Portland took another step toward good governance with the recent Charter Commission vote to advance their reforms to the November ballot. This City Council appointed, 20-member group of volunteers has been grappling for a year and a half with how to improve the way we run our city, this vote was a milestone in their efforts.
With their recommended changes to Portland’s charter more formalized, I decided it was time to become better informed about the issue.
With an open but skeptical mind, I plunged into the Commission’s materials. It only took a few hours for me to realize that I wasn’t bringing a very big pole to this pond.
How to design fair elections is a well-studied field and there is a lot of expertise involved, much of it technical. Probably the most useful thing I can do for the BikePortland reader is to summarize and link to the sources that most helped me become “informed enough” about charter reform.
So on that note, what follows is a link-rich synopsis of my path to charter enlightenment.
The Big Picture
Portland has had a “commission” form of government for over a century. It is an antiquated system in which each commissioner, in addition to their roles of passing ordinances and responding to constituents, oversees a portfolio of bureaus. In other words, commissioners have both policy and executive roles. This type of governance was long ago abandoned by other major US cities, with Portland being the last hold-out.
Currently, we elect four “at-large” commissioners and a mayor using a winner-take-all system. Voters get to choose candidates in all four races and are not restricted by having to live in a particular district. The candidate who receives the majority of the vote wins the seat, although this may take two rounds of voting, a primary and a run-off.
Oregon Public Broadcasting published a helpful article by Rebecca Ellis which describes our current system and the proposed changes.
What the Charter Commission is proposing
The Commission has proposed three changes to the way we elect our Commissioners and run the city:
• Allowing voters to rank candidates in order of their preference, using ranked choice voting
• Four new geographic districts with three members elected to represent each district, expanding the city council to a total of 12 members
• A city council that focuses on setting policy and a mayor elected citywide to run the city’s day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional city administrator
They write that “it is the Commission’s belief and desire that this proposal will make Portland’s government more accountable, transparent, efficient and effective, responsive, and representative of every area of the city.”
The Charter Commission Progress Report #5 discusses the proposed changes in detail beginning on page 23. UPDATE (6/29/2022): Soon after our original preparation for this story, the Charter Commission released Progress Report #6 which is a summary designed “to give a high-level view of the approach and work of the Charter Commission at this stage in the process.”
How did they come up with that?
There are two main parts to the proposed changes: 1) moving management of the bureaus away from the commissioners and to the mayor/city manager and 2) changing the way Portlanders elect the City Council.
Concerning jettisoning the commission structure, the Charter Commission conducted discussions with bureau directors and elected officials, as well as 106 sessions with community groups and the public. There does not seem to be significant opposition to dropping the commission system from any quarter. On the contrary, the idea appears to have a lot of support. One vocal supporter, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, said of the commission system, “It’s a crazy way to run a city, and it’s one of the reasons Portland underperforms on everything from homelessness to permits, time after time.”
The Progress Report summarized what Portlanders believe are the main weaknesses of our current way of doing things including: lack of accountability, failure to move forward on complicated issues, lack of coordination, silos, inconsistent and unqualified management, micromanaging, et cetera. It is a long list.
Portland’s homelessness crisis serves as a good example of this government dysfunction. Last week’s BikePortland Monday Roundup included an article about Houston’s success in addressing homelessness and their use of a “Housing First” model. They credited getting everyone “to row in unison”—the city and the non-profits—with their success.
But Portland’s more fundamental problem is getting the city bureaus to row in unison. As Mapps told KOIN 6 in March,
One of our challenges right now is to get different city bureaus to work together. I know Portlanders are furious with the state of houselessness out there, but one of the reasons why we struggle is that we have about five different bureaus that play a role in solving houselessness. It’s not just a matter of providing housing, houselessness is often a mental health issue, and a public safety issue. And if you’re camping in a park, it becomes a Parks issue, if you are camping on a sidewalk it becomes a PBOT issue.
One of the things we have failed to do over and over again is to get these different bureaus to work together to solve problems like getting people off the streets to safe, supportive housing. You see the results of what the status quo does. If we move toward a coordinated system run by professionals, I believe we would do much better.
To sum up, our city hamstrings itself by putting city commissioners — who possibly have no management experience, background or interest in a bureau — in charge of running them.
