Rethinking Commission Form of Governance

By David Krogh

The City Club has thrown a curveball at the Portland City Council.

This pitch takes the form of a study and accompanying report which points out severe problems with the current commission form of government and offers recommendations on how best to change it.

The report, New Government for Today’s Portland:  Rethinking 100 Years of the Commission System was created by the City Club and released February 10.  It is summed up at the City Club website, The report can be downloaded.

Primary conclusions are:

• Portland’s current form of city government fails to provide equitable representation by nearly every metric, including income, geography, gender, race, and ethnicity.

• The current allocation of responsibility to the mayor and the city council appears to result in poor bureaucratic performance and has created over time many millions of dollars in waste or inefficiencies. This has often led commissioners to spend more time on the budgets of their assigned bureaus than on issues of citywide importance.

• Portland has long since outgrown the size of its current city council and would be better served across many different arenas by increasing the number of council members.

• Changing to a form of preferential voting for city council members (instead of the current “at-large” process) is urgently needed to deliver more equitable representation.

The report provided several recommended actions to improve City governance including:

• Executive authority should be centralized in the office of mayor, but delegated in large part to a city manager as the vast majority of US cities now do.

• Portland should hire by public process a professional city manager selected by the mayor, subject to council approval. The city manager must be a qualified professional with relevant training and experience.

• The mayor should serve as the permanent chairperson of the city council and cast tie-breaking votes where applicable.

• Portland should stop electing city council members in at-large elections, opting instead for district-based elections, preferably with multiple commissioners per district.

• Portland should explore alternative systems of voting, using an appropriate equity lens to decide which system is most likely to produce the best results.

• The size of the city council should be increased to at least eight commissioners, plus the mayor.

Although the City of Portland has existed since 1851, its current commissioner-based system dates from 1913. No other major cities in the US do it this way. It often has been wasteful via inconsistent direction by inexperienced elected commissioners and politically-appointed bureau chiefs. Accountability is often nil except via complaints or media attention (such as with issues of housing affordability and the 2014 issue of a street maintenance tax).

Yet this antiquated system has shown reluctance to change, having gone through several different votes over the years, the last being in 2007. As recently as 2015, a petition campaign was launched to change the system.

In an interview with Willamette Week, petitioner Pat Edwards stated: “We (in East Portland) don’t get the attention that other parts of the city get. Gentrification is in full force, but we can’t even get the streets paved.” Unfortunately, this petition campaign was not well organized and failed to obtain the necessary signatures for a 2016 balloting.

Of historical note, Portland’s charter changed at least eight times before 1913 and is deemed by many as long overdue for review. Per Commissioner Nick Fish, the City will next review its charter in 2021 and is obligated to do this on a ten-year cycle.

Regarding changes to the charter to modify the commission form of government, Mayor Ted Wheeler recently told OPB he supports changing the form of government if voters will approve it.

“Even Galveston, Texas, where this form of government was invented, evolved to a more modern form of government in 1960,” he said.

Commissioner Fish, on the other hand, supports the commission form.

“I believe the commission form of government has many strengths. They include accessibility, innovation, and a premium placed on collaborative leadership. I understand the criticisms, including concerns about efficiency and accountability, but I believe we can continue to address those issues without changing the form of government. As a general matter, I’m reluctant to put too much power behind a single person, whether a mayor or a city manager.”

Per the City Club report, Commissioner Fish’s concerns are unfounded. The most common form of city government in the nation is that of a mayor and council providing budgetary and policy oversight with a skilled city manager providing day-to-day administration direction while serving exclusively at the hire and pleasure of the mayor and council.

Such a system, per critics, does not permit political appointees being hired into management positions (i.e. cronyism) like has happened many times in Portland and promotes the type of transparency and public process most often lacking in Portland’s government today.

Why did prior proposals fail at the polls? If one reads the history, there were a lot of factors involved, including reluctance to change something people are familiar with (no matter how cumbersome), lobbying by business and special interests who benefit (via contracts from commissioner-run bureaus or commissioners’ pet projects), lack of financial backing by the petitioners for public outreach, and commissioners who like the power the current system provides them.

A well-run factual campaign based on the City Club’s new report, along with the myriad of examples of commissioner generated problems, could very likely be successful this time around.

For those supporting such a change, one has only to look at problems rising as a direct result of the commission-based system.  A 2015 city auditor report cites substantial spending issues and a lack of infrastructure maintenance as major problems of the current system.

Another problem was the Water Bureau computer fiasco in 2001. When Commissioner Erik Sten resigned in 2008, he stated the city lost at least $40 million from mismanagement. Similarly, a Bureau of Environmental Services facility project in 2010 cost $11.4 million more than estimated.

There were $200 million of street maintenance funds funneled into nonstreet projects over the years in conflict with city policies, resulting in former Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick’s proposal for a street maintenance tax in 2014.

There was the multi-million dollar city parking office scandal back in 2004 and many other examples of commissioner- related troubles over the years including the termination of problematic managers which have often included payments of excessive severance packages.

In a posting in June of 2014, activist Richard Ellmyer observed, “The street tax/fee debacle is a direct result of Portland’s ‘you don’t mess with my bureaus, I won’t mess with yours’ fiefdom-based, darkly translucent commission form of government. That needs to change.”

Interestingly enough, former city commissioner Steve Novick appears to agree. He told OPB in 2016, “The idea that each of the commissioners run certain bureaus, means you really cannot set citywide priorities.  Portlanders would be much better off with more typical, a mayor, a council, a city manager.”

Novick said, “I think this (commission format) is a nightmare form of government!”

The former mayor of Coos Bay, Crystal Shoji, mentioned to this writer that Coos Bay operates under a typical council/city manager system, which works very well.

“I do not think that elected people would be the best at running the day-to-day operations,” she stated. “All decisions would be political, and elected officials are not expected to be trained in the fields that they oversee.”

As to whether or not cities should consider form changes, she concluded, “I believe it is always efficient to look at new ways of doing things.”

Of course, this system may ultimately be forced to change anyway as City Club information has suggested the at-large system of representation may be illegal.  Time will tell how this plays out.

Rethinking Commission Form of Governance

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