By David Krogh
On June 14 the 20-member Portland City Charter Commission voted to send Phase 1 of its review with proposed changes to the city’s charter to voters. This action culminates two years of efforts which included the receipt of over 1,600 public comments, 15 hours of verbal comments, 81 public hearings and a status summary report of 243 pages. Because of the Commission’s unique status, if 15 of the members support the charter reform Phase 1 package (and in this case 17 members did), it is sent to voters on the next regular election day, which is in November.
The Charter Commission’s Phase 1 proposal would change Portland’s current commission form of government and how it operates in three ways.
First, ranked-choice voting would be implemented. This allows voters to rank candidates in order of their preference and does away with the need for primary elections for City Council candidates.
Second, four new geographic districts would be created by an Independent District Commission with three City Council members elected to represent each district. This expands the City Council to a total of 12 members. Portlanders have long complained that some portions of Portland get less city support and infrastructure improvements due to a lack of representation; this proposal would eliminate that implied bias.
Third, the responsibilities of City Council will change to what most other cities now do. That is a focus on setting policy and budget matters with a mayor elected citywide to run the city’s day-to-day administrative operations with the support of a professional city administrator/manager.
Charter Commissioner Becca Uherbelau was asked for information on the proposal and its process. She clarified that the three changes as part of Phase 1 will be voted on as a package and the City Attorney’s office is responsible for drafting the ballot measure title and explanatory statement for November’s ballot. “Shifting to a new government structure in which City Council can focus on passing laws and a mayor can help implement them will help create a more responsive government,” she said.
In the interim between now and November, multiple groups are already forming to voice their pros and cons to the proposal. One campaign in support includes civic groups Building Power for Communities of Color, the League of Women Voters of Portland, Next Up and the Portland City Club. Likewise, the Portland Business Alliance and James Posey, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon, have raised concerns over the wording of the ballot measure.
At a public town hall meeting July 18, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps stressed his own reservations. Although changing the current commission form of government was one of his campaign issues, the addition of rank choice voting and a decidedly “different form of geographical representation that does not exist anywhere in the US” is of issue with him. “I’m also concerned about the wording of the ballot measure with its attempt to combine three different changes into one statement.” Mapps went on to say that if this proposal doesn’t pass he will be talking to his fellow commissioners about initiating charter changes themselves as “the current system does not work!”
Uherbelau was asked how the Charter Commission is going to respond to concerns in a way that’s simpler to understand than their most recent 243-page status report (available at bit.ly/ProgressReport6). “We’ve had public conversations since 2020 and the proposed changes came directly from them. The changes are intended to be straight forward.” Uherbelau also clarified the Charter Commission is not involved with any campaign. “The Charter Commission is there for informational purposes, but not as advocates.”
To sum up the proposed changes, Uherbelau stated, “Portlanders should know that the measure will create better access for the public and increased efficiency for City Council operations. The costs to implement this are not expected to increase much as the roles of the Council will change and their need for staff support can be reduced or shared.”
But the Charter Commission’s work is not over yet. Phase 2 is already underway and will include other changes to the City’s Charter, all of which came out of community feedback. How the city deals with climate and environmental justice, provisions for technical fixes to the charter and expanding voting rights are some of the principle issues to be addressed in Phase 2. Phase 2 will procedurally be much the same as Phase 1, with public involvement and informational meetings, hearings and testimony.
Uherbelau said, “Additional changes to the charter could go to the voters in May of next year at earliest.” According to the project timeline, if Phase 1 is approved this November, public voting for geographically representative City Council members could take place in November of 2024. The full description of Phases 1 and 2 are viewable at portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission.
Uherbelau concluded on an enthusiastic note. “Voters will have an exciting opportunity this November to make Portland work better for all of us. This measure is our unified response to what Portlanders told us is the change we need.”