By David Krogh

Portland’s City Charter is the founding document for the City and establishes its governing system and structure. At least once every 10 years, a Charter Commission is appointed by Portland City Council to look at the City’s Charter to determine the need for amendments.

The City Charter Commission information page states, “Portland’s Charter defines the powers of the City as granted by the state, the municipal powers and organization of the City Council, the roles and responsibilities of the Mayor, City Commissioner and the Auditor.”

The charter identifies procedures for elections, campaign finance and how vacancies are filled.

“It also provides a guide on how the City is managed, the way taxes are levied and bonds are issued, how the streets, parks, sewers and other infrastructure are managed and improved.”

Descriptions of City commissions, pension funds and information on how to amend the charter are included as well.

Since the last Charter Commission was appointed on December 15, 2010, the new Commission must be appointed by December 15, 2020.

A total of 20 members are to be on the Commission; four appointed by each of the five City Council members. Applications were accepted from Summer 2020 until September 14.

Final consideration of the applicants is underway. According to the Charter, the members chosen must be residents and representative of the City in terms of its racial and ethnic diversity, age and geography, and be able to commit to up to two years of involvement with the charter review process.

Because of the timing, the City Council in existence at this time is the body which appoints the Charter Commission. That means new City Council members who have not yet taken office following the November 3 elections are not involved in Commission appointments.

City Commissioner-elect Mingus Mapps told The Southeast Examiner he was disappointed to not be involved with the selection process. However, he indicated he definitely will be talking with and “offering suggestions” to the Charter Commission once they begin meeting.

At the time of this writing, membership of the 2020 Charter Commission has not as yet been announced. According to Julia Meier, Charter Commission Project Manager, almost 300 applications were received for membership.

Gwen Thompson, City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s Senior Strategist, told The Southeast Examiner that applications have been whittled down to 47 (as of the first week in November) and would be reduced to the required 20 by the end of the month.

Meier clarified that, rather than do individual appointments, the existing City Council members have agreed to jointly review and choose commission members as a whole.

“The goal behind this is that appointed Charter Commissioners are not seen as representatives of individual City Council members, but rather as part of a cohesive, unified Charter Commission” she said.

Appointments will be made in early December and Charter Commission meetings commence in January of 2021.

The complete charter review process has not as yet been identified, but will include the ability for public involvement over its two year duration.

In essence, the Commission will review the existing charter, receive amendment suggestions from City Council, members of the public and special interest groups, and provide recommendations to the City for amendments during the review period.

Meier added, “We anticipate many avenues including public testimony, online surveys, town halls and investment in community-based organizations to engage their constituencies.”

The City has the ability to adopt certain types of amendments administratively or refer others to voters for a formal charter modification by ballot. For example, the 2011 Charter Commission recommendations were largely wording modifications and did not result in a voter referral. That may not be the case this time.

It is likely that the issue of Portland’s commission form of government will be one that is considered by the Charter Commission.

“According to the Charter,” Meier stated, “City Council may request that the Charter Commission review specific sections of the Charter, but ultimately it is up to the Commission to decide what to address. In the past, the Charter Commission has considered larger questions of policy as well as operational issues embedded in the Charter.”

Commissioner-elect Mapps said that the issue of changes to the current ineffective commission form of government is extremely important to him as a campaign goal and he fully intends to share his concerns about this topic with the Charter Commission.

“This process will be incredibly important to the public, Mapps said. “Getting things right (via charter review) is one way to make City processes work right.”

The commission form of government was a campaign issue for newly elected Commissioner Dan Ryan too, although his office did not know as yet if he will directly refer this to the Charter Commission.

The Portland City Club has prepared two studies (Portland’s Commission Government-2019 and Rethinking How We Vote-2020), both of which encourage City Charter reform.

Caitlin Baggott Davis, with the City Club, said that the two studies were provided to City Council in July and will be resubmitted to the new City Council later in November.

She stated the public is welcomed to visit medium.com/portland-city-charter-perspectives to review current City Club perspectives on charter revisions.

City Club involvement with the Charter Commission will be determined soon.

Another major charter issue which could be dealt with either or both by City Council and the Charter Commission is the re-organization of the Police Bureau and the instituting of a strong public oversight board.

Mapps had several comments regarding this process suggesting that due to the severity of the concerns, “City Council needs to take the lead on this.”

He suggested there is need for a reorganization plan of the Police Bureau to be developed before funding modifications occur, to not only better address the installation of an oversight board but to more clearly define what services could be efficiently merged or transferred from Police.

“In short, what do we want our public safety system to look like?” Mapps stated. He suggested this is more than the Charter Commission would be able to accomplish on its own and needs to be addressed much more quickly than the charter review process is capable of.

The City’s Charter Commission webpage is at portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission and is regularly updated. Contact Julia Meier with questions at charterreview2020@portlandoregon.gov. Information on this and other City finance issues are posted at twitter.com/PDX_OMF.