With deadlines approaching, Portland Charter Commission may need more time

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On a night when most of the discussion was about dueling leadership models for city government, Charter Commission members also acknowledged that time is getting short for them to meet reporting deadlines and they may need an extension.

Commissioners at their Jan. 19 meeting seemed hesitant about requesting a full additional year and still hope to get their proposed changes to the City Charter in front of voters for this year’s general election in November.

Dory Waxman
Charter Commissioner Dory Waxman: “It’s a good idea to ask for the extension to give us time to do the work we want to do.”

Passage of a charter-revision referendum requires voter turnout in the city of at least 30 percent of the number of voters from the previous gubernatorial election. The last gubernatorial election was in 2018 when just over 34,000 Portland residents voted. So this November approximately 10,200 people would have to vote, and a majority of them would have to approve any proposed charter changes. 

If the Charter Commission requests a one-year extension the referendum questions would be on the ballot in November 2023.

Commission Chairman Michael Kebede brought up the possibility of an extension with the panel facing an early March deadline to deliver a preliminary report to the City Council, followed by a final report in June. The commission attorney, James Katsiaficas, said there might be some wiggle room with those dates that would have to be discussed with the city.

Ideally, Katsiaficas said, the commission has to get a final report to the city in time for the city clerk to print the referendum ballots, which is 60 days before the election. With City Clerk Katherine Jones retiring this spring, however, Katsiaficas and Commissioner Zack Barowitz said the possibility of delays from a transition in the clerk’s office suggests the commission should not also delay its final report.

Kebede and several others were interested in pursuing an extension for the preliminary report, but with the goal of still producing the final report in June.

“It’s a good idea to ask for the extension to give us time to do the work we want to do and feel good about that,” Commissioner Dory Waxman said.

The City Council would have to grant the extension, which is not without precedent. Last year, the ad-hoc Racial Equity Steering Committee received an extension to complete its work.

Dueling reform proposals

The two proposals for reforming city government came from the Governance Committee as a whole, and from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, a member of the committee whose proposal was not vetted by her committee colleagues.

The proposals were heard in an introductory workshop on Jan. 20. Kebede said the plan will be for both proposals to come back for another workshop and see if there is a way to combine them into a single proposal.

The full Charter Commission’s next meeting is on Jan. 26, although Kebede said the second discussion on the proposals wouldn’t happen until the following meeting two weeks after that. 

The proposal from the Governance Committee, explained by committee Chair Robert O’Brien, would create a new office of the chief of staff, although O’Brien said that is a placeholder title. He said this office would report to the council and would take on duties including making staff available to the council, preparing data requested by councilors, and receiving requests from the public or the press.

The proposal would give the mayor the power to propose the city budget, which is currently created by the city manager, and create more avenues for policies to be introduced. It would permit councilors to sponsor policy proposals from constituents, much like state legislators. Councilors would also be allowed to call for committee votes that would speed policy proposals to City Council public hearings.

O’Brien said that because there is not an avenue for a legal challenge if it seems like the charter has been violated, the committee is proposing the creation of an on-call panel of the three appointed members of this Charter Commission to remain in office as arbiters for whenever there are questions about interpreting the charter.  They would remain in office until the next Charter Commission is elected.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal calls for much more drastic overhauls, and would essentially abolish the city manager position. It would remove the mayor from the council, and have the mayor take on more of the duties now assigned to the manager; she said this is an effort to make that person more accountable to the public.

Under her proposal, the council would be stronger and independent from the mayor, would elect its own president, would approve or reject department head appointments, and could approve or reject the budget.

The mayor would carry out policy, oversee city administration, propose policy for the council, be able to sign or veto legislation, nominate city department heads, and would only be allowed to serve two four-year terms.

Additionally, Sheikh-Yousef proposed an elected public advocate, with similar duties to the chief of staff proposed by the full committee. There was some debate about how candidates could campaign to be elected since Sheikh-Yousef proposed it as an independent and apolitical position. 

Kebede also questioned whether this position’s duties would conflict with the role of the elected mayor and whether it would simply become a stepping stone for future mayoral candidates.

Marpheen Chann
Portland Charter Commission elections committee Chair Marpheen Chann.

Commissioner revises proposal on City Council districts

Charter Commissioner Marpheen Chann has proposed increasing the size of the City Council after scuttling a previous recommendation to eliminate at-large seats.

Chann’s latest proposal, which he presented last week to the Elections Committee, is modeled after the system currently used in Burlington, Vermont, and calls for increasing the size of the council from nine to 12 seats: nine ward or precinct councilors, who would essentially be neighborhood-based, and three district councilors, who would effectively replace the current at-large councilors. The elected mayor could either serve only as a tiebreaker or continue as a full-time voting member of the council.

Chann’s first proposal called for three large districts, with three councilors elected in each district. Following the meeting, he said his revised proposal is an effort at compromise while still overhauling the council.

The initial proposal was attached to a proposal for switching to proportional ranked-choice voting. Chann said there probably wouldn’t be enough time to change the structure of the council and educate voters about using proportional ranked-choice voting for every seat.

He said the new proposal will change the council and increase representation while preserving the “unifying effect” that at-large or multi-ward districts could have.

The City Council and School Board are both currently composed of nine members: five representing districts and the remaining four elected at large. In the case of the council, one of those at-large seats is held by the mayor.

Chann admitted a complicating factor in trying to eliminate the at-large seats is that on the council they are held by people from diverse backgrounds – Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier, and Roberto Rodriguez.

“This indicates that based on Portland’s population today, the at-large seats actually increase diversity and representation of minorities on the council,” the proposal reads. “Whereas in years prior to 2010, the argument was that at-large seats dilute the influence of minorities and communities of color. In addition, the benefit to having at-large districts is to avoid the balkanization of the council and pitting neighborhood against neighborhood.”

This proposal would combine and convert the city’s existing 11 voting precincts into nine wards of approximately equal population. The three larger districts would overlay these wards, although Chann suggests that alternatively, three at-large seats could be preserved.

No action was taken on Chann’s proposal since restructuring the council was part of a workshop discussion. But the committee, which Chann chairs, did forward a separate proposal about ranked-choice voting to the full commission.

Currently, the city’s use of RCV requires a winning candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, which occasionally requires run-offs. Chann’s initial proposal called for reducing the winning threshold when there are several candidates running for more than one available seat, which would apply if there are several at-large seats available. 

In these cases, a threshold would be determined by dividing the total number of ballots cast by the number of seats being filled, plus one. For example, in the event of three candidates in such a race, the threshold would be determined by a divisor of four, or 25 percent.

This method would only be used in cases of multi-winner elections, such as the at-large race in the June 2021 Charter Commission election. The at-large seats for the City Council are staggered, but two at-large School Board seats will be on the ballot this November.

Chann said his proposal still has to be vetted by a ranked-choice voting expert and by the Charter Commission’s attorney.

— Colin Ellis