Another Viewpoint: What’s going on with the Portland Charter Commission?

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Originally formed to revise the City Charter to allow “fair elections” payment to City Council candidates, the Portland Charter Commission process has morphed into multiple and potentially costly initiatives, including School Board budget autonomy, a revamped police review board, an ethics commission, and municipal voting by non-citizens.

In addition, a major overhaul of city government is proposed, perhaps to include an executive mayor with budget development authority, additional council districts (and an expanded City Council), increased pay for the mayor and city councilors, and an elected ombudsman.

Many charter commissioners fault existing city governance and profess the need for more accessibility, transparency, and accountability. But in their months-long process, they do not practice what they preach. 

Agendas are posted late, with additions made right up until meetings begin. Documentation for topics to be discussed, and for public comment, are often not made public until just before the meetings, and some are not posted at all. Although committees were established to provide the opportunity for research and informed discussion of complex topics – especially governance – some commissioners have been allowed to make proposals without disclosure of their source.  

Most notably, Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, a member of the governance committee, made a surprise proposal in mid-December. Despite a written request by the committee chair to disclose who helped her with this proposal, and two requests made in a public meeting by a fellow committee member, she declined to do so. When asked to press her to disclose who helped her, the commission chair also declined to act.

In response to a Freedom of Access Act request, Sheikh-Yousef has represented that she has turned over all requested information. The city has provided all documentation from her city email address. But her personal emails and text message to and from her of drafts of her proposals have not been provided. It is inconceivable that they do not exist.

Predictably, when questions about this lack of transparency are raised, those who raise them are accused by Progressive Portland and others of racism and misogyny. I will run that risk.

It is simply unacceptable that those who have been purporting to champion accessibility, transparency, and accountability do not practice what they preach.  

I have been trying to follow the chaotic and confusing Charter Commission process, listen with an open mind, and offer thoughtful comments, as have other members of the public.  It is disheartening to see such comments apparently dismissed while some commissioners pursue radical solutions to declared, but not validated, problems.  

I hope Portland voters are watching the Charter Commission process, will study the ultimate recommendations carefully, and will cast informed votes on Nov. 8, rather than buying into the kind of campaign rhetoric we are already seeing.

Anne Pringle is a former Portland city councilor and council-elected mayor, and president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association.

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