Nothing to lose

Well, the volunteers charged with coming up with a new form of city government for Portland have spoken. This is the group that is assembled every 10 years or so to make a proposal for "charter reform" that never goes anywhere. The city is so screwed up at this point, though, that maybe something will happen this time around.

The proposed changes include:

1. Get rid of the "commission" system, where the City Council members run the bureaus. Hire a city manager, who will run things with the mayor. The council members make policy, then go home. The mayor does not vote on the council.

2. Elect the City Council by geographic district, with four districts.

3. Expand the City Council to 12 people, three from each district.

4. Get rid of primaries, with just one election and "ranked choice" voting, where the voter votes for three candidates, in order of preference.

I suspect that most Portlanders will like some of the proposals, and dislike others. It's not clear at this point whether we'll have to vote the whole package up or down, or whether it will be broken down into pieces. If as I suspect it's one package, take it or leave it, it stands a far lesser chance of passing.

All I'm interested in is items 1 and 2. I don't think we need 12 people with their "chiefs of staff" and public relations flacks and all the other baloney. And I don't see how "ranked choice" voting has anything to do with what the charter commission was supposed to address. It's an entirely separate subject that they should have butted out of.

But I would vote yes, even on the whole package, because the City Hall we have now is a complete and total failure.

The charter commission's proposal now goes to the city attorney's office for the drafting of formal legal language. The devil is in the details, literally.


  1. I think #1 and #2 must to go together. A commission system + geographic districts creates too many problems, namely that commissioners will feel they have a duty to "their" bureau and "their" district.

    I like the idea of expanding city council, although Jack does raise a good point with staff proliferation. It'll be a lot harder to get seven votes for dopey ideas than three. (Also, if there's going to be an even number of voting commissioners, the charter should be clear that a majority is required for an ordinance/resolution to pass.)

    I'd love to ditch the primary. Under the current system, you can have someone elected to council will less than 15% of voters choosing the person (e.g., 29% turnout where the winner gets 50%+1 of the 29%).

    Not a fan of ranked choice voting as it can lead to some bizarre outcomes and creates even more bizarre campaign incentives.

  2. Would the aggregate salaries for thr commissioners remain the same after they move from 5 to 12?

    1. Good question. Presumably removing the ministerial duties would remove the need for multiple liaisons to the bureaus in a given commissioners “portfolio”, but it doesn’t (yet) appear to be addressed in the charter commission’s documents.

  3. The absence of ranked choice voting within each of the four geographic districts would mean three separate races within each district. That might lead to funneling of campaign funds by, as Jack says, “developer weasels”, to a recruited candidate in each race. I’m not sure if the ranked choice voting would affect such a scenario or not.

  4. I'm amenable to those conditions. I'm assuming that the 'mayor' is elected city-wide, and that the city manager is hired. If so, who does the hiring? One tweak might be to select three from each of five districts, or, even better, two from each of seven districts (N, NW, NE, far NE, SE, far SE, SW), with the mayor as a tie-breaker only.

  5. I have for years argued that Portland needed to get rid of its antiquated and arcane system and hire a city manager. The way that the Mayor distributes bureaus to city commissioners -- many of whom have little if any subject matter expertise in the bureaus that they are assigned -- hardly seems workable save to create fiefdoms and set the stage for turf battles.


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