The problem with Portland voting
I didn’t realize we had a big problem until I read a series of outstanding articles by Kristin Eberhard for The Sightline Institute. If you only have time to read one piece I’ve linked to in this post, I recommend Want to Give Portlanders of Color a Voice on City Council? Districts Won’t Help.
Eberhard makes a strong case for proportional ranked-choice voting and brings to life the analysis that the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University did of Portland voting.
It is the MGGG (Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group) mathematical models of how various voting schema would play out in Portland that informed the Charter Commission’s recommendation of ranked choice voting for multi-member districts. And although MGGG used race as their model for underrepresented voters, Eberhard points out that “the results apply to Portlanders who are in the minority for any number of reasons: small business owners, people who are dependent on transit, those who get around by bike, youth, or parents of school-age children.”
The Charter Commission concluded that four multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting will bring fairer and fuller representation to city government, could improve participation, and also promote more issue-oriented, civil campaigns with less negative campaigning.
But it wasn’t a unanimous vote. One of the three commissioners who voted against the reforms was recent city council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky. Similarly, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps has not taken a strong public position in support or in opposition to the whole package, although in an April interview with the Rose City Reform substack he expressed doubts about some aspects of it. So there are dissenting voices, but it is probably too early to detect an organized opposition. The Charter Commission work sessions were taped, and around 1:18:00 of the June 6th meeting, you can listen to the comments of two dissenting commissioners, as well as an impassioned rebuttal by the committee co-chair.
The four-district, multi-member proposal combines elements of both geographical representation and of fairer representation of non-geographically defined minority concerns. The tension between geography (with neighborhood associations often being the stand-in representative) and minority interests (such as better bicycle infrastructure) underlies many of Portland’s political skirmishes. The changes the Charter Commission recommends could result in a more productive political dynamic with more non-majority concerns achieving a voice on the city council.
UPDATE (6/29/2022): Yesterday the Willamette Week reported that two newly-forming PACs (political action committees) will be taking opposing sides on charter reform. Vadim Mozyrsky has recruited Chuck Duffy and Steve Moskowitz (two former Bud Clark aides) to his yet-to-be-named PAC which will oppose the package of reforms advanced by the Charter Commission, and Building Power for Communities of Color is starting a PAC to support the reforms. Mingus Mapps’s existing Ulysses PAC will most likely be hosting “educational forums” about the reforms, as a softer way of pushing back against the bundled changes. Mapps and Mozyrski favor adopting a mayor-manager system but are against aspects of the other commission-proposed reforms.
Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for over 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.
After the preparation of this article, the Charter Commission released a Progress Report #6, which is is a summary designed “to give a high-level view of the approach and work of the Charter Commission at this stage in the process.”
The Progress Reports have thorough Tables of Contents and answer the questions many commenters have.
Correction: Kristin Eberhard is at the Niskanen center, a libertarian Cato-institute spin off.
Hi Soren, I said that KE wrote a series of articles for Sightline, so no correction to my article.
I like these reforms in principle on the whole, particularly moving away from a commission form of government. But I am concerned that RCV in both its single-seat and proportional modes cannot be legally implemented in Portland because of how state law has arranged for vote tallying to take place. Oregon law demands that each county tally their votes independently, using only the information available on their voters’ submitted ballots. They’re not allowed to use information from neighboring counties. But this information sharing is exactly what RCV requires. RCV cannot be tallied without bringing all the ballots to a single place to count. When the county clerks were asked about the specifics of processing this type of election coordinately for the city, they were alarmed because as far as they were able to tell there wasn’t a workable path for them to complete the tally and declare the winners.
When I asked Sightline about this, they said it wasn’t really their domain to ponder this type of legal detail surrounding their lobbying efforts. A couple of the CRC commissioners have responded to inquiries, but only to say that hopefully it’s something that can get fixed on the state level. Neither of those responses inspires much confidence.
It’s very concerning that we might amend the foundational document for our city’s most basic operations in a way that makes it impossible to determine the winners of our city-level elections. I wish the CRC and county elections leadership would give definitive response to this and assuage these concerns. Our city structure desperately needs reform, and it will be a huge loss if this opportunity gets scuttled because of a technical oversight.
