Charter reform fail: Who's to blame?

The kids at the Weed, who are becoming almost as insufferable as the kids at the Merc, can't understand why, oh why, the goofball hash that's been put together by the city's amateur charter revision commission isn't getting overwhelming universal support. They have a spin, though, and it's the usual:

What we found was a stalemate that could have been avoided because its dynamics are so familiar to even a casual observer of Portland politics: idealistic progressives who want to redistribute power to the silenced, quarreling with politically connected traditionalists who think the city is squandering its best virtues.

What’s worse is the inattention of Mayor Wheeler and other city leaders that has allowed values that ought to be harmonious—diversity and functionality—to be used as weapons against each other.

I'm not sure what most of that means – "Ted Wheeler bad," I get – but the Weed's critique has a strong odor of "Stick It To The Man" to it. And ironically, that's the root of the problem with the charter reform "package," of which the "reporters" (opinion writers, really) are so fond. 

The charter proposal was slapped together by a gaggle of young people with time on their hands – mostly cronies of politicians and drawn from various government agencies and the nonprofit shadow government. These commissioners were selected, by the existing City Council, to check various boxes and look as "equitable" as possible. If you want "politically connected," they're veritable poster children.

There were 20 members. Number of political science experts included? Zero. Number of political consultants? Zero. Number of people who have actually run something at City Hall? One. Number of people with gray hair? Two or three.

And like so many I've-got-an-idea-let's-put-on-a-show advisory panels, they quickly became intoxicated with their own opinions and decided to flex. Stick It To The Man, all or nothing. 

That, folks, is why nothing is going to pass, this time around at least. You see, The Man has votes.

Take just one aspect of the commission's proposal: ranked-choice voting. What the heck is that all about? It's a solution in search of a problem. Supposedly it's going to create a more diverse City Council, but I'm looking at the one we have now, which is 60 percent people of color and 40 percent women, and the city's in the worst shape it's been in 50 years or more. It's bad enough that we, the taxpayers, are actually paying fringe candidates and their entourages millions of dollars every election cycle to run for office. That kind of "redistribute-power-to-the-silenced" business we're already doing, and it's causing more harm than good.

More fundamentally, there's this thing called "one person, one vote," and in a democracy, it's kind of sacred. The charter reform proposal hinges on adopting a crazy vote-counting experiment that gives the most out-of-touch voters two or three bites of the apple. That pretty much dooms the whole enterprise to failure among some people, me included.

The right way to reform Portland City Hall is going to have to be incremental. Start by doing the one thing that everyone agrees needs to be done: Ditch the commission form of government, and replace it with a city manager. Leave the four at-large City Council members and the mayor in place for now, with the same votes they have currently; just stop having them run bureaucracies they have no business running. 

Then stop. Take a breath.

Step 2 can come later: election by district. And not just four districts, and not three bobbleheads from each district. I'd argue for six districts, or even eight, with one council member per district, all up for election at the same time. And I'd go ahead and draw the damn district maps and let the voters approve them, or not, instead of leaving it all up to some suspicious gerrymandering process to be named later.

That would pretty much be the end, for a long time.

The charter commission's misguided package may go down in flames, as it deserves to, but there's no need to wait another 10 years to try something smarter. I believe the City Council can offer change to the public any time it wants. And if the Council won't, I believe that a citizens' petition can go over their heads. If people care enough, the right thing can happen.

In the meantime, if you don't want the fries, the diet Coke, and the toy, you don't have to buy the whole happy meal. Hold out for just the burger.


  1. The general arch of your thoughts here are correct and supported by the text I need to write the following. You clearly do not understand the rank choice voting system in general but especially the one proposed. Save for the fact approval voting is way better than rank choice, they devised a pretty good version of rank choice which is already way better than how we vote now. They designed it such that if your top vote wins the most votes your successive votes lower in value. Basically it is designed to guarantee that if the top voter is Uber liberal the next elected official will likely be more in the middle and possibly the third most votes may even be right leaning. But obviously the fact that this is hard to explain is it’s doom but the rank choice part of this is the best long term part of the proposal. But I agree it should be incremental and start with the city manager part. Please research rank choice voting more but then learn about approval voting and it’s success in Fargo ND

  2. It is a convoluted mess, and as I say, a solution in search of a problem. Fargo, North Dakota? Ha! Ha! Yeah, a place Portland really wants to emulate.

    We have a primary, then if no one gets a majority, a general election. It's eminently fair. One person, one vote. Works fine.

    1. Rank choice is still one person once vote. What is wrong with Fargo? Second they have Approval voting, it is not rank choice, it is easier and better than rank choice which itself is better than the duopoly supporting system we have now. Alaska and Maine use rank choice. It works. Please, your larger point is right here and this charter reform is going to sink like the titanic. But I beg you to research rank choice, STAR, and approval voting. These are the tools that we will bring back the political center and defang the extremes.

    2. I'll trade you ranked choice voting for public financing of fringe candidates.

  3. We need a system that people can understand. If I have a problem in my district, I shouldn't have to reach three different offices. We need a simple election that doesn't require a computer to keep evaluating over and again. We don't need candidates scheming a buddy system to polevault into office. (Sorry. I'm just an old white guy.)

  4. This charter reform is great. I'm excited to watch.

    It is sort of like The Border with Alternative Migrants question, but for the minor leaguers. Both end up in the same situation - failed law & order, failed education, pervasive outside influence, institutional corruption and thieving, organized crime cartels reaping predictable benefits. Matriarchal overlords. I think we should used our rust bucket navy to create a sea pipline relocating xxxx's population to the Pacific Northwest

    Here is the key: In war your work goes better if you believe you will die; in contemporary America the nation will die. So, don't worry about it. Always something new coming along. Isn't there


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