Portland city government reform plan aims for greater diversity – but may not get it – Oregon Capital Chronicle
On any list of city governments ready for reform, Portland got the top spot.
After two years of disruption, dysfunction and discontent, the need to overhaul Portland’s outdated form of government has gone from a perennial talking point to an urgent 911 call demanding a community-wide response. city.
Fortunately, while 911 calls remain on hold, the Portland Charter Commission has crafted responses to the simmering crisis of confidence in city government. Their timing is perfect. But their solutions? Well, here’s what I learned.
The Charter Commission’s recommendations released March 31 reflect an effort to advance two goals for a better Portland – expanding the diversity of voices and improving the effectiveness of how the city governs itself.
Let’s start with efficiency, because that’s where Portlanders agree.
“The city that works” needs to let go of its siled form of government and find a better structure to get things done.
To that end, the commission’s recommendations start off on the right foot:
- Get rid of the commission structure and focus the board on policy rather than administration.
- Create and empower a new position – administrative director.
But another recommendation would weaken an already weak mayor and create new challenges for city hall management.
The mayor would no longer have voting rights in council and could no longer veto council decisions. Instead, the mayor would draft budgets for the council to reject, modify or approve. In effect, the mayor would become the city’s budget manager, straddling the shotgun with the chief administrator and a council of 12 giving direction from the back seats.
This 12-member board is another concern. It’s an even number, so majorities will be a little harder to achieve. And there is no mention of whether the board should organize itself with a president or an executive committee or rotating chairs.
It’s likely that the leadership vacuum created by a non-mayor would be filled by ever-shifting council coalitions, creating new challenges for a city that’s already struggling to get things done.
Then there is diversity. It is a laudable goal. And the commission’s recommendation to move to constituency elections is a good step in that direction. The same goes for the proposal that districts have three members each.
Ranked Choice Voting
But the committee wants these members to be elected by preferential ballot. It is a system designed to produce single winners with clear majorities. This does not work well in elections designed to produce multiple winners.
Such ranked voting is a mechanism for seeking the center, not for elevating those with opinions on the margins of an electorate. This doesn’t work as well in elections designed to produce multiple winners.
Australia uses a revamped form of RCV to ensure proportional representation in some of its parliamentary elections. But it takes thresholds below the majority to achieve its results. Similarly, the Portland City Club recommended a modified version of ranked voting in a 2019 report that would set the victory threshold in a three-member constituency at 25%. This appears to be the model the commission has in mind for future municipal elections.
This model can work, but it is complicated. It requires several ballots passing from one candidate to another. And it would represent a marked departure from the current system that has produced a diverse council whose members have all managed to win electoral majorities.
Then there is the confusion factor. Proposing a new electoral scheme dependent on winners needing only 25% of the vote could be vulnerable to a “Say, what?” voter reaction that could derail the entire reform package.
This is a common problem for advocates pursuing reform through electioneering. It is tempting to take advantage of a crisis to offer voters only a multifaceted package of reforms. The danger is that voters will hang up 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.
Portland residents will be able to comply with these recommendations at four public hearings scheduled for May. Then either the commission or the city council will decide what to present to Portland voters in November.