Portland’s city ballot for Nov. 8 is filled with important questions — eight from the Charter Commission and five referenda put on the ballot via citizens initiative. [See last week’s issue for in-depth explainers on each.]
The most crucial of these is Charter Commision Question Two, a recommendation that would overhaul the structure of the city government. The proposal would move the city from a system where the administrative authority is vested in a city manager, who is hired by and reports to the city council.
If Question 2 passes, an elected mayor would have expanded authority to hire a city administrator, subject to approval by the council. Under this proposal, the city council, now composed of 12 members, would act as a legislative body, its actions subject to a mayor’s veto. The mayor, in turn, is subject to several checks from the expanded council, who can veto the mayor with a two-thirds supermajority. The measure is intended to transfer power from an unelected administrator to a mayor elected by voters.
It is a big question for voters to answer. Rather than offering an editorial telling people how to vote, the two editors of the Phoenix are providing their different points of view on this issue, with hopes that the contrast and the arguments on both sides might be useful to voters. Phoenix editor Marian McCue argues here for a ‘No’ vote, leaving things in place, while managing editor Nick Schroeder votes ‘Yes’, supporting the Charter Commission’s plan for a mayor-council system.
Accounting for this significance, we went long on Q2 — with distinct endorsements from editor Marian McCue and managing editor Nick Schroeder. The other ballot question endorsements are synthesized opinions from them both and issued collectively as the Phoenix editorial board. (Schroeder has family working in the school district and does not take a position on Question 5).
We welcome your responses in the time remaining before Nov. 8.
Marian McCue, Editor — ‘Vote NO on Question 2’
A nineteenth century British historian famously observed that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
America’s framers of the Constitution, decades before, were equally cautious as they developed a system of shared power between branches of government, and a philosophy of checks and balances.
As Portland voters consider how to vote on the most important ballot question they face, they could keep those ideas in mind. They will consider a proposal, advanced by the Charter Commission, that would give far greater power to an elected mayor, shifting the major administrative authority away from the city manager, as is currently the case.
The elected mayor would have the key authority to nominate and hire the city administrator, and together they would be responsible for overseeing city departments.
While the council would have to approve that hire, the power to select the administrator would remain with the mayor, who would earn twice the median income for the area (around ($123,000 annually). Also under this proposal, the city council would be composed of 12 members — an unusual even number — and would elect its own chair. Ordinances passed by the council would be subject to a mayoral veto, although that could be overridden. It could be difficult for councilors to override these vetoes, meaning there would be little restraint on the mayor’s powers.
The authority and power of the council would be diminished. Question 2 contains many other questionable aspects, and we urge people to examine the ballot summaries on the city website.
But this proposal deserves to be voted down.
Nick Schroeder, Managing Editor – ‘Vote YES on Question 2’
The supposed virtue of our current council-manager system of government is that it separates policy-making from administrative operations, assigning elected representatives to handle the former while appointed officials tackle the latter.
This kind of system, advocates say, liberates the day-to-day work of city management from politics. City managers can then set budgets, negotiate partnerships with the private sector and slash services where necessary without fear of taking a political hit.
The basic philosophy here is that efficient governance somehow transcends politics. But that’s a fantasy. The pursuit of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and neutrality in the face of market logic are themselves political values. And too often under our current system, they can be the values that our most powerful office in city government are most inclined to observe.
I think the City of Portland can do better than this. City officials who endeavor to enact policies that protect Portlanders from the more brutal impacts of a free-market system should have more recourse to do so without the final call resting with an unelected official. Besides, doing away with the presumption that city governance should be efficient and politically frictionless can help remove the so-called “toxicity” and “divisiveness” in city politics we keep hearing about. A different system might not be as inclined to pit vulnerable citizens advocating for policies that can materially help them against its most comfortable, who are more inclined to support light-touch government policies that don’t affect business as usual.
These changes seem likelier implemented in the system our Charter Commissioners have designed over the last year, with an executive rather than ceremonial mayor whose job it is to pursue policies voters support enough to elect them. Recent councils have supported proposals that better our city, like rezoning neighborhoods for multi-unit housing, establishing more bike lanes and transportation options and making long-overdue redesigns of Franklin and High Streets. But they’ve been halted by the city manager without so much as a vote.
