By State Representative Rob Nosse
I am voting “no” on Measure 26-228, the charter reform proposal to remake our city government. There I said it and, believe me, I really want a different/better form of city government. I am hoping that by voting “no” we can have more discussion, take the best parts of what is being proposed and vote on changes next year. Rather than re-cap the measure, I will share my concerns and invite you to consider my observations. Of course, make up your own mind.
The interplay between the city manager, the mayor and the city council is not clear enough. I want a mayor or a city manager to have all the bureaus of government reporting to them for operational and day-to-day purposes. I want the council to focus on policy making, helping their constituents and monitoring the mayor and the bureaus.
I would prefer that we have a mayor who runs the city, so it is clear who ultimately runs things. Most smaller cities have a city manager, hired by the council, who runs the city on a day-to-day basis with the mayor serving more like a member of council. Ideally, we would have one or the other and not a hybrid where it’s unclear who runs the city, making the mayor less relevant.
I am not a fan of four districts with three representatives picked from those four geographic areas for a total of 12 council members. I want a larger council, but I want single-member districts with smaller geographic areas to serve. I want to know that someone represents our part of Portland at city hall and feels responsible to help voters from this area with building permits, policing challenges or anything else. I think this multi-member approach leaves it unclear who a voter should contact when they have a concern, something that is already an issue with our current system.
I am fine with ranked choice voting, but I am not a fan of ranked choice voting in four large districts that are represented by three people with the style of rank choice voting that has been proposed. The ballot tallying method is hard to understand. Here is a summary I found online: “For City Council seats a “single transferable vote” method is used. Candidates win when they exceed a threshold set by the number of available positions. Ballots are counted in rounds; any candidate exceeding the threshold is elected and the candidates votes above the threshold are proportionally transferred to other candidates based on voter preference. The candidate receiving the fewest votes each round is eliminated and the candidate’s votes are transferred to other candidates based on voters’ preferences. The process continues for as many rounds as necessary until all positions are filled.”
I keep reading it and I am still not sure how it will work. It does not read like the candidates who get the most votes win. I think that is a recipe for suspicion and mistrust. How votes are counted and who wins must be straightforward, especially in a rank choice system.
It seems like one of the goals of this proposal is to ensure that minority communities will more often be elected and thus have seats on council in order to advocate for their interests and needs. I am supportive of that goal. However, this process can also work to get other candidates more easily elected who might appeal to voters who also don’t feel represented based on their ideology. A candidate could appeal to a base of renters, landlords, conservatives, “People for Portland” adherents and win. I want candidates to campaign, legislate and work to represent their whole district to the best of their ability and not focus on appealing to a certain segment of voters.
If this passes as is, it will leave us a more divided city. We can do MOST of the things that the commission has contemplated and at the same time put forth a different proposal(s) that includes a simpler voting method and more clarity about who is in charge–a city manager or a mayor. We can get district representation; we can have ranked choice voting (hopefully a simple ranked choice voting system) and avoid a possible unintended consequence that results in more “fringe” groups running candidates and winning.
I didn’t come to this decision lightly and readers who subscribe to my newsletter know I have been wrestling with this all summer. I have a lot of friends and organizational allies who, like me, want our city’s governmental structure to work better and who support these changes, but I cannot get there. Being a “no” does not mean I am attacking the people who worked on the Charter Commission. They gave us a lot to consider.
Our city government needs to work better for its residents. But the Charter Commission’s proposal will make it harder to get the city back on track. Let’s vote “no” in November and try again so we can get to a better version, a better “yes.”