Portland voters could launch overhaul of city government

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Voters on July 14 will be asked whether to establish a new commission to recommend revisions to the City Charter, a move that could potentially upend the structure of Portland’s government. 

The commission question is on the ballot after a tortured series of steps, including a lawsuit against the city by Fair Elections Portland, which filed a petition seeking to put a charter amendment on the city ballot to install taxpayer funding for elections. The group sued the city last September after councilors rejected the proposal.

The petition, which required the City Council to send the amendment to voters, contained more than 6,800 signatures, according to Anna Keller, executive director of Fair Elections Portland. 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.

But that language was accidentally left off petitions by the city clerk’s office. After the city attorney ruled such a question could not be sent out as a proposed charter amendment, and would first require the creation of a Charter Commission, the council voted again last October and overwhelmingly put the question to voters. 

While it was not initially the intention of Fair Elections Portland to revamp the city’s style of government, Keller said the group now supports the question on the July ballot.

The vote will come as Black Lives Matter protesters have questioned the power of the city manager, and called for the resignation of City Manager Jon Jennings. The protesters made their demands after a recent series of protests throughout the city in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In Portland, police clashed with protesters during a June 1 protest, using pepper spray on demonstrators and arresting dozens that night.

Several days later, Black Lives Matter demanded Jennings resign for allegedly creating policies that disadvantaged people of color. Mayor Kate Snyder and city councilors were quick to defend Jennings, who has held the job since 2015.

Keller said Fair Elections Portland now recognizes “the need for systemic and structural changes to ensure that Portland’s government is more open and responsive to its citizens,” The City Council’s unconstitutional refusal to place the proposed Charter Amendment on the municipal ballot is only one illustration of this need.”

Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau: “I think it would be unfortunate to reopen the charter after only 10 years, especially given the real success in collaboration we have seen with (Mayor Kate Snyder) and our city manager.”

City councilors, meanwhile, have a different view on the matter. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said that while he supports sending the question to voters, he is not in favor of what a commission could accomplish.

“I think it would be unfortunate to reopen the charter after only 10 years, especially given the real success in collaboration we have seen with (Snyder) and our city manager,” Thibodeau said. “I have seen firsthand the benefit of a good working relationship between Mayor Snyder and Manager Jennings as we navigate these unprecedented times.”

Councilor Pious Ali said he would support whatever the voters decide. “Where I personally stand does not necessarily matter,” he said.

Ali said this is about people deciding if the city government is working for them. He said if people are upset with the current style of government, they need to go out and support the measure. He said those who are happy with the style of government have to vote, too, to make sure their voices are heard.

“The idea of a government is to represent the people,” Ali said. “Sometimes government is not perfect. But this is part of the process. … I believe there are people out there who think the city government needs to change.”

Councilor Justin Costa also said he does not support the establishment of a Charter Commission.

“I think it would be a tremendous distraction at a time of real crisis and I would urge everyone to vote against creating one,” Costa said. 

Mayor Kate Snyder said she had mixed feelings about enacting a full Charter Commission to address one issue proposed by Fair Elections. She said even though they have a specific issue in mind, a commission opens up the possibility of looking into a much wider array of issues. She said establishing a commission would also be a lengthy, expensive process for the city, including holding elections.

“I hesitate about the fact one issue is the thing that got this question on the ballot,” Snyder said. “So I definitely have some pause and some concern about whether or not this is the right time to fully open up the city’s charter.”

She also said the last time the charter was opened, the large concern was around the city’s elected mayor position. She said it’s only been two full terms since then, and she doesn’t think that’s enough to have that conversation again.

Historic changes

The last commission, approved in 2008, included nine elected members and three council appointees. It ultimately made several recommendations, most significantly the return to a full-time, popularly elected mayor who serves a four-year term.

Previously, the mayor’s job was a largely ceremonial position filled by a city councilor, and elected by the council for a one-year term.

This commission also recommended the mayoral election be decided by ranked-choice voting, where a candidate must receive a majority of the popular vote to win and voters rank candidates in order of preference.

The first ranked-choice mayoral election was held in 2011, won by Michael Brennan after a lengthy vote tallying process in a race that had 18 candidates. Four years later, Ethan Strimling, who came in second in 2011, defeated Brennan. Last fall, Snyder defeated Strimling.

The commission called for the mayor to be the city’s political leader and chief representative while overseeing council policies and decisions while having the city manager oversee the city’s day-to-day operations.

The previous charter commission also recommended a better relationship between the council and the School Board, particularly regarding the budget process, by requiring regular budget meetings between the two groups.

Finally, the group recommended various language updates or clarifications to the charter, which had not been reviewed in about 25 years. These were based on recommendations from city departments and included the recall process for city councilors and school board members.

The commission recommended requiring signatures to recall an elected city official can only come from residents of the district represented by that individual; that the number of signatures required to recall a district representative need only be half the number required for an at-large representative, and that only district voters can vote in a recall election for a district representative.

Voters narrowly approved the changes to the charter in November 2010.