One plan to reform Portland city government aims for more diversity – but might not get it

Yet another effort is underway to change how Portlanders elect those running city government

May 2, 2022 5:30 am

Hearings are scheduled in May in Portland to consider city government reforms. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

On any list of city governments ripe for reform, Portland has earned top billing.

After two years of disruption, dysfunction and discontent, the need to overhaul Portland’s outdated commission form of government has evolved from a perennial talking point to an urgent 911 call demanding a city-wide response.

Luckily, while the 911 callers remain on hold, Portland’s Charter Commission has been fashioning responses to the simmering crisis of confidence in the city’s government. Their timing is perfect. But their solutions? Well, here’s what I’ve learned.

The Charter Commission’s recommendations released on March 31 reflect an effort to advance two goals for a better Portland – expand the diversity of voices and improve the efficiency in how the city governs itself.

Let’s start with efficiency, because that is where Portlanders are of one mind.

Better structure

“The City That Works” needs to scrap its siloed commission form of government and find a better structure for getting things done.

To that end, the commission’s recommendations get off to a good start:

  • Get rid of the commission structure and focus the council on policy rather than administration.
  • Create and empower a new job – chief administrative officer.

But another recommendation would weaken an already weak mayor and create new challenges for running city hall.

The mayor would no longer have a vote on the council nor could he or she veto the council’s decisions. Rather, the mayor would draft budgets for the council to reject, modify or approve. In effect, the mayor would become the chief budget officer of the city, riding shotgun with the chief administrator and a council of 12 giving directions from the back seats.

That council of 12 members is another concern. It’s an even number, so majorities will be a little harder to come by. And there is no mention of whether the council should organize itself with a president or an executive committee or rotating chairs.

It’s likely that the leadership void created by a non-mayor mayor would be filled by ever-shifting coalitions of the council, creating new challenges for a city already struggling to get things done.

Then there’s diversity. It’s a worthy goal. And the commission’s recommendation for shifting to elections by district is a good step in that direction. So too is the proposal for districts to have three members each.

Ranked choice voting

But the commission wants those members to be elected by ranked choice voting. That’s a system designed to produce single winners with clear majorities. It doesn’t work well in elections designed to produce multiple winners.

Such ranked voting is a mechanism for seeking the center, not for elevating those with views on the margins of an electorate. It doesn’t work as well in elections designed to produce multiple winners.

Australia uses a rejiggered form of RCV to secure proportional representation in some of its parliamentary elections. But it requires less-than-majority thresholds to achieve its results. Similarly, the Portland City Club recommended a modified version of ranked voting in a 2019 report that would set the threshold for winning in a three-member district at 25%. This appears to be the model that the commission has in mind for future council elections.

This model can work, but it’s complicated. It requires multiple rounds of vote shifting from one candidate to another. And it would represent a marked departure from the current system that has produced a diverse council whose members all managed to win electoral majorities.

Then there’s the confusion factor. Proposing a new electoral scheme dependent on winners needing only 25% of the vote might be vulnerable to a “Say, what?” reaction from voters that could tank the whole reform package.

This is a common problem for advocates who pursue reforms via ballot measures. It’s tempting to take advantage of a crisis to offer the voters only one, many-faceted set of reforms. The danger is that voters will hang up on their 911 calls and decide to live with the problems they have when the alternatives they get are hard to follow and difficult to understand.

Portlanders will get to dial in on these recommendations in four public hearings scheduled in May. Then, either the commission or the city council will decide what to present to Portland voters in November.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.