Election of a Charter Commission in June will have a significant impact on operations at Portland City Hall. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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One of Portland’s most anticipated local elections will take place June 8: a contest to elect members of the next Charter Commission.

But after many months of discussion, and dozens of potential candidates considering running, the question for many residents still remains: What exactly is a Charter Commission?

In general, the answer is relatively easy. But understanding how Portland got here is murkier.

What is the City Charter?

In essence, a city’s charter is the municipality’s constitution. The National League of Cities describes a municipal charter as the “basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government.” As such, it is the city’s most important legal document.

The charter defines how the city operates. It dictates how officials are elected, whether the municipality is run by a mayor or manager, how and when elections are handled, how recall elections operate, and other provisions.

By that standard, a charter commission is a panel that is occasionally convened to review and possibly recommend revisions and updates to the city’s constitution. How a charter commission is convened varies from state to state, since the states are the governing body around charter laws.

Some U.S. cities convene a charter commission with more regularity. Portland, Oregon, for example, convenes a commission once every decade. In Maine, state law says municipal officers may revise the charter or even propose adopting a new charter, or establish a charter commission, at their discretion. State law also says residents of the municipality may call for a charter commission through a petition process.

Once convened, the Portland Charter Commission will have the ability to recommend sweeping changes to the way the city is governed. But the commission only has the ability to make recommendations; any changes must be approved by voters in a referendum.

There are several ways the Charter Commission can be filled. Portland opted to follow the same method it used in 2010: the City Council appointed three members, and the remaining nine will be elected. Of those nine, four will be at-large commissioners; the rest will each represent one of the city’s five voting districts.

Next week: Profiles of the candidates who hope to be elected to the Portland Charter Commission.

Commission appointees don’t have to be residents of the city, but only one can be a municipal officer. After receiving nearly 40 applications last summer, the council appointed Michael Kebede, Peter Eglinton, and Dory Waxman.

The 12-person panel will elect its own chair, vice chair, and secretary; hold its first public hearing within 30 days, and then set dates for additional public hearings. Within nine months, the commission must have a preliminary report on recommended revisions to the City Charter. And three months later – a year after it first convened – it must have a final report for the City Council. The council may also extend the schedule for submitting the preliminary and final reports for up to two years after the election of the commissioners.

Within 35 days after the final report is filed, the council must submit the recommended revisions to city voters.

The Charter Commission will exist for an additional month after submitting its final report to wrap up any last items, and then will be terminated.

But that still leaves the question of how and why Portland reached this point.

It’s complicated 

In September 2019, a group called Fair Elections Portland sought to have a charter amendment placed on the city ballot to provide taxpayer funding for city elections. The group sued the city in September 2019 after councilors rejected the proposal. 

Fair Elections Portland originally sought language requiring the council to ask voters to establish a Charter Commission only if it felt the proposal required a revision to the charter. Fair Election Portland circulated a petition that received more than 6,800 signatures. The specific language, however, was accidentally left off petitions by the city clerk’s office.

After the city attorney ruled the error prevented the question from being used as a proposed charter amendment, and would first require the creation of a Charter Commission, the council voted in October 2019 to put the commission question to voters. 

There wasn’t much excitement, or concern, surrounding the suggestion of a commission at first since many – including Fair Elections Portland – conceded the goal had never been to establish the commission at all. It had simply been to broker the amendment to enact taxpayer funding of elections.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators march along Commercial Street, June 1, 2020. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

But then the summer of 2020 happened.

With the world still in the relatively early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, June 2020 brought the nationwide outcry over George Floyd’s death in the custody of now-former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Portland, like many other U.S. cities, had several large demonstrations calling for racial justice. The increased activism led to the rise of Black POWER, formerly known as Black Lives Matter Portland, which supported local initiatives for racial equity – and in particular rebalancing the city’s council-manager style of government.

There were also calls for the removal of City Manager Jon Jennings by some who claimed he was responsible for policies that allegedly marginalized poor people and people of color. City officials, including Mayor Kate Snyder and several city councilors, defended Jennings, who had already survived an often-public dispute with former Mayor Ethan Strimling.

Strimling, the city’s second popularly elected mayor after the last Charter change, wanted his office to have more control over city policy. Strimling lost his re-election bid in 2019 amid frequent clashes with councilors and Jennings.

Those in favor of another wide-ranging City Charter change have picked up Strimling’s mantra that the city manager’s office is too powerful and unaccountable, and unlike the mayor and councilors, not accountable to voters. Indeed, the manager is accountable only to the City Council and serves under a contract. Jennings, who has been the manager since 2015, has announced he will step down when his contract expires in July 2022.

One of the organizations hoping to elect several candidates to the commission and reexamine the mayor-manager dynamic is People First Portland.

Kate Sykes, a representative for the progressive group and one of the original committee members for Fair Elections Portland, said it was interesting to see where the discussions around this process have ended up from what started as an attempt to reign in spending on local elections.

