Portland redistricting plan won’t wait for Charter Commission

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Despite a state requirement that Portland redraw its City Council election districts to conform with population data from the recent U.S. Census, a proposal to increase the number of districts and city councilors is still working its way through the Charter Commission and is expected to end up before voters.

The proposal by Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who chairs the commission’s elections committee, would increase the size of the council from nine to 12 or 13 seats, including the elected mayor.

Marpheen Chann
Portland Charter Commission elections committee Chair Marpheen Chann.

According to guidance to commissioners from interim Corporation Counsel Jen Thompson, the largest city district cannot be more than 10 percent larger by population than the smallest district. There are currently five districts; Chann’s proposal would create nine districts and at least three at-large seats.

Thompson told the elections and governance committees the city has to have its redistricting process completed by August. The Charter Commission separately has to complete its work by early summer to have its recommendations go to voters in November. So if a recommendation to increase the size of the council and number of districts is sent to voters and is ultimately approved, the city would have to redraw the district maps for the second time in a matter of months.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the Charter Commission process will have no bearing on the city’s redistricting. 

“The redistricting process is mandated by state law and the deadline for completing that process is firm,” Grondin said. “That process will proceed separately from whatever the Charter Commission is considering and may ultimately propose. If voters adopt a change to the Charter requiring the districts to be reconfigured, (the city) will undertake that process then.”

When asked what the cost to the city would be in terms of staff hours, Grondin added the clerk expects the process to take “very little time.” 

Chann said he didn’t think this issue would ultimately complicate the Charter Commission’s work, but it is something worth considering. If voters ultimately approve a commission proposal, he said, the City Council will have no choice but to adopt that and redraw the lines again.

Assuming a proposal does make its way to the full commission and is approved by the voters, it would also take time to go into effect. Chann said not only would the district lines have to be redrawn again, but there would be the need to schedule elections, determine which seats would be up, and how to stagger elections.

“I think them continuing with this process of working on redistricting and keeping with state law is a good thing to do for right now,” he said, “with the understanding that whatever gets adopted in terms of the charter revision by voters will take time to implement and write into the city’s governance structure.”

Chann said increasing the size of the council is something favored by most members of both committees, and probably most of the full commission. He said the city currently has almost a dozen polling places defined by precincts, which could be a template for creating the new districts. He said his committee is trying to find the path that’s “least disruptive but achieves the same goals of increasing representation, while at the same time doing it in a way that makes sense and is practical.”

The City Council, meanwhile, will have to schedule workshops beginning in April to meet the Aug. 10 deadline for the redistricting, with a first reading by June 6 and vote on June 20. Preliminary work is being done by a committee of at-large councilors and city staff appointed Feb. 7 by Mayor Kate Snyder.