In my previous article, I illustrated how Portland’s city council does not represent the city’s people in terms of geography, race and ethnicity, gender, wealth, and life experience. Only two people of color have ever served on the council. In 2016, the city elected Chloe Eudaly, the eighth woman ever and possibly the first renter to hold a seat on the council. Most councilors come from central North-East or Westside neighborhoods.

The Open and Accountable Elections Portland Act, supported by a diverse coalition of Portlanders, will make it easier for a more diverse group of people to run for city council in the future. However, it’s not the only reform needed, and this article details how Portland’s very form of government could change so that the city council does not continue to skew toward electing white, male, central and westside homeowners.

At least five times in the last century, disgruntled citizens launched efforts to reform city elections and make the council more representative and responsive. Many of these efforts focused on changing Portland’s quirky Commissioner form of government, switching from at-large elections to districts, and expanding the council from the current five members to seven or nine. Single-member districts would ensure councilors come from different geographical parts of the city rather than from the same few neighborhoods, an improvement over Portland’s current system. And districts might make it easier for first-time candidates to run because they only have to canvass, say, one-quarter of the city rather than the whole thing. A bigger council could potentially be more diverse as well.

But districts or a bigger council, by themselves, will not create a representative council. As I have argued extensively in Sightline’s Guide and Glossary to Electing Legislative Bodies, to transform the council into a truly representative body, Portland’s best path would be to switch to a proportional system of elections, most likely multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting. That’s a mouthful, so I’ll just call it “fair voting” for short.

In Portland’s case, changing to multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting might require making other changes, such as moving away from the Commissioner form of government and possibly expanding the council beyond five members. In fact, most reforms to Portland’s election system—such as switching to district elections for city council—would necessitate dispensing with the Commissioner form of government.  When you pull on one thread in organizing city government, you find a web of connected reforms.

This article outlines seven key, intertwined questions about how to organize the city government (click on each question to jump to its section below):

  1. What form of government should Portland have? Commissioner, Council-Manager, or Mayor-Council?
  2. What powers and responsibilities should the mayor have? Same as now, more, or less?
  3. How should the mayor be selected? By the voters, or by the council?
  4. What powers and responsibilities should city councilors have? Legislative only, or also executive?
  5. How many city councilors should Portland have?
  6. When should Portland hold elections to maximize voter turnout?
  7. How powerful should the primaries be?

For each question, I also offer suggestions on how to make relatively non-disruptive changes to Portland elections that would enable fair voting (multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting) and, ideally, would complement that improved election system. The next article will describe possible scenarios for electing a council through fair voting and the likely more representative results of doing so.

Question 1. What form of government should Portland have?

In some ways, this is the biggest question of all, and to answer it, we need to backtrack for a quick civics review. The legislative branch makes the laws. The executive branch implements the laws through administrative agencies. The judicial branch interprets the laws. For our purposes, we can ignore the judicial branch and focus on the others as they apply to city governments.

The big questions are how the mayor and council share legislative and executive powers. City councils always have legislative authority (the power to make laws), but will the mayor share some legislative power, for example, by having a vote on the council or veto power of council decisions? The Mayor always has executive authority (the power to implement laws), but will the council share some executive power, for example, by jointly supervising a city manager?

There are three primary ways that cities have answered these questions.

  1. Portland’s Commissioner form of government shares legislative and executive powers evenly between the council and the mayor. But Commissioner governments are an endangered species. Portland is one of the only cities in the United States, the only city over 100,000, and one of just two Cascadian cities with a Commissioner form of government.
  2. Most Oregon cities use the Council-Manager form of government, which also shares legislative and executive powers between the council and mayor, who jointly appoint and supervise a professional city manager.
  3. Most big US cities use the Mayor-Council form of government, which separates legislative and executive powers, making the council the legislative body and the mayor the chief executive. Past Portland reformers have proposed moving to Council-Manager (1933, 1958) and to Mayor-Council (1961, 2002, 2007, 2016).

Let’s delve into the structures, pros, and cons of these three government forms.

Commissioner Form

Under a Commissioner form of government, voters elect city commissioners who play two roles: legislative and executive. Each commissioner, including the mayor, has a vote on the council for legislative business, such as passing budgets, laws, and regulations. Each commissioner also serves as the head (an executive branch role) of one or more city bureaus, such as public safety, parks, or transportation.

The mayor has the same power as the other commissioners, but in Portland he also has the power to assign and reassign bureaus to commissioners and to put together a budget. In January, Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned himself the Police Bureau, the Housing Bureau, and seven other bureaus, and assigned the other four councilors two or three bureaus each including Parks and recreation to Amanda Fritz, Transportation to Dan Saltzman, and Development Services to newcomer Chloe Eudaly.

