By David Krogh
Over the last year, Portland Charter Review Commission has been busy learning the charter process and taking initial testimony from both the public and city officials.
The Commission was briefed on its responsibilities in early March and given information on how other cities are dealing with charter revisions.
The League of Oregon Cities has a model city charter for consideration while other cities (such as Minneapolis, San Jose and Detroit) are currently doing their own charter reviews that could all be examined and compared.
In April, the Commission heard from City Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Mingus Mapps. Commissioner Hardesty expressed a need for the Charter Review Commission to take its time and hear from many diverse sources. She aired a concern about the City Auditor’s Office request for an independent budget.
Commissioner Mapps reiterated one of his campaign goals that the current form of government for Portland needs to be changed as this system of putting elected officials in charge of bureaus they have no experience with is simply not working.
His comments largely reflect the 2019 study put out by the City Club. Mapps discussed the need for the Charter Review Commission to address COVID-19 responses, houselessness and public safety reform.
The Commission heard from City Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Dan Ryan. Commissioner Rubio’s primary focus was on the current form of government. She pointed out far more negatives than positives.
Her suggestions included instituting a City Manager form of government, clarifying communications across city bureaus and offices, creating additional campaign finance reform, improving community safety and accountability and providing biannual budgeting, including clarification of the city auditor’s functions.
Commissioner Ryan agreed with Commissioner Rubio’s election reform concerns and brought up the issue of silos within City government.
One example of excessive silos has to do with permit processing where as many as six different offices are involved in permit reviews. These offices have different goals, lack transparency and create challenges to improving efficiency.
Then in May, Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Auditor Mary Hull-Caballero met with the Charter Review Commission to share their comments.
Mayor Wheeler wanted to be clear that “the commission form of government is no longer appropriate for a city the size of Portland,” and went on to provide examples as to why this system is not working.
He repeated Commissioner Ryan’s concern that permit processing requires several different bureaus yielding severe inconsistencies. Customer service is also inconsistent for the same reasons.
Regarding public safety, the work of fire, police, dispatch and emergency preparation are all directed separately by Commissioners who may or may not be coordinating their work efforts. Homelessness responses are also challenged by multiple bureaus and Commissioners involved who may not be coordinating.
Coordination with other cities has been a challenge since the mayor “may not have authority over the bureau(s) or area(s) included in the collaboration topic.”
Mayor Wheeler said, “The city is most successful when we work against our form of government, not because of our form of government.”
Wheeler suggested the Charter Review Commission go beyond the City Club’s proposal and consider all options and how they might work for Portland. He mentioned the function of the city auditor office also needs to be addressed.
He concluded by stating that no mayor or commissioner should be put in charge of the police. He hopes the Charter Review Commission will seriously consider police accountability as a topic for their focus.
City Auditor Hull-Caballero agreed with the mayor that the current form of government needs to change.
She stated, “It’s a relic from the Jim Crow era and frequently means that City Commissioners represent the bureaus rather than the community.”
Hull-Caballero went on to explain the functions of the Auditor’s Office and aired a concern that this is the only office providing checks and balances for the city. She indicated a definite need to clarify the Auditor’s budget, functionality issues and to update outdated Auditor-related language within the City Charter.
During Q&A, Mayor Wheeler suggested a look at Boston’s form of government which is a hybrid including both district-elected commissioners and city-wide commissioners.
Other Charter Review Commission meetings since May have included Bureau managers and public comments; many of whom also echoed concerns over the current form of government and excessive silos. Access to notes from these meetings is at portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission.
The public can sign up at this site for updates of Charter Review Commission activities and submit written comments and testimony. The next public meeting the public can testify at is Thursday, September 23.
Portland City Club has been active in supporting Charter Review Commission activities and has hosted several Commission members for live public chats. The next one will be Tuesday, September 21, 12-1 pm with Commissioner Anthony Castaneda.
More information is available about this and other City Club activities at pdxcityclub.org.