“What we came up against was a City Council that did not want to relinquish control to the citizens,” Sykes said.

She said People First Portland, which successfully backed a slate of referendum questions last year, wants to clarify the discussion around the idea of eliminating the city manager position. She said it is “ludicrous” to think people want to totally abolish the administrative role the manager plays, and then have the mayor take over day-to-day things like payroll. 

“It’s about power and accountability,” Sykes said. “We’re not saying we’re not going to have someone do administrative tasks, but we want that person not to be making political decisions. That should be done by an elected official. This system gives too much power to someone not elected by the voters.”

But not everyone wants to overhaul city government.

A question of focus

City resident Shoshana Hoose, a former spokesperson for Portland Public Schools, said she supported the original intent behind the petition but does not agree with the characterization that just because voters approved creating the commission, they are eager for a new governing structure.

Hoose said her concern stems from hearing some candidates claim those who initially supported the petition want wholesale changes to city government, when the original scope of the request was much more narrow. Hoose, who is now a teacher, said it wasn’t that long ago that the city revisited and updated the way its government operates and said it’s worth keeping.

“I’ve heard some candidates portray this as a groundswell of support to change government,” she said. “… I want to make sure the discussion wasn’t suggesting this began as a grassroots effort to change government in a wholesale way, that it was a much more narrow focus.”

Hoose said her time in the School Department allowed her to see the benefits of having a clear separation between the superintendent, who was her boss, and the politics of the School Board. 

“I worry if we got rid of the manager, there will be a different dynamic where employees feel beholden to elected officials,” she said.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings

Eventually last summer, the calls for Jennings’ resignation evolved into questions about the scope of power in his office, and the relative lack of power held by the mayor. And, as luck would have it for those seeking to change the power dynamic, there happened to be an avenue to do so: the upcoming Charter Commission.

Despite opposition from several city councilors, and thanks in part to the protests over the summer of 2020, the proposal last July to form the commission was overwhelmingly supported by voters, 13,220 to 4,998. 

But that also led to an unexpected conflict.

Portland typically holds two regular elections: one in November for municipal and statewide offices, and one in June, which historically includes the school budget validation referendum and party primaries for legislative and statewide candidates. The vote to establish the Charter Commission in a normal year would have been held in June 2020, but 2020 was far from a normal year.

Due to the pandemic, statewide June elections were delayed a month to allow cities and towns to adopt appropriate public health measures. Which seemed fine, until it came to electing members of the Charter Commission.

Even after all the debate that resulted in the council reluctantly sending the proposal to voters, and voters overwhelmingly supporting the commission, there was still significant controversy around the timing of the Charter Commission. 

Because that vote was pushed until July, City Clerk Kathy Jones said the commission election couldn’t happen in November 2020. There were several deadlines to meet, including that nomination papers had to be available 127 days before the election, she said. 

Between July 14, when voters approved the Charter Commission, and Election Day on Nov. 3, there were just 112 days.

City officials and experts on state election law argued and debated Jones’ interpretation, but Nov. 3 came and went. Proponents then sought a special election as soon as possible, which Jones estimated could have been held as early as Feb. 3, 2021.

But the City Council opted not to hold a special election because of the increased cost it would require: approximately $71,500 versus the already budgeted $33,000 to conduct the vote in June.

‘Multi-pass instant runoff’

Portland last convened a Charter Commission in 2009. As a result, Portland voters supported changing the power structure of the City Council. They replaced the ceremonial mayor, a city councilor chosen annually by his or her colleagues, with a popularly elected mayor. 

The 2011 election was also the launching pad for another initiative the Charter Commission recommended: ranked-choice voting. Nearly 20 candidates ran in that mayoral election, and Michael Brennan was ultimately elected.

But the new system has not exactly produced consistency at City Hall. There have been three mayoral elections in the decade since that last Charter Commission was convened, and there have been three different mayors: Brennan, Strimling, and now Snyder.

The current Charter Commission election produced two dozen candidates; three of them – Em Burnett, Hope Rovelto, and Twain Braden – have withdrawn. But even with more than 20 candidates remaining, the district elections should be straightforward; the challenge may come in the election of the four at-large commissioners.

In previous elections, a voter would simply choose the four candidates they supported, the votes would be counted, the top four vote-getters would win, and that would be it. But under Portland’s ranked-choice voting system, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win a seat.

Jones said in the case of the four at-large seats, the city will essentially be conducting four different ranked-choice voting elections. Each candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the initial vote will be removed from the pool of candidates and the count will reset until four candidates are elected. Jones called this a “multi-pass instant runoff” vote.

All 11 polling places will be open in the city on June 8 from 7 a.m.-8 p.m., and absentee voting is already underway. The city will allow in-person absentee voting from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. until June 4, with the hours extended to 7 p.m. on June 3. Absentee ballots can be requested from the clerk’s office and through an online request form.