In some Commissioner city governments, candidates run for specific departments. For example, in Shelton, the only city in Washington State with a Commissioner form of government, candidates can run for commissioner of public safety and mayor, for commissioner of finance and accounting, or for commissioner of public works. Proponents of Portland’s Commissioner government sometimes say that city agencies are accountable to voters because they are headed by an elected official. Shelton’s system seems to work this way: voters can choose a candidate they think would be good at running public works, call that official with complaints about public works, and in four years decide whether that person has done a good job running public works.

Accountability is harder to see in Portland, where voters don’t know who will end up running what, and they don’t necessarily know whom to call or hold accountable, because the mayor can change bureau assignments at any time. For example, Mayor Wheeler said in January his bureau assignments would be temporary, and in April he took them all back, planning to reassign them after the budget is passed.

The Commissioner form of government is sometimes called the Texas Idea because it originated in Galveston, Texas, as a response to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The hope was that consolidating legislative and executive power in the same small group of people would help the city respond to natural disasters more quickly. Proponents of Portland’s system sometimes claim swift and direct implementation of policy as an advantage. In practice, though, as the City Club has noted, the unique form of government often leads to gridlock as each commissioner prioritizes the narrow interests of his or her bureau, rather than prioritizing city government as a whole. Their narrow focus can lead to short-sighted city management. As former Portland Commissioner Steve Novick explains:

As soon as you assign bureaus to a commissioner, two things happen: Those bureaus become incredibly important to that commissioner, and everything else the city does becomes relatively unimportant. …

In the 1990s, Commissioner Earl Blumenauer pushed Mayor Vera Katz to spend more of the general fund on transportation. The other three commissioners could have taken Earl’s side. But why would they? Not their bureau. In fact, those with general fund bureaus would have seen Blumenauer’s request as a threat to their bureaus. …

The existence of the commission system reduced the universe of potential transportation champions by 80 percent.

Most American cities abandoned the commissioner form of government by the 1940s and moved to the Council-Manager form, discussed below.

Finally, because commissioners serve as heads of city-wide departments, Commissioner governments never elect commissioners from districts. If they did, for example, parks would likely look great in the Parks Commissioner’s district and less great elsewhere in the city.

Council-Manager Form

Most US cities, and most Oregon cities with populations over 2,500, use a Council-Manager form of government. Voters elect a council, either in districts or at-large, to serve as the legislative (law-making) body. In places such as Bend, the council members select a mayor from among themselves to head the council. In many Oregon cities, including Eugene, Hillsboro, and Salem, voters vote separately to elect the mayor to serve as head of council. Together, the council and mayor hire, supervise, and may fire a professional city manager or city administrator to manage the day-to-day administrative needs of the city and implement the policies set by the council. This form is sometimes called a “weak mayor” government because the mayor’s power does not much exceed that of regular council members.

Proponents of the Council-Manager system say cities run in an efficient, business-like manner; constituents are well-represented by the powerful council; and one reckless mayor can’t throw the city off-track. Critics worry that sharing power between council and mayor means no clear leadership from the mayor and that an appointed professional manager might try to usurp power from the elected council and mayor without being accountable to the people.

Portlanders would find the shared power between the council and mayor familiar, since that is how the Commissioner government works now. Electing the mayor individually but having him serve on the council would also be familiar to Portlanders. But the Council-Manager form could free Portland up to elect councilors from districts. The biggest substantive difference would be that, instead of being responsible for individual bureaus directly, councilors and the mayor would indirectly manage all bureaus by jointly supervising a city manager who would manage all city bureaus.

Mayor-Council Form

Most big cities in the United States—including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle—use a Mayor-Council form of government. Voters elect a council, either in districts or at-large, to serve as the legislative body, and also elect a mayor to serve as the city’s chief executive. The mayor might supervise a professional city manager. Past Portland reform efforts have referred to this form of government as “strong mayor,” but mayors can be considered strong or weak under the Mayor-Council system, depending on how much power they have (more below).

Proponents of the Mayor-Council form praise the centralization of executive responsibilities in the mayor, giving the mayor the opportunity to exercise strong leadership. Critics worry that it gives the mayor too much power and does not give enough responsibility to the elected council.  

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  • Like Council-Manager, the Mayor-Council form would free Portland to elect councilors from districts. And voters would continue to directly elect the mayor. But Portlanders might have to accustom themselves to a stronger mayor and a weaker council.

    Answer 1. Council-Manager government with bureau oversight committees

    If Portlanders want to switch to fair voting (multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting)  to get a more representative council, they will likely have to change the Commissioner form of government. If Portland elected all councillors from one city-wide district, it could retain the Commissioner form. But if it breaks the city into two or more districts, each councillor will only represent a slice of the city and could not serve the interests of her districts and simultaneously be the head of a city-wide bureau.

