Commentary

Reforming Portland city government is now an all-or-nothing gamble

Efforts to change how Portland is governed involve a risky hope voters will buy a big package

June 17, 2022 5:30 am
Oregon Public Health Division

Portland voters in November face a long ballot measure that would reform city government. (Oregon Health Authority)

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Portland’s Charter Commission finalized its expansive reform effort this week with an epic-length ballot measure that contains multitudes. How it plays with Portlanders is now the question.

In a single measure, Portland voters in November will be asked to diminish the role of the mayor, give day-to-day direction of the city to an appointed administrator, expand the size and representation of the city council and change the timing and method of the city’s elections.

Offering such a multitude of changes to the voters is a rarity in Oregon.

At the state level, citizen initiatives are barred from amending more than one section of the state Constitution in a single measure. Multiple amendments are considered a “revision” of the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature to advance to the ballot in a single package.

Possible legal challenge

Given that background, it’s possible that the Portland measure will face a legal challenge. But Portland’s Charter Commission has unique authority. And, it can be argued that its 17-3 vote in favor of a single measure not only meets the city charter’s requirement for sending amendments to the voters but is parallel in its construction to the supermajority needed for proposing revisions of the state Constitution.

So, I think the issue isn’t a legal one. It’s a political one – actually two political issues, one of best practice and the other of best strategy.

The first relates to the propriety of offering Portlanders only an all-or-nothing vote on these reforms. Voters will, for good reasons, have different opinions on each of the measure’s many changes, as I explained in an earlier column.

A good government approach to enacting this diversity of reforms would offer the city’s voters at least three separate options: the mayor/administrator changes, the city council changes, and the changes to city elections.

Each of these reforms is a big deal. But each could stand on its own or work in combination with another. So why combine them?

The answer gets to strategy. The commission felt that its more popular proposals will help carry the less popular ones over the finish line.

But, in my experience with ballot measures, I’ve found that voters tend to vote more on the basis of what they don’t like than of what they do like. And, when cross-pressured to decide how to reconcile the two, they’ll tend to vote no.

City not working

So, the commission is undertaking a risky approach to reform with its all-or-nothing package, even at a time when most voters in Portland realize their city isn’t working well any more.

Finally, I was surprised to learn that the commission thinks its most popular reform will be the shift to ranked choice voting in city elections, where voters get to vote for more than one candidate in order of preference.

Apparently, that sounds cool to Portlanders. But what the commission proposes is not what’s in place in cities like New York and in Oregon’s own Benton County, where the ranking of candidates is designed to produce one majority winner. Instead, with ranked choice voting in multi-member districts in Portland, the winners will emerge with 40%, 30% or even 25% support. And, in the polling I’ve seen, the proposal now embraced by the commission was never presented in this fashion in its surveys.

So, we don’t yet know what Portlanders think of shifting from a system in which all council members are elected by a majority of voters citywide to one in which few if any council members will command majority support even within their districts.

Finally, the commission still has to make clear how votes will be tallied, shifted and apportioned in a ranked choice voting scheme designed to deliver less-than-majority winners. For those interested in how this can work, watch this video. Then decide if you think this will be a good idea or if you could even explain it to another voter.

As an ex-Portlander, I’ve been cheering for charter reform. Portland’s city government needs to work better, not just for its own residents but for all Oregonians. But now I’m having this “oh, wait” moment.

I’d be happy to see Portland voters approve many of these changes. But I’m skeptical of others. Most of all, I’m disappointed that Portlanders will have to wrestle with this multitudinous package of reforms. Instead of getting the reforms they judge best for their city, they’ll get all or nothing at all.

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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.

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