Our Viewpoint: Charter Commission is no place for politics as usual

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The streets of Portland are lined with campaign signs, and a lively race to fill seats on the city’s upcoming Charter Commission is headed for a vote on June 8. The intense political activity is at once a positive sign, and also a cause for concern.

Once elected, the commission will be able to recommend changes in the government structure of the city, which will then have to be approved by the voters.

It is indeed time to consider revisions to a document that in practice, over the last several years, has led to a power imbalance between the elected mayor and City Council, and an empowered city manager and staff. City Hall often seems like an inscrutable bureaucracy that is not responsive to the wishes of residents.

Power always abhors a vacuum, and the council and mayors have ceded much of their authority to a long-serving city manager, who proposes the budget, hires department heads, and often initiates new policy goals. A full review of the city’s governing structure is welcome and timely.

But it is disturbing that the contest for seats on the commission has become in some cases not a forum for ideas, but a battle featuring personal attacks and candidate “slates” whose endorsements favor those who adhere to a pre-determined outcome for the commission, mostly backing the creation of a strong mayor system. 

Ad hoc groups have staked out positions and attacked other candidates – in one case describing one as a “rabid Republican” (a moniker richly undeserved).  These interest groups arrive at their endorsements by means of simplistic surveys, and some candidates who have rightly objected to this approach don’t get their endorsements. This exercise is not illuminating for the voters.

We urge Portland voters to instead support candidates who are thoughtfully open to change, but who resist the angry name-calling and rhetoric that has already shown up in this race.

Portland politics, since Progressive Portland, and now apparently with People First Portland, has sharpened the divisions in the city’s political atmosphere and brought an unwelcome level of “attack” politics. The issues and opportunities facing the Charter Commission should be considered with creativity and open discussion, and not bound by adherence to a pre-determined outcome.