    If Portlanders want to make minimally disruptive changes, they might opt for a Council-Manager form of government. Instead of having a Parks Commissioner and a Transportation Commissioner, each of whom would be in charge of a particular bureau, a few Councilors could form a Parks Committee and a few others a Transportation Committee to oversee these bureaus. This is what Seattle, Los Angeles, and many other big cities do. It would maintain a direct link from voters to elected officials to bureaus, just like with the Commissioner form of government.

    Question 2. What powers and responsibilities should the Mayor have?

    The difference between a “strong” and “weak” mayor is of degree, not kind. As mentioned, most “strong” mayors are found in the Mayor-Council form of government because the mayor has control over all or most executive powers, and Council-Manager cities often have “weak” mayors because they share some executive power with the council. But Mayor-Council cities can have a weaker mayor, and Council-Manager cities can have a stronger mayor. It just depends on what powers the mayor is given.

    A mayor might have some or all of the following powers. More powers mean a stronger mayor.

    • Act as the chief executive officer, centralizing executive authority.
    • Appoint and remove department heads.
    • Assign council members to chair or serve on committees.
    • Appoint citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions.
    • Prepare the annual budget.
    • Receive the annual budget developed by chief administrative official or city manager and make an annual report to the council.
    • Serve on the city council.
    • Vote in council meetings.
    • Have veto power over the council’s legislative decisions.
    • Oversee daily operations of the city, without interference from the city council or administrative boards or commissions.

    Portland currently has a somewhat weak mayor, with the power to appoint and remove department heads and with a vote on council, but without veto power and without exclusive control of executive functions. In contrast, Seattle has a relatively strong mayor, serving as the chief executive officer of the city and with veto power over the council.

    Answer 2. Leave the mayor’s powers unchanged

    If Portlanders want to adopt fair voting but don’t want to change the balance of power between the mayor and the council, they could keep the mayor’s power about the same as now. The mayor currently assigns Commissioners to oversee bureaus, and he could still assign councilors to serve on committees overseeing bureaus—for example, the Parks Committee and the Transportation Committee. The mayor could prepare the annual budget and vote on the council, as he does now. But electing councilors through fair voting or switching to a Council-Manager form of government does not require any expansion of the mayor’s powers. He need not have veto power over the council nor centralized executive power.

    Question 3. How should the mayor be selected?

    In all three forms of government, voters may elect the mayor directly. In the Council-Manager form, voters can instead elect all the councilors and let the councilors choose a mayor from amongst themselves.

    Letting councilors choose among themselves could yield unexpected benefits. Even though Portland’s mayor has little more power than do councilors, it costs more than four times as much to run a competitive campaign for mayor (nearly $1.5 million) as to run a competitive campaign for council (around $300,000). People of color and women who otherwise might be priced out of an expensive mayoral campaign could win a council seat and become the mayor. For example, the city of Yakima, Washington, recently elected the first three Latinas ever to serve on the city council (two from majority-Latino districts, and one from the city at-large), and the council initially unanimously selected Avina Gutierrez, a Latina, as the mayor.

    If Portland moved to a Council-Manager form and selected the mayor from among the council, Portland might see a woman of color as mayor for the first time ever.

    Answer 3. Leave the mayoral election unchanged

    Portland could elect councilors via fair voting and still elect the mayor at-large, just like now.

    Question 4. What powers and responsibilities should city councilors have?

    In all forms of government, councilors are legislators with the power to pass city laws, ordinances, policies, and regulations. Councilors might also have some executive power either directly, as heads of individual bureaus in the Commissioner form, or indirectly, as joint supervisors of the city manager in the Council-Manager form. Councilors generally have no executive power in the Mayor-Council form.

    Answer 4. City council keeps legislative and executive powers

    By adopting the Council-Manager form of government, Portland councilors could retain the same level of executive authority they have now, just exercised by managing the city manager and managing bureaus through committees, rather than directly heading bureaus.

    Question 5. How many city councilors should Portland have?

    Around the United States, city councils range from 5 to 51, with an average size of 6. Portland’s council is remarkably small. Although the city is home to more than 600,000 people, Portland has just five city councilors, including the mayor, or less than one elected city official per 100,000 people. For comparison:

    City Council + Mayor? Population Electeds per 100,000 people
    Portland, OR 5 620,000 0.8
    Seattle, WA 9 1 650,000 1.5
    Oakland, CA 9 390,000 2.3
    San Francisco, CA 11 1 840,000 1.3
    Eugene, OR 9 156,000 5.8
    Bend, OR 7 81,200 8.6
    Beaverton, OR 5 1 93,500 5.3

    If the mayor is elected separately but also has a seat on council (Council-Manager or Mayor-Council), voters elect an even number of councilors (the mayor makes it odd). If the mayor is either selected from among the council (Council-Manager form) or does not have a seat on the council (Mayor-Council form), voters elect an odd number of councilors.

