Proposed Portland City Charter revisions headed to November ballot

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After more than a year of discussion and debate, the Portland Charter Commission’s recommended changes are on their way to voters.

The City Council, in a special meeting Sept. 1, unanimously sent eight questions to the Nov. 8 ballot. The questions combine a dozen or so commission proposals for revising the way Portland is governed.

Seal of the city of portlandThe council also unanimously decided to list the charter questions numerically on the ballot, with several unrelated citizen initiatives to be listed alphabetically.

Under state law, statewide referendums must be numbered, while the city has the discretion to list municipal questions alphabetically. Since there are no statewide questions appearing on the ballot, the council opted to list the Charter Commission questions numerically, both to avoid confusion with the citizen initiatives on the ballot, but also because the commission presented its questions numerically.

The eight charter questions are:

1 — Shall the municipality approve the proposal to amend the preamble to include a land acknowledgment honoring the indigenous people from whom the land was seized?

2 — Shall the municipality approve the governance proposal, which strengthens the mayor to be the city’s chief executive, while also creating more ways for the mayor to be removed from office?

It also increases the City Council to 12 members and the School Board to nine district representatives; revises the city manager’s position to a city administrator; allows the council to elect its own chair and vice chair; directs the School Board to establish a joint budget guidance committee with the council; directs the council to develop a participatory budget development process; requires the chief administrator to work with the superintendent of schools on the five-year capital improvement plan, and changes how council and School Board vacancies are filled.

3 — Shall the municipality approve the recommendation to establish a publicly funded clean elections program?

4— Shall the municipality approve the recommendations to adopt proportional ranked choice voting?

5 — Shall the municipality approve giving the School Board the ability to send the School Department budget straight to voters instead of requiring council approval or modifications?

6 — Shall the municipality approve a requirement for the council to maintain the Peaks Island Council as an advisory body to the City Council?

7 — Shall the municipality approve creating a new Citizen Police Oversight Board to replace the existing Police Citizen Review Subcommittee?

8 — Shall the municipality require the council to establish a code of ethics and an Ethics Commission?

Several charter commissioners addressed the council in support of the recommendations.

Chairman Michael Kebede said the backdrop is that “democracy is in retreat” around the country. He said the proposal to revise the role of the mayor specifically is a reform that would strengthen democracy, since there will be an increased ability for voters or the council to censure or remove the mayor.

“Our system would take power away from appointed officials and give it to voters,” Kebede said. “This is a reform, not a revolution.”

Kebede was responding to comments by Tom Allen, a former city councilor and mayor when the position was largely ceremonial and filled on a one-year basis by councilors.

Allen said the commission’s recommendations are an “attempted revolution,” especially by abandoning the existing city council-city manager system in favor of a stronger, executive mayor. He said strengthening the mayor would ultimately weaken the council and create political cliques on the council depending on who is aligned with the mayor.

“We will see much more conflict,” Allen said.

Mayor Kate Snyder, echoing one public comment, noted there are no financial notes attached to any of the ballot questions. She asked city staff to prepare estimates of the financial impacts of the proposals for the next council meeting.

“We all want to do our best to study the ballot,” Snyder said. “It’s always important for us to understand the financial impact of anything we’re voting on.”

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