Other changes matter here too. Increasing the number of council districts should improve democracy, bringing representatives closer to their constituencies, and raising councilor stipends helps lower the barrier of entry for those seeking public office. I’m also swayed by the research that Samuel James has conducted in his 99 Years podcast, which traces Portland’s council-manager government to the Klan-supported framework designed by Woodrow Wilson, who was (to put it lightly) motivated by racial exclusion. That’s not at all to suggest anyone working in Portland city government today is racist, but it seems fair to say that the government structure has had racist outcomes in our city, where, as James reports in his 99 Years podcast, the Black poverty rate is more than twice the rate of Black poverty nationwide, and unemployment disparities between white and nonwhite citizens are unconscionably high.
It might not always be smooth sailing ahead, but it’s time to take a step forward.
Charter Commission Questions
Q1: Vote YES on adding the Land Acknowledgement by local governments
This is an important gesture, however small. Portlanders live on unceded land stolen from the Wabanaki people, and this amends the charter to remind the public, and future elected officials, of the significance of that fact.
Q3: Vote YES on Clean Elections
This is necessary campaign finance reform that will ban corporate money in local elections and improve democracy. It’ll also establish a searchable online database of campaign donations — which makes the jobs of those of us in the press a bit easier.
Q4: Vote YES on proportional ranked choice voting
This tweaks the charter to clarify the use of RCV in the case of multiple candidates running for multiple seats in a local election.
Q5: Vote NO on school board autonomy
One of the most controversial proposals from the Charter Commission is the plan to grant the school board control over the school budget. Question 5 would grant the school board final authority over its spending, subject only to the approval of voters at referendum.
At present, the council has control over the total amount spent on the schools, which is a large chunk of the total city budget that is raised by property taxes.
We oppose this proposal. We believe that there should be meaningful oversight from the council on the spending. And we believe that the schools have received recently appropriate levels of funding to support a district with declining enrollments.
There are also legal concerns with this plan, which did not get approval from the lawyer hired to work with the commission.
And the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, which grants to municipal officers of the city the ultimate responsibility to run a public school system, and to set the property tax levy that supports it.
The legal uncertainty around this proposal is troubling. While some proponents of this plan say it is not likely they would be sued, we think it is unwise to proceed with a plan where the legal issues are so murky and the benefits are also unclear.
Q6: Vote YES on Peaks Island Council
This is a small bureaucratic issue that establishes that the already existing Peaks Island council seat becomes part of the Charter.
Q7: Vote YES on police oversight
The Charter Commission reinforces the current police citizen review board and clears up some communication lines to make it more functional. It also requires the review board to hold a public hearing once a year, which is a good idea.
Q8: Vote YES on ethics commission
The Charter Commission’s recommendations on established codes of ethical conduct for elected officials should be a helpful resource for officials and the public.
Citizen Initiative Referendum Questions
Question A: Vote NO on ‘An Act to Regulate Short-Term Rental Housing in Portland’
There are interesting ideas in here, but passing this would do nothing to reduce the 400 non-owner occupied short-term housing units in the city or put any housing back on the market. Our main issue is that it insulates those with STR licenses against any further policy changes, which seems dodgy.
Question B: Vote YES on ‘An Act to Reduce the Number of Short-Term Rentals in Portland’
This returns roughly 350 housing units back to the market, pulling from the 400 non-owner occupied units, who tend to be commercially or corporately owned. As it wouldn’t touch the licenses of short-term rental owners who live in the buildings they rent, we’re inclined to think it helps those harmed by the city’s housing crisis more than it hurts the bottom lines of professional Airbnb-ers.
Question C: Vote YES on ‘An Act to Protect Tenants in Portland’
This would strengthen tenant protections in some key ways. First, it removes an incentive for landlords to let their tenants’ leases lapse to “at-will” or “month-to-month” status, which has become popular recently as a kind of loophole for getting around laws that require them to give tenants 90-day notice before evicting them. It also reduces rental application deposits and bans application fees, which disproportionately penalize low-income renters.
There are more details here than we have space to cover, but we think this helps ease the power disparities between landlords and tenants, which has only become worse during the pandemic.
Question D: Vote NO on ‘An Act to Eliminate the Sub-Minimum Wage’
While we would strongly support an increase in the minimum wage, but the rapid elimination of the tipped credit for service workers that is proposed here would be a heavy burden for restaurant owners — particularly local ones, who are newly faced with competition from new restaurants with well funded out-of-state financiers.
These owners are already faced with big challenges, especially after the pandemic, and this proposal could cause unnecessary pain for some owners and their workers.
Question E: Vote NO on ‘An Act to Restrict Cruise Ships…’
The thrust of this proposal now seems effectively off the table, as the issue is being worked on by the city council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee and the longshoreman’s union.