As Portland again considers reforming its city government, others in state may watch for lessons

The commission form of government in Oregon, and questions continue whether it’s effective

March 31, 2022 6:00 am
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler leads a rare form of city government once again being considered for reform. (Ted Wheeler photo)

In 1900 the city of Galveston, Texas, was thrashed by a hurricane which has been called the deadliest natural disaster in American history. It left much of the city a wreck, and in desperate need of help from its local government.

In response, the city changed its form of government to the commission form, which Portland has today.

In a commission style, the job of managing city operations is divided between the mayor and each of the council members. In Portland those assignments are made by the mayor. A century ago when the form spread quickly around Texas and then in many cities around the country, it was thought to be more effective and efficient than the more common split between an executive side (often led by the mayor or a city manager, or both) and the legislative side (the council).

A professor at the University of Chicago, Charles Zueblin, once argued the commission system was so good that not only would nearly all cities eventually adopt it, but the structure of the federal government probably was destined to take that form as well.

History has not been so kind.

While some scattered small communities around the country (about 1 percent of them) still use it, Portland is the only large city in the nation that operates under the commission system.

This year, Portland’s Charter Review Commission is on its once-a-decade mission to consider how the city’s basic organization document might usefully be changed. Any proposed changes would eventually go to city voters in November.

One core question is whether the commission system is worth keeping.

Imagine Professor Zueblin’s idea about the federal government structure, and the 535 members of Congress dividing among themselves the management of the federal government.

You’d often expect that smaller communities, looking to larger ones, might examine them for good ideas to pick up. But among whatever ideas Portland has been able to share with other municipalities, the commission system hasn’t been one of them. It has not exactly swept the state of Oregon.

The commission system blurs the ordinarily useful split between executive and legislative functions. As a recent Portland City Club report said, “It is inherently inequitable and has long since ceased to be the most effective form of government for Portland. In addition to producing a council that is not representative of the city as a whole, the commission form of local government is organized such that city bureaus are run by commissioners with little, if any, regard to their managerial or subject-matter expertise. For reasons explained in the body of this report, the commission form also makes it difficult to set and pursue long-term and citywide priorities.”

When Metro’s Council President Lynn Peterson on March 17 spoke at the Portland Executives Association, she advised not only that Portland trash the commission system, but that Mayor Ted Wheeler not wait for an election to do so.

“What needs to happen is the mayor really needs to consider stepping away from this commission form of government, now. He has the ability to do an emergency order, take the commission assignments away, take his own assignments away, and get a city manager now, and prove the concept that we can do better,” Peterson said.

That would be satisfying, probably, to a lot of Portlanders.

But not all.

Portland has voted nine times on its form of government. The first vote was in 1913 when the voters very narrowly adopted the commission form. Second thoughts emerged, and four years later voters weighed in twice on whether to get rid of the system. They decided, in landslide votes, to keep it.

Twice more in the next decade Portlanders were asked to “simplify” the commission system; they refused that as well. Ballot issues to drop the commission system were tried in 1956, 1966, 2002 and 2007, and the voters said “no” ever more emphatically. The last time, the vote was 18,880 in favor of changing, and 60,606 against.

The commission system seems to have enthusiastic advocates in Portland. You can understand Wheeler’s reluctance to do what voters have strongly rejected over and over.

Maybe what’s needed is an effort to engage with people in Portland more broadly than usual in a search for a government structure more people will support. The alternative is to risk yet another defeat of a specific plan for change.

What happens in Portland often reverberates around the rest of the state. The commission form of government hasn’t spread, so far, but an open discussion of how best to govern a city might have some usefulness for communities large and small.


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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.