    More councilors mean more costs for taxpayers to fund the councilors and their staff (though, in reality, the costs are miniscule compared to the overall city budget). And each councilor is less powerful. But a bigger council creates more opportunity for diverse views to be represented and for more voters to feel they have a voice in the city.

    Answer 5a. Elect six councilors  

    Portland could switch to fair voting with just four councilors, but in order to get a reasonable cross-section of the city represented on council, it would need to elect all four councilors in the same year. The upside would be that all council and mayor elections could be held in a single high-turnout presidential election year, maximizing the number of voters who cast a vote to elect a councilor. The downside would be that many councilors could turn over all at once. However, incumbents usually run again, so it is possible, but unlikely that the entire council would ever turn over in a single election.

    Expanding the council to six members plus the mayor would make Portland’s council the same size as Bend’s (which has one-seventh the population) and still smaller than Eugene’s, Seattle’s, Oakland’s, or San Francisco’s. Portland would have 1.1 elected city officials per 100,000 people, still fewer representatives than any other city on the list. With six members, Portland could elect three members at a time from two different districts, adding just two council members and electing a much more diverse council.

    Answer 5b. Elect eight councilors

    Alternatively, if the city opted for eight councilors plus the Mayor, Portland would have a very average-sized council for a city of its size, with just under 1.5 elected officials per 100,000 people. Portland could elect four councilors from each of two districts, or split into three districts, each electing two or three councilors. In either case, Portland would have a much more representative council.

    Question 6. When should Portland hold elections to maximize voter turnout?

    Voter turnout is much higher and more diverse in presidential election years. Portland is one of the few cities in the United States that takes advantage of this fact, holding mayoral and some council elections during presidential election years and yielding much higher and more representative voter turnout than in other US cities. In Oregon more broadly, around 70 percent of registered voters turn in ballots in presidential elections, compared to around 50 percent in mid-term election years. Nationwide in the United States, African-American voters turn out in presidential elections at rates equal to or rivaling whites but lag behind white turnout in midterm years.

    City elections held in presidential years let more Portland citizens, possibly especially African-Americans, have a say in who gets elected to city government. Because it would be a more representative voting system in a high turnout election, electing more councilors in presidential years could lead to broader participation and potentially better representation.

    Answer 6a. Elect three councilors in midterm years and three in presidential years

    Electing all councilors in a presidential year could empower more Portland voters in local elections. But Portland could adopt fair voting and stick with its current scheme, electing half in the presidential year and half in midterm years. If Portland expanded to eight councilors, elected from three districts, it could elect councilors from two of the districts in presidential years, maximizing turnout, and hold elections for the third district in midterm years.

    Answer 6b. Elect five councilors in presidential years and three in midterm years

    If Portland expanded the council to eight members and split into three districts, it could have two districts—a two-member and a three-member—hold elections in presidential years and the other three-member district hold elections in midterm years.

    Question 7. How powerful should the primaries be?

    Primaries narrow the field for general election voters, but less than half as many people vote in primaries as vote in general elections. The people who do vote in primaries, moreover, tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than general election voters, meaning they may vote for older, whiter, wealthier candidates, limiting options for more diverse general election voters.

    Right now, Portland council elections usually end after the primary, so candidates spend a lot of time and money trying to win the primary. By the time general election voters get their ballots, the race is usually over, or even if it isn’t, voters only have two candidates to choose between.By eliminating the primary, Portland could shorten the election season and give general election voters more options and more power.

    Alternatively, Portland could make primaries less important by allowing more candidates to advance to the general. The real battle would be the general election. Candidates could focus their time and money on the general election, and general election voters would have more options to consider.

    For example, if Portland expanded the council to six members and split into two districts, each district would elect three councillors in the general election. The primary, using a ranked-choice ballot, could advance seven candidates per district—a bit more than two candidates per available seat—to the general election, where voters would narrow down to three winners. The battle to be in the top seven in a district would be less fierce, so the campaign season would effectively be shorter, not starting in earnest until after the primary. General election voters would rank the seven candidates in order of preference, and the top three would win seats.

    Answer 7. Make the general election more important than the primary by advancing more candidates

    Portland could adopt fair voting and retain primaries, with just two changes: first, the election would never end at the primary, so general election voters would always have a say, and second, the primary could advance more candidates, somewhat shortening the campaign season and giving general election voters more options.

    Many choices for Rose City reformers

    Changing Portland’s government isn’t just a question of whether Portland should have a strong mayor or elect councilors from districts. Portland also has the opportunity to create a more representative council and give more Portlanders an opportunity to have a voice in city government. By adopting multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting, as discussed in my next article, Portland could become a national leader in representative city government.