Portland Charter Commission gets proposal to increase size of City Council

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Ahead of a full Charter Commission meeting on March 9, the panel’s elections committee unanimously submitted a proposal to increase the size of the City Council from nine to 13 members with the likely separation of the mayor from the council.

The proposal, by Commissioner Marpheen Chann, would retain three at-large council seats and increase the number of voting districts in the city. The city is currently already going through a redistricting process required after the decennial census, so approval of this commission recommendation by voters means the city would have to undertake a second redistricting process.

Marpheen Chann
Portland Charter Commission elections committee Chair Marpheen Chann.

The proposal to remove the mayor from the council is part of a plan to create a more powerful executive mayor while the council operates as a legislative body.

Commissioners have previously expressed interest in the model of an executive mayor and a separate, legislative body of the Council. The new executive mayor would assume many of the responsibilities previously assigned to the city manager, including proposing the annual budget and creating policy initiatives. The council would be a check and balance on the mayor, who would likely not have a vote.

Elections committee members acknowledged there would be some challenges in increasing the size of the council, including around when elections would be held to increase the size and how the redistricting process might impact sitting councilors.

Other proposals

Earlier, the education committee met and forwarded several proposals to the full commission, including changing the school budget process and having the superintendent of schools directly involved in creating the city’s annual Capital Improvement Plan.

Committee members also discussed a proposal for filling vacancies on the School Board, but postponed taking action, and defeated a recommendation that would have allowed the School Board to send school construction or renovation bonds directly to voters. The vote was 2-1, with Commissioner Marcques Houston in the minority.

After discussion of Houston’s proposal to change the school budget process, which essentially would give the School Board the final say on the budget instead of the City Council, Commissioner Peter Eglinton said he will propose a competing amendment to keep the process unchanged, with the City Council having final say over the budget.

In addition to a discussion and potential vote on the city’s governance structure, the Charter Commission is slated to have a public hearing and vote on universal resident voting and a new pay structure for city councilors. That proposal would increase councilors’ pay from approximately $6,800 annually to more than $17,900 based on a 20-hour workweek.

This issue came up in the elections committee when a member of the public asked if having more councilors – and theoretically having the workload more widely shared – would have an impact on council salaries. Commissioner Patricia Washburn, who proposed the item in the procedures committee, said it would not.

She said even if having more councilors means they would have fewer constituents to respond to because there would be smaller districts, “the issues facing the city have not decreased in complexity.”

The full commission will have first readings on a code of ethics proposal, a participatory budgeting proposal, and a proposal for a citywide clean elections program and cost estimates.

The commission’s preliminary report is due by May 9, and its final report to the City Council is due by July 11. Its recommendations will go to a voter referendum in November.