Charter Commission proposals highlight Portland ballot

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On Nov. 8, after more than a year’s worth of discussions, debates and disagreements, Portland voters will finally have a chance to decide whether it’s time to change how the city is governed.

The eight questions that came out of the Charter Commission are highlighted by Question 2 – the proposal to overhaul the power structure within City Hall. All of them emerged from countless meetings from the 12 elected Charter Commissioners.  

In all cases, a YES vote adopts the proposal while a NO vote leaves things as they are. Here’s what you’re voting on.

Illustration by Charlie Hindall | www.charliehindall.com

Question 1: The Land Acknowledgment

If passed, Question 1 would insert a short land acknowledgment into the city charter’s preamble to recognize that Portland is located in the unceded territory of the Aucocisco Band of the Wabanaki, which also includes the Abenaki, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people, and adds a short passage acknowledging the harm caused to those people by European colonizers. 

Question 2: Governance Model

Question 2 essentially reimagines city government, moving from the council-manager model that’s been in place since 1923 toward a mayor-council system used by a lot of major U.S. cities (like Boston, Houston and Chicago). 

It is the densest and most polarizing of the proposals to come from the Charter Commission’s work, and synthesizes several competing proposals from commissioners drafted over the last year. 

The list of changes a YES vote would effect is long and there’s a lot of moving parts — so bear with us as we explain it. If passed, it would…

  • Create an “executive mayor” separate from the council, and replace the city manager with a less powerful chief administrator.
  • Grant a raft of duties to that new executive mayor, like the power to appoint and remove that Chief Administrator, nominate department heads, have veto power over the city budget and ordinances (though the council can override that veto with a two-thirds supermajority vote), recommend rules for how the council communicates with city staff and elected officials, and issue executive orders to implement policy and introduce legislation to the council.
  • Increase the mayor’s salary from 1.5x to twice the city’s median household income, which would equate to about $120,000. It would also increase the stipend councilors receive from roughly $6,800 to 10 percent of the mayor’s salary.
  • Establish the role of the chief administrator — which again, essentially replaces the city manager — as responsible for administration of all departments and delivery of city services. It also grants this individual the right to remove department heads in consultation with the mayor.

If adopted, the vote also changes the makeup of the city council. That body would change shape in key ways, but whether it loses power with an executive mayor is an open question. A YES vote would…

  • Expand the size of the council from the current nine seats (with three at-large councilors) to 12 seats (also with three). Correspondingly, it would increase (and redraw) the number of city districts from the existing five to nine.
  • Give the city council power to censure or remove the mayor from office for cause, and to order a recall election of the mayor with a supermajority vote (8 of 12 councilors).
  • Require the council to establish a review committee to conduct regular evaluations of the corporation counsel and city clerk; hold regular meetings with the chief administrator and department heads to understand general working conditions and morale; and have the mayor lead an annual performance review of the chief administrator.
  • Increase the number of the school board districts from the current five to nine, while eliminating the three at-large seats on the board.
  • Enact other small changes, like establishing a non-binding joint committee on budget guidance, develop more participatory and citizen-led budget processes, require the chief administrator and school superintendent to map out a five-year capital improvement plan and clarify how vacancies are filled before municipal elections.

City officials estimate that implementing the Charter Commission proposals would add about $1 million annually to the budget.

Advocates of this governance change say it it would empower the residents of Portland as the chief executive of the city would be directly accountable to voters.

Dissenters say it gives too much power to a politician and argue that the existing system has historically worked well for Portland.

Question 3: Clean Elections 

This measure would create a clean elections public-financing program for qualifying candidates running for municipal offices beginning in fiscal year 2023-2024. 

The issue has been in the works awhile. The City Council voted against clean elections in 2019, and Portland residents gathered the requisite 8,000 signatures to put it on the ballot as a charter amendment.

If passed, this would ban direct corporate contributions to participating candidates, prohibit ballot question contributions or expenditures from foreign influence and require all campaign contributions be reported and shown in a searchable online database.

Participation in this program would be voluntary. The Council would provide an independent allocation from the annual budget to sustain a fund. By ordinance, the Clean Elections fund would limit the amount of funds a candidate can raise. have certain requirements for candidates to meet, such as participating in a city-sponsored forum; require all unused funds be returned to the city.  

Those in favor say it removes a necessary cost barrier for those looking to run for public office, and makes for a more democratic process.

Others oppose on the grounds that it uses city-allocated funding, limits funds a candidate can raise and use, is limited to qualifying candidates and sets new standards for elections in the city. 

Question 4: Proportional Ranked-Choice Voting

This proposal would have Portland move toward a new form of ranked-choice voting for elections with multiple seats to be filled and several candidates running. 

If passed, the City would adopt a form called proportional RCV, which requires a candidate to reach a certain threshold of the percentage of votes based on the number of candidates to win. The city currently uses a method called multi-pass instant runoff, which has a threshold of breaking 50 percent

This proposal emerged from the Charter Commission election itself in June 2021, when 10 candidates vied for four at-large seats. Because of this, several runoffs were required for four candidates to meet that 50 percent threshold. This resulted in some confusion, as one candidate, Steve DiMillo, had the second-highest tally after the first tabulation — ultimately good for only 21 percent of the total vote after runoffs. In subsequent ranked-choice counts, DiMillo was overtaken by other candidates.  

Question 5: School Board Budget

Along with Question 2, this is one of the thornier issues facing voters. If passed, it would give the Portland School Board a kind of autonomy in their role drafting the annual school department budget. 

Typically, the School Board drafts an annual budget according to a wide variety of input and needs, then sends that budget to the city council. There, councilors debate and vote on possible modifications to the budget before sending that approved budget to voters for final approval. 

This proposal would remove that step, allowing the school board to send it directly to voters. City council would still offer some guidance, but their input would be non-binding.

Proponents of this change say it elevates the school budget above the muck and mire of local politics, where its subject to cuts that could impact vulnerable students. 

Opponents say it gives the School Board too much power in setting local taxes, potentially setting it up to legal challenges, and could attract heightened and pointed scrutiny from those who oppose public schools.

Question 6: Peaks Island Council

Question 6 codifies the Peaks Island Council as an advisory board to the City Council. The Peaks Island Council already exists in statute, though this would add it to the charter. 

Question 7: Police Review Board

Question 7 would replace the city’s existing Police Citizen Review Subcommittee with a new citizen Police Review Board. The new board would have nine or more members appointed by the Council. They would receive complaints from civilians for referral to the police department and/or internal affairs for investigation. The board would review investigation reports for due process issues, including the standards used by the PCRS for fairness, thoroughness and objectively. They may issue their own response to those reports. They would be funded as needed by the Council to provide for staff. Appeals of the board’s reports may be taken to the Council. 

Question 8: Ethics Code and Commission

Question 8 would require the Council to form an independent Ethics Commission and to adopt a code of ethics recommended by that commission. The Commission would have discretionary power to give advisory opinions on city business and violations of public trust. The Commission would also be able to recommend the city hire an accountability officer to educate the public and city officials, serve as an independent ombudsman to resolve disputes, and provide ethics training to officials and staff. 

 

 

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