I’m not following you Clay, these reforms are only for the Portland city council elections. They don’t involve other counties at all. Plus, the Charter Commission works closely with the City Attorney’s office, the City Attorney will flag any legal problems.
Fun fact: parts of Portland are in Washington County and Clackamas County.
The city of Portland spans Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties. The vast preponderance is in Multnomah, of course, but there are several thousand voters living in the other two. All three county elections offices are involved in determining the outcome of city elections.
The adoption of RCV as a matter of policy in and of itself does not conflict with state law. County vote tallying machines are fully capable of counting an RCV election for a race that takes place entirely within their own county. Multnomah county is also going through a charter review process right now and is likely to recommend adopting RCV for county races. There is no legal or implementation issue with this for county races since, unlike the City of Portland, all Multnomah county voters by definition live within a single county.
Most likely the extent to which the City Attorney’s office is going to look into this is asking and answering “does adopting RCV conflict with state law?” They will conclude that it does not conflict, and then will check the box and move on. But that is a completely separate issue from “Can the counties actually follow the technical procedure required for tallying elections with this type of voting methodology?” It would be great if the attorney’s office did get into that and sort it out, but unless they have lawyers on staff that specialize in voting theory, they’re not even going to know to ask that question.
That doesn’t seem to be a sufficient reason to vote no. End up stuck with the terrible commission form of government for at least another few decades over the mere possibility of the state not being happy about it? At the moment, no one at the state level has come out against this particular measure – if the state has a problem with it, they would have said so already. Don’t let the quest for perfection killl progress.
It isn’t, no, though it is very disappointing that Charter Commission stuck with this option despite testimony telling them the very facts Clay laid out. The alternative they explored – STAR – does not have this problem. In fact, their voting method subcommittee voted 3-1 in favor of STAR over RCV (the 1 happened to be the only 1 of 20 that later said he preferred plurality over either, and was ironically eliminated by plurality vote splitting in his bid for City Council).
But, RCV has a multi-million dollar lobbying apparatus behind it and it’s more “familiar”. Saying the words “rank your choices in order of preference” sounds neat and simple, and doesn’t belie the veritable Sudoku puzzle you actually have to fill out when the number of candidates goes beyond the example five Lisa reposted in the article (it’s literally exponential, so 10 candidates = 100 square grid. 12 = 144. And so on. City Council elections often have over 10 candidates. The Charter Commission had no answer for this when I brought it up to them).
I’ll still vote for this, given the other badly needed reforms. Maybe the RCV portion will get struck down and STAR will have another shot.
I understand why RCV would have its enthusiasts, but I don’t understand the well funded attempt to push it. Who stands to make money from that?
I’ve asked this question myself, but haven’t found a a solid answer yet. There is a cynical take – folks who design/build the machines and software that count votes stand to gain from all the new mechanics that will be necessary to implement RCV. But that goes for any alternative method*, and I simply can’t imagine that accounting for as much support as it has.
My best guess, honestly? Mostly momentum. Good meaning folks who understand our current voting system sucks and want change, so they donate to a group that’s pushing change. RCV happens to have the name recognition, so that’s where the money flows, which in term boosts name recognition and so on.
However it’s getting funded, I’ve seen first-hand this lobbying play just as dirty/fast and loose with the facts as any, which surprised me considering how niche and esoteric voting systems really are on the whole (I wouldn’t expect to see the same falsehoods there as, say, arenas involving the bottom line of big industries).
* Maybe not approval voting. That’s actually simpler than plurality and would require only a one-line change on our ballot: Removing the line “Choose One:”. Counting difference aside, of course.
It doesn’t take all that much depth of study into voting theory before a person invariably starts asking the question, “Why does the least effective voting reform get the most funding?” I don’t have a clear, confident answer, either. I think it’s probably multiple factors, with anchoring bias being a big one, as you point out. But it’s hard not to think that RCV’s historical preservation of dual-party dominance isn’t a factor in some of the support it has gleaned over the years.
Damien, good point about the Sudoku grid. Somewhere in the videos I listened to, the June 6 meeting I think, it was mentioned that the city will be using canned software to administer this, so the N that you are allowed to rank will be limited by the software parameters. It won’t necessarily equal the number of candidates.
