How the Pandemic Contributed to Ballot Initiatives in Three Cities

In a post-pandemic era, we are highlighting some outcomes of local democracy reform efforts approved by voters from across the country.

From the Pacific Northwest to the Mountain Plains, local voters considered and approved major reforms, while in the upper Midwest, measures reforming local governance systems passed by voters in 2021, are being implemented. What they all have in common is that these efforts took shape during a global health pandemic, a time of nationwide social and economic stress that was addressed with the compassionate engagement of communities in the name of making it better this time.

Portland, Oregon

Considered by locals to be one of the most sweeping changes to make a local government more inclusive, on November 8, 58% of Portland voters approved a charter amendment that has three major components. First, to increase the number of city council members, from five to twelve, and, second, the newly constituted council will be elected by newly established districts, three members from each of the four yet-to-be mapped districts. And the third change is in establishing an office of the mayor, separate from the city council to lead the city alongside an appointed city administrator. The city administrator will oversee the city’s cabinet or bureaus, which had previously been under the administration of the five commissioners. It is the first time in over 100 years that the charter has changed. There are transition committees and processes already in place as they are working to meet the November 2024 implementation deadline. Adding to the change management processes, the city will be working with the county to implement a form of ranked choice voting for the election in November 2024.

Portland, by law, is required to review its charter every ten years. The process that led to this most recent ballot measure convened in summer of 2020. Locals acknowledge that the timing of the nightly protests on Portland’s streets and nationwide attention to issues of racism and injustices in social and economic spheres in cities were part of the impetus for deeper conversations about making local government more accountable and equitable.

You can read more about Portland’s charter revisions here.

Boulder, Colorado

Moving east to the mountain plains region, on November 8th, over 63% of Boulder voters supported a ballot initiative that changes the year of the municipal election to even years on the same date as the state’s general election, all driven by a popular view that this would increase engagement and voter turnout. This was an initiative that sprang forward in the pandemic years, with the argument that the November 2021 election had a very low turnout, and this change could broaden engagement and participation. As the student body of the University of Colorado was in hybrid classroom mode in November of 2021, students were not in campus dorms, some have argued that it was the absence of the student vote, not an apathetic electorate in an odd-year election cycle. It is well known by campaign workers that CU students vote on election day as the campus is a popular location for campaigning and GOTV efforts every year. The implementation of this new law is scheduled to be election day in November of 2026. It will be a circuitous route. For municipal elections in November of 2023 and 2025, those elected will serve a three-year term, instead of staggered 2- and 4-year terms. Boulder voters approved the popular election of a mayor in November of 2021, and this first election will be November of 2023.

Read more about Boulder’s reforms here.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

In November of 2021, Minneapolis voters approved an amendment to the city charter to adopt an “executive mayor-legislative council” structure. According to the proposed structure work group report “Minnesota was the fourth state in the nation to authorize home rule authority. The path to home rule in Minneapolis was unorthodox, with multiple proposals being rejected before a charter was adopted in 1920. Still, that charter was not the product of a deliberative process; instead, it codified the patchwork of existing laws applicable to the City of Minneapolis at that time. The result was a highly complex government structure which diffused legislative, and executive functions among multiple officials and policymaking bodies.”

Providing the rationale for its proposals, the report continues by saying, “our proposal to define, clarify, and separate executive and legislative responsibilities strikes at the core of the city’s government structure. By doing so, it is our goal to create a system that will establish clear accountability, achieve greater efficiency in operations, and ensure the city remains responsive to the needs and priorities of the community.”

Like the other communities highlighted in this article, change was prompted by the pandemic and social unrest. Minneapolis’ working group report stated: “our consideration of this proposal played out during one of the most challenging periods in city’s history: a global health pandemic; severe, nationwide economic stress; extreme political polarization; the murder of George Floyd in police custody; significant civil unrest; and the worldwide racial reckoning still unfolding.”

In October of 2022, the city adopted a new structure. Their new organizational chart positions “residents” at the top, with the mayor and city council directly below. The four direct reports to the mayor are the city operations officer, city attorney, community safety commissioner, and chief of staff. The direct reports of the city council are the city clerk and the auditor.

Read more about Minneapolis’ reforms here.

The National Civic League acknowledges and appreciates the community leaders across the country, who are from all walks of life and who have contributed in many ways to improving the workings of their local government in these years of excessive threats to general wellbeing and safety. In these examples, people shaping the structure of government are looking more like who they see in the grocery store or at the elementary school playground. These are the new local influencers who are contributing mightily to the places they call home. Democracy in action today looks like people convening to express what they value in their communities and after thoughtful engagement, asking voters to consider changes in the authority, structures, and processes that impact local government services.

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