Portland Oregon has been an odd duck when it comes to governance structure, but that may change soon. Portland’s third Charter Commission has just released its first progress report on reform and is recommending a change from a commission form of government to one that separates legislative and executive roles.
In Portland’s current commission form of government, the mayor assigns each city council member several bureaus to manage individually. Prior to the council-manager structure, this form of government was thought to allow cities to be agile when responding to emergencies because councilors could make quick decisions for their assigned bureaus. However, this form of government is now over 100 years old and is beginning to show signs of age. Portland is the last major US city to use the commission form of government, and the flexibility that should be afforded by the commission style of government has instead resulted in a lack of accountability, little transparency, and little change for Portlanders.1
Interestingly, if the proposed reforms are adopted it may actually mark Portland’s return to a mayor-council form of government. In 1913, a major rewrite to Portland’s charter was enacted which reduced the City Council’s size from 15 councilors to four, changed those city council seats to all at-large positions, and changed the city’s government from a mayor-council form to the commissioner style that is still in effect today.1 Since 1917, there have been eight attempts to repeal the commissioner form of government, but all attempts have failed. In 2005, the first charter commission introduced a measure which would have changed the city’s government back to a mayor-council model, but this measure failed at the ballot as well.1
The Charter Commission has unanimously agreed that City Council members should no longer directly manage bureaus, and that a form of government separating executive (administrative) and legislative (policy) functions in city government should be adopted.2 With City Council members no longer in charge of separate bureaus, their focus can shift to legislative tasks such as lawmaking, community engagement, and community-driven decision making. Additionally, with City Council focusing more on legislative tasks, the quality of new laws should increase. City Councilors no longer designated to work on their own separate silos can instead be much more collaborative and focus on building intergovernmental relationships (Ibid. p. 14).
The executive duties of the proposed form of government will fall to a single office in charge of coordinating and overseeing the city’s programs and resources in the name of implementing policy passed by the city council (Ibid. p. 14), though the commission has not decided whether the top executive should be a mayor or city manager. Nonetheless, the commission believes that the separation of legislative and executive powers will create a sorely needed system of checks and balances, and that system will increase trust when new laws are made (Ibid. p. 13).
The charter commission has also recommended that the size of the city council be increased from its current size of five members (Ibid. p. 11). This change has the potential to be quite impactful, as a new council size of 9-15 members that is currently being considered by many commissioners (Ibid. p. 11) would double the number of elected officials. Along with a size increase, the commission also recommends a change that will shift city council from all at-large seats to a system that introduces geographic representation based on districts (Ibid. p. 11).
Councilors elected in Portland now are meant to represent the whole city, but the reality is that most city council members live in just a few areas of the city, which means that there are whole sections of Portland citizenry who aren’t being represented by someone from their area. Changing to a geographically representative system would allow prospective councilors in other districts to have a chance to represent the neighborhoods they have a connection to and feel that they can represent effectively.
The present direction of the Portland Charter Commission is more in line with practices common in other cities and the League’s Model City Charter. Just revised at the end of last year, the Model has always recommended the separation of legislative and executive functions, with an elected council that oversees a manager who oversees administration. We also recommend that legislators be elected either from districts or in a hybrid manner, with some from districts and some at-large.
To ensure that Charter Commission recommendations are in-line with the desires of Portlanders, the charter commission’s community engagement committee has used a wide variety of mediums to ensure that residents from various geographic areas and backgrounds have been consulted and involved in the decision-making process. Over 4,000 survey responses were tallied, nearly 800 public comments were received, and over five hours of verbal public comments have been sifted through to inform the Commission’s recommendations (Ibid. p. 3).
To conduct its outreach the Charter Commission partnered with the Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC), which was able to bring together a diverse group of voices from several communities including the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Hacienda CDC, Africa House, Street Roots, Slavic & Eastern European Center, Unite Oregon, Urban League of Portland, Verde, and Next Up (Ibid. p. 4). To further foster cultural relevance, the Charter Commission established a cohort of community organizations including Taking Ownership PDX, Hygiene4All, Equitable Giving Circle, Rosewood Initiative, East Portland Action Plan, Rohingya Youth Association of Portland, and Sunrise Movement (Ibid. p. 4). This inclusion was vital, as each cohort member was able to reach out to its own community and engage them while taking community-specific needs into account (Ibid. p. 4).
Public comments gathered during the engagement phase highlighted “form of government” (54% of comments) and “city council elections” (39% of comments) as the two most prominent topics to be reviewed (Ibid. p. 4). From those comments, the commission was able to see that the two most common themes are to shift away from the commissioner form of government and move to district-based elections (Ibid. p. 4). Community listening sessions held in November 2021 and January 2022 by the CCC and charter commission identified some key themes that fall in line with topics identified by public comment. 580 total participants came together to voice frustration over the lack of transparency within city government, a desire for increased accountability by the city, and overall, a strong desire for change (Ibid. p. 5). These diverse communities want to have their voices heard, and they want some strong governmental changes to ensure that they have a seat at the table with other Portlanders in 2022.
The charter commission plans to continue its community engagement efforts for another month and a half, during which time they will analyze resident and stakeholder feedback to try to put together the best possible reform package for Portlanders. In March 2022 the commission will vote on which recommendations will be submitted for amendment drafting and the approved measures will show up on ballots in November 2022. This spring, another phase of charter reviews will begin but topics have not been selected for this phase. The hard part, though, may be selling the proposals to a Portland electorate that has rejected these types of changes in the past.