Representatively Speaking October 2022

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.”

Representatively Speaking October 2022

5 thoughts on “Representatively Speaking October 2022”

  1. I just want to say that I have a master’s degree and still have trouble wrapping my head around how the proposed “STV” method works. What will the average voter think, that is, if they want to understand how their vote will be counted?

  2. I trust the process. A lot of people worked a long time to develop this proposal, and they were very clear on the value of representation of participation. I think they knew what they were doing, and that we have the possibility for a truly innovative and responsive city government. The challenges of our times require us to be bold – I am voting Yes!

  3. Thank you Rep Nosse for taking the political risk to voice a common sense opinion on this. I am persuaded and am hoping I will have a chance to vote for Mingus’ proposal next year.

  4. Not exactly sure how you’re not understanding the Single Transferable Vote mechanism or how it selects candidates from the ranked ballots after having time to research it; there are many websites that offer explainers on how it works. It’s a proportional method, so wondering if the method makes sure that “candidates who get the most votes win” shows that you may not understand how it works or are not well versed in democratic theory if you think that winner-take-all single member districts are somehow a “natural” way of electing a majority bloc of councilors.

    Reading on, you do say that you are worried that the method would result in “more “fringe” groups running candidates and winning,” so it seems you kind of get it, but since you already seem confused by the process of how STV works as a method and how it constitutes majorities in a governing body, I’m not sure you know how “fringe” a “fringe group” would have to be to get elected. The text of the measure says that “the threshold is determined by the number of seats to be filled plus one, so that the threshold is the lowest number of votes a candidate must receive to win a seat such that no more candidates can win election than there are seats to be filled.” In layman’s terms, that means that with 3 seats to fill, the threshold to receive a seat would be 25% (total votes divided by 4 (3 seats + 1)). 25% is not a fringe amount of votes even in a single district, so if “fringe groups” only constitute 10% public support, they’d not get a seat on the council.

    What’s odd is that you say elsewhere that “I want a larger council, but I want single-member districts with smaller geographic areas to serve,” but you do realize that supporting more single-member districts while opposing a system that you say will elect more “fringe groups” is actually contradictory? Because the more districts you have, the higher chance there is that a “fringe group” that is concentrated geographically will be able to elect a candidate of its choice, when in bigger districts, their votes get diluted and wasted as they become a “fringe group” in the bigger district.

    If I lived in your district, I’d definitely vote for you, so it’s not politics that leads me to critique your understanding of STV or democratic theory, but I feel that you have not given much thought to the STV mechanism and it led you to oppose this measure overall and to give opinions that sully the concept of proportionality in representation generally.

    1. Well said! More than concerned that Norse doesn’t understand these concepts and can’t see the glaring contradiction you point out. The 25% threshold seems pretty clear which makes me worry that this column is less of a good faith just-don’t-get-it statement and more like a column meant to muddy the debate and preserve a progressive credential when actually faced with a truly progressive choice.

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