The Portland Phoenix

Portland Charter Commission gets clean elections proposal

Charter Commission document

The Charter Commission elections committee on Jan. 10 unanimously endorsed a proposal to establish public financing for all municipal elections in Portland. The recommendation must still be adopted by the full commission. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A recommendation for public financing of municipal elections in Portland is going to the full Charter Commission after receiving unanimous support in the commission’s three-member elections committee on Jan. 10.

The proposal calls for having the clean elections system in place in time for the June 2024 municipal elections.

Portland Charter Commissioner Catherine Buxton.

Public financing of candidates was the fuel for this Charter Commission.

A group called Fair Elections Portland in September 2019 wanted councilors to send voters the clean elections measure via a City Charter amendment; the council instead opted for a charter revision, which led to a continuing legal battle – and ultimately the formation of the present Charter Commission.

Only four members of the public spoke at Monday’s public hearing, all expressing some level of support for clean elections.

Mackenzie O’Connor told the committee she supports the proposal because too often seeking elected office is only viable for people who are either wealthy, have connections or are “willing to compromise values to get those connections to corporate money.”

“This imbalance limits who can participate in our democracy and who is left out,” O’Connor said.  

The proposal by Commissioner Catherine Buxton would require the City Council to establish and fully fund a program similar to the statewide system. It would provide public campaign funds to qualified candidates for municipal offices, including the mayor, City Council, future Charter Commissions, and other elected positions that may be proposed by this Charter Commission. It would also forbid businesses from contributing to municipal candidates.

Buxton also proposed a series of amendments, mostly to address and change wording in the proposal, all of which passed unanimously. These included removing a specific limit on private funds candidates may raise. She initially proposed limiting such fundraising to $250 – which is half of what the state allows – but later said she was concerned about legal challenges down the road.

Another of Buxton’s amendments sought to have contributions available in a public database, which Committee Chair Marpheen Chann said was already in the works with the city clerk’s office. Under state law, the clerk would administer the clean elections program.

Participation in public funding would be voluntary, and candidates who do participate would also be required to take part in a citywide debate or a voter education event. Any unused funds would have to be returned within 100 days of the election. Participating candidates would agree not to accept private contributions other than those allowed by the public funding program.

The program would only be available to candidates who demonstrate public support and would then provide sufficient funds to allow candidates who meet the qualifying criteria to conduct competitive campaigns.

The City Council would have to provide an independent allocation from the annual budget to ensure the program is sustained and can be available each election.

In the state clean elections program, candidates qualify for public funds by collecting $5 donations in their districts, agreeing not to raise or spend private contributions, and must limit spending to the amount received from the fund. They receive equal and limited amounts of public funds, although candidates in competitive races can collect additional qualifying contributions and receive additional funding.

The majority of the committee meeting was spent parsing the handful of amendments, which also included one from Chann to include a budget for staff to run the program. Based on figures from the League of Women Voters, he proposed hiring an administrator in the clerk’s office for just under $35,500 and an additional line item of over $110,000 for all other costs.

The amendment passed 2-1, with Commissioner Pat Washburn opposed. She said she did not believe the Charter Commission should be attaching fiscal notes to any of its proposals.

The elections committee will have workshops on universal resident voting and creation of an elections commission on Jan. 18, with public hearings and votes on those proposals tentatively scheduled for Jan. 24.

Chann said his previous proposal for overhauling the structure of City Council districts may also come up on Jan. 18, which will be a joint meeting with the governance committee.

Editor’s note: Marpheen Chann on Jan. 14 updated his proposal for clean election staff in the city clerk’s office, based on more recent cost and benefits data. His new estimate is more than $87,700 for an administrator and $200,000 for all other costs.

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