Another Viewpoint: The case against the city manager

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On July 14 the citizens of Portland voted to establish a commission to review the City Charter. Several issues could be taken up by the commission, including the addition of a public clean election fund, expansion of ranked-choice voting, and the elimination of the city manager position.

All of these suggested changes to the charter would allow increased participation in the democratic process by historically marginalized groups. The elimination of the city manager position – born out of xenophobia, elitism, and racism – is the most important issue to be debated.

Portland’s city fathers, in conjunction with the Ku Klux Klan, campaigned nearly a century ago to change the charter to wrest power away from the citizenry, when a plurality of Blacks, Irish, Indigenous Peoples, and working poor threatened to take control.

As a result, the charter was changed from requiring a popularly elected mayor in charge of the business of the city, along with a two-chamber legislative system consisting of an alderman and three common councilors from each district, to a council-appointed city manager.

Portland’s charter gives its manager all executive power within the city. The city manager oversees day-to-day operations and dictates the city’s long term goals. Essentially, the city manager controls all municipal programs, departments, and activities but is not accountable to the electorate.

On Sept. 11, 1923, after the charter proposal was approved by voters, the headline above a story in The New York Times was “Klan Wins Victory at Portland Polls.”

There are many in Portland who are unhappy with the policies of the city manager. Under the current charter, they have little recourse. Power rests with the City Council. The charter gives a council majority – five of the nine councilors – the ability to appoint and to terminate the city manager. In a city of 66,000, only five people have the power to determine how things run.

Let us not forget that the districts these councilors represent either thrive or wilt under the direction of the city manager. The city manager has the power to starve a district. In June the entire council came out in support of the city manager, meaning if Portland wants to replace the manager, voters would have to remove five councilors from office.

I don’t doubt the resolve of the citizens of Portland, but it shouldn’t be that hard to bring about change.

There is an appetite for changing the city government. The most recent change to the City Charter reestablished a popularly elected mayor and increased the mayor’s influence in the operation of the city. Portland should revert to the century-old iteration of the charter that had the Ku Klux Klan so afraid that it needed to change the rules and move the goalposts.

Each of Portland’s five districts could elect three common council representatives and one alderman. The city at large would elect a mayor who will absorb the responsibilities of the city manager. This would increase citizen representation from nine individuals to 21. Imagine a voting system that allows constituents to vote their conscience without threat of throwing their vote away, voting on a legislative body of 21 elected representatives who didn’t have to have thousands of dollars on hand to run for office.

There will be those who oppose such a drastic change. They will say it will be too complicated. It was not too complicated for the people of Portland in 1820. Portland has the aptitude. They will say that the system works. Works for whom? The system does not work for the laid-off service industry workers of this city who now face eviction. The system does not work for the people sleeping in Deering Oaks.

Changing the charter wouldn’t just give a voice to those who wish to build a better city, it would give them the tools to build it themselves.

A racist system that becomes the status quo does not cease to be racist simply because those who use it are not racist. In Portland, the Ku Klux Klan succeeded in its endeavor to minimize the effect of the minority working class for the last 97 years, despite its absence.

City Manager Jon Jennings sees himself as a politician. He was a White House fellow and worked in the Clinton administration. He ran for Congress. It’s high time Jennings runs for mayor and lets Portland decide if he is the politician he says he is.

Portland is its people. Portland is not an asset of the elite that requires management. The City Charter must be changed and the office of the city manager eliminated.

Adam O’Connor is a Portland resident who intends to run for a seat on the Charter Commission from District 4.

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