equality Act, would split the city into 7 large neighborhoods, expand the city council to a nine member board, and elect seven people to represent each neighborhood district. Only two members of the board, plus the mayor, would be elected by the entire city.
Under the initiative, the mayor would oversee bureau managers, and councilors would represent geographic districts in order to hold the mayor and the bureaus accountable to particular neighborhoods. In effect, the legal powers of city representatives would be separated into legislative and administrative functions.
If backers manage to get 31,000 signatures submitted by July, their initiative will be voted on this November. Swenson says she has a volunteer crew of about 14 people who gather signatures.
Portland’s form of government is highly unusual for a city of its size. In fact, it is the only city in the U.S. with over 100,000 people that has a commission form of government, where city councilors create policy and administer city services.
Under the system proposed by the Community Equality Act, city councilors would not only be elected at a district level – they would no longer run bureaus, and focus instead on setting policy that represents their neighborhoods.
This means executive functions shift to the mayor, with the rest of city council acting as a purely legislative and oversight body, in representation of distinct neighborhoods.
Portland’s current electoral system, which would be abolished by the initiative, may actually promote unequal representation by making it harder for ethnic minorities to win office – an impact found to be illegal in other localities.
In Yakima, Washington, two people got help from the American Civil Liberties Union to demonstrate this, suing the city for its use of an at-large voting system that diluted the power of minority voters and prevented minority candidates from winning office. In 2014, a judge found that their voting system did actually have this effect, and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a result of this lawsuit, Yakima used district voting for the first time in November 2015, electing three Hispanic candidates. This was the first time a Hispanic candidate had been ever elected in Yakima’s history. Yakima is about 40% Hispanic.
Because the at-large voting system tends to drown out the voice of ethnic minorities, the NAACP tends to support district voting around the country.
On January 23, the local chapter endorsed the Portland Community Equality Act.
Joanne Hardesty, President of the local NAACP, said “The NAACP Portland Branch enthusiastically endorse Portland Community Equality Act. It is in line with our 103 year history of fighting for equal access to the electoral process. Currently if you aren’t rich, you have little chance of being elected or serve on the Portland City Council. I believe the people most impacted should elect their representatives.”
According to Shelby Sebens of GoLocalPDX, racial minorities have only been elected to Portland city council four percent of the time in the past 100 years, raising the question of whether Portland government is “white by law”.
The lack of diversity on city council has often produced conflicts with neighborhood groups.
In February 2014, a plan to build a Trader Joe’s in N. Portland was abruptly cancelled after opposition emerged from the Portland African American Leadership Forum.
In a scathing letter that called out Portland Development Commission (PDC), the group called for a halt to all development that displaced African American populations, blasting the PDC for offering a $2.9 million piece of property to Majestic Realty for $500,000; a subsidy of $2.4 million in a transaction that benefited both a nationwide corporation and one of the richest families in the country.
“The City of Portland cannot continue to sweep black and low-income people out of Inner NE Portland and claim success,” the letter said.
Such conflicts appear to be growing as the process of displacement and gentrification has exploded into the Housing State of Emergency – especially in N. and NE Portland.
In November, a coalition of over 30 community organizations called Anti-Displacement PDX refused the Spirit of Portland Award, and announced to city council that they would not accept recognition until they adopted over 24 policies that promote equity and fight displacement in the 20-year Comprehensive Plan. The final hearing on the Comprehensive Plan was held on January 13th.
The Portland Development Commission is an un-elected body appointed by the mayor. In fiscal year 2014-15, their approved operating budget was over $244 million.
If the Community Equality Act were implemented, it would likely encourage minority candidates to run for office, and help empower the city’s system of neighborhood associations, giving them stronger influence over elected leaders who must represent their district.
The current system of neighborhood associations was incorporated into city government in 1974, and has been the subject of numerous efforts to improve neighborhood influence over city policy.
Mayor Tom Potter launched a major review of the system in 2005, as part of a broad review of the city’s community engagement system. He supported an effort to transform city government to a council-manager system in 2007, although the initiative was not approved by voters.
If the present initiative gains the required signatures, it would be voted on in November of 2016, giving the city until 2017 to establish districts. The first district elections would occur in 2018.
Collene Swenson says that, in addition to giving Portland better general representation, district representation might alleviate some pressures of gentrification by providing for more geographically-dispersed economic development in places like E. Portland.