Our Viewpoint: Focus is vital for Portland Charter Commission

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The first meetings of the Portland Charter Commission have produced cause for both optimism and concern.

It is heartening to see that the members of the commission, many of them young and representing the city’s growing and welcome diversity, are stepping up to the important task of reviewing and remaking the basic governmental structure of the city. The key task before them is to review the responsibilities of the mayor and other elected officials, and how that will relate to the responsibilities of someone hired to manage city government.

A public hearing on July 28 elicited divergent opinions from the 50 or so residents who spoke. Members of the Democratic Socialists of America want to build the most “radical socialist charter” in the country; others want commission members to keep open minds and not use the City Charter to advance a specific ideology.

We urge the commission to keep its focus narrowly on the central purpose that members seem unified in wanting to accomplish: the reconsideration of the roles of city officials, and perhaps corresponding adjustments to the mechanism, powers, duties, and salary of the city councilors.

But at the meeting last week, commission members took an opposite tack and seemed intent on deliberating over a wide net of reforms ranging from mental health policies, police reforms, pre-K education, and developing a department of labor. All were put on the table as the commission subdivided into committees to review this panoply of issues.

The commission would do well to limit its scope to the central issue of city government’s structure. Reform of that structure is welcome and long overdue; if a Charter Commission proposal is sent to voters with lots of other issues attached, it is likely to fail. Voters could reject basic reform if too many other issues are attached.

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