Yesterday, Portland’s Charter Commission voted to advance some of its reform proposals to be drafted into potential ballot measures by the City Attorney. The proposals moving forward include changes to the city’s form of government and elections. They are based on research done by the Commission and input from thousands of Portlanders over the past year. After months of deliberation over the details and values represented in these proposals (and more discussion to come), all 20 Charter Commissioners voted to send these proposals to be drafted into ballot measures.

For over a year, the Charter Commission has been meeting to discuss potential reforms to the city’s form of government and elections and hear from Portlanders what they want out of their city government. Sightline has written about the Commission’s purpose, powers, timeline, and areas of focus, as well as the history of prior charter reform efforts. But even before the Commission was established for this decade’s Charter review, groups like the City Club of Portland and League of Women Voters of Portland were researching different issues relating to form of government and elections. And for over a century, Portlanders have been debating how well their form of government and elections are serving them.

So what’s actually happening now? Last night’s vote was a major step forward by the Commission, but nothing about city government is changing just yet. Voters will need to approve the proposals in November 2022 before they can be implemented. In the next few weeks, the City Attorney will draft ballot language, the Charter Commission will edit and refine details, and the public will continue to weigh in. In June, the Commission will take its final vote on these reforms to place them on the ballot for Portlanders to vote on. If 15 out of 20 Charter Commissioners vote in favor of sending Charter reforms to the ballot, those referenda will bypass Portland’s City Council and head straight to voters.

The Charter Commission’s proposals

Over the coming weeks, the City Attorney will start drafting the following proposals for the Charter Commission to continue editing and then vote on. For more details about the Commission’s process and reasoning, see the progress report it released last week.

Elect a larger City Council by multi-member geographic districts

The Charter Commission’s proposal would split the city’s voters into four districts that each elect three city councilors. This proposal would increase the size of the City Council to 12 members from its current five, which could increase the number of viewpoints represented in council discussions. The Commission notes that single-member districts would prevent people of color from being able to elect a candidate of their choice in Portland, because they are not sufficiently concentrated in any area of the city to make up a majority of any district. Electing multiple members in each district allows representation for groups that are not geographically concentrated, like renters or people of color.

Multi-member districts, elected proportionally (see below), make it possible for multiple groups to be represented in a single district. In contrast, a single councilor can never represent the full diverse spectrum of political views present among their constituents. The Charter Commission won’t draw the districts themselves, but it will include some guidelines and a process for a different body (like a citizen committee) to draw the districts moving forward.

Let Portlanders rank their choices for elected office

The Charter Commission’s proposals would also shift Portland away from its current pick-one method of electing candidates to a ranked choice voting system. Ranked choice voting is a system where voters get to rank multiple candidates in order of their preference. During ballot counting, voters’ later choices are counted if their earlier choices are eliminated or elected. When multiple candidates are elected using ranked choice voting, as would happen in the multi-member districts proposed, it becomes a form of proportional representation.

Proportional electoral systems are the most common form of elections worldwide. They give representation to groups of voters according to their strength in the electorate, instead of handing every available seat to a group that can get 50 percent of the vote plus one. If 33 percent of voters support a group of candidates, those candidates receive a similar percentage of the seats. In Portland, proportional representation through ranked choice voting would make it possible for geographically dispersed groups (like renters, people of color, and young people) to gain representation on the City Council. Ranked choice voting would also let Portland get rid of its primary elections, which typically have dismally low turnout and a less diverse electorate.

Hire a professional staffer to administer the bureaus with the mayor

Portland currently uses the commission form of government, in which elected officials (except the City Auditor) oversee city bureaus. While this form of local government was popular before World War I, Portland is the only major city that uses it today.

The Charter Commission’s proposal would move the city away from the commission form of government by removing individual city councilors’ executive role in directly running city bureaus. This change would let the City Council focus on legislative work like policy development, budget analysis, constituent engagement, strategic planning, and government oversight. Portlanders who submitted public comment about the commission form of government argued that it inhibits bureaus from coordinating efficiently if they’re in different councilors’ portfolios. Commenters also said it’s hard for voters to assess councilors’ performance or candidates’ potential when they don’t know which bureaus the candidates will manage if elected.

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  • In place of this setup, the Charter Commission’s proposal would establish a chief administrative officer who would oversee police, fire, garbage pick-up, and other city services under the supervision of the mayor. The Commission supports this change as an attempt to ensure professional administration of city bureaus, remove barriers for cross-bureau collaborations and long-term planning, improve service provision for Portlanders, and shield bureau directors from more direct political pressures.

    Broad-based public input informed the Commission’s recommendations

    During this process, the Commission heard from thousands of Portlanders and used these contributions to inform its proposals. Public input came from surveys, oral and written comment, community listening sessions, discussions with community-based groups, and other sources. The Commission also wanted to make sure that it heard from Portlanders who have historically been less consulted in public decisions: people of color, renters, young people, residents of East Portland, and others. To that end, it partnered with Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC), a local nonprofit, to share information and collect feedback about possible charter reforms with 12 of CCC’s members and partners. The CCC-hosted sessions included substantially more input from Portlanders in underrepresented groups.

    The 12 groups involved were: the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Hacienda CDC, IRCO Africa House, Pacific Islander and Asian Family Center, Muslim Educational Trust, Native American Youth and Family Center, Slavic and Eastern European Center, Street Roots, Unite Oregon, Urban League of Portland, Verde, and Next Up.

    Public support for reform is strong

    Recent public opinion polling indicates strong voter support for these proposals. A March poll of likely Portland voters by FM3 Research found broad support for the Commission’s proposals and dissatisfaction with the city’s current form of government. This support cut across almost all demographic groups. While separate proposals on form of government and elections were popular on their own, respondents were even more supportive when the proposals were presented together as a single package.

    A separate poll by the firm GBAO also found that likely voters were most supportive when the two categories of reforms were included together. When asked if the reforms should be passed as a package or if voters should just focus on changing the city’s form of government, almost twice as many respondents supported widespread changes to both areas as supported changes only to the form of government.

    Support from local organizations and public outreach also bode well for the reforms proposed. Just last week, members of the City Club of Portland voted to endorse multi-member districts and ranked choice voting, with 73 percent in favor. And community workshops hosted by the Charter Commission and CCC noted that participants were broadly in favor of multi-member districts, proportional ranked choice voting, and moving away from the commission form of government.

    Next steps: From a Commission vote to Portland voters

    After the Charter Commission takes a preliminary vote on the reform measures on March 31, the City Attorney will draft ballot language for Charter amendments, the Commission will edit and refine details, and the public will continue to weigh in. That process will take two months.

    In June, the Commission will take a final vote on these reforms. If 10 or fewer Charter Commissioners support an amendment, it fails to move forward. If 11 to 14 Commissioners support an amendment, it serves as a recommendation and the City Council can decide to put it on the ballot for voters. If 15 out of 20 Charter Commissioners support an amendment, it will bypass Portland’s City Council and head straight to voters. In November, Portlanders will cast their ballots to decide whether the city adopts these changes.