I definitely presented a Sudoku-looking example from a New Mexico city election in one of those hearings, so maybe you caught it.
The strategy you describe is certainly a way that some areas using RCV go: Only allow the top X rankings, so one can keep the ballot predictable. This does go against some of the Commission’s own praise of RCV, and the start of the second paragraph on page nine of their 6th progress report:
The only way to rank “as many as they would like” is the square grid Sudoku puzzle. Here’s what I put to the commission:
Now imagine that, and imagine that if you get anything crossed – if you have any two bubbles filled out in any one row or column – your ballot is spoiled. Thrown out.
Remember, about 20 people ran for the 2 seats this years, so one can reasonably imagine 30 ore more people running in 3 member districts where ALL are up at the same time as proposed. Then imagine what the ballot would look like!!
Most areas in the US that use RCV/IRV/STV seem to limit the choices to around five ranks… which strongly limits most benefits that might have been conferred to the voting dynamics. It dramatically increases wasted votes that simply get thrown away. Just look at the recent NYC mayoral election where over 35% of votes had been completely thrown out before the final round. Although RCV-style voting doesn’t address vote splitting among several popular candidates, it does prevent spoilers if you allow people to rank every candidate. When the limit the number of ranks, that benefit is greatly diminished. But as several people here are pointing out, fully ranking 15, 20, or 25 candidates is onerous, and voters—very reasonably—don’t like doing it. Who can meaningfully parse the difference between their 17th and 18th preference? Score-based voting methods, like STAR and Approval, don’t suffer from these practical issues and are both better at resisting vote splitting.
Thank you for your informative posts on this subject. I’m originally from Alaska, where they adopted RCV in 2020. I’ve lived in OR since 1985, but I still follow Alaska’s (Wild West) state-level politics because I have family and friends who live there.
RCV will be used in Alaska’s August 16 special general election to fill Rep. Don Young’s seat. I’m sure many BP readers will recognize the name of at least one of the final three candidates. Sigh…
This is the State of Alaska Division of Elections page that explains their RCV system.
These were the original 48 candidates for the June 11 special primary election.
And here are the final three candidates for the August 16 special general election.
RE: I’m sure many BP readers will recognize the name of at least one of the final three candidates. Sigh…
I’ve been eagerly waiting for the final results. I can now say, “Congratulations, Mary Peltola!”
P.S. Oregon (and Portland), this is how RCV is supposed to work.
I think you’re right, that getting rid of the commission government is enough of a win. I express this concern with the voting method not to dissuade people from supporting it, but because it’s not written in stone yet. The charter review commissioners are hard working volunteers, many of whom have long served our community professionally or through various types of service, or who aspire to serve as electeds. I can only imagine they want their effort not to result in an electoral system which ends up being even more disenfranchising than our current one. If RCV is unimplementable, the voting method will in all likelihood default to multi-seat bloc voting, which is even more strongly majoritarian than the single-seat, choose-one elections we currently have. This goes against a lot of the values that the CRC has been striving for, and it would be a disservice to Portlanders if that did come to pass. But as Damien points out, they have well funded FairVote whispering in their ear that everything will be okay, even though RCV has a long, long history of exactly this problem, where communities adopt it on paper and then have to abandon it after years of failing to be able to implement it because of the legal and logistical complexities.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ranked choice voting aspect of this. So for each district, there will be a single race, and the top-3 vote getters will all win a council seat? And the candidates who receive the lowest votes will be eliminated and their votes redistributed until a single candidate receives 25% of the vote, at which point counting is locked?
I guess the optimistic view is that it allows for the under-represented views that we value (minority representation, non-car users) to gains seats on the council.
For a pessimistic view at how this could play out, let’s consider that in the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump received ~19% of the vote in Multnomah County. If the Oregon Republican Party is coordinated enough to run a single right wing candidate in each district, it seems they could very realistically gain 33% of city council seats. And then whether the other 67% of seats lean more centrist or progressive will depend on the number and strength of candidates. And the centrist council members would now have an over-represented right wing they could ally with for things like police funding/oversight, road expansion etc.
I think as long as there are enough candidates for each district, it won’t be too much of a problem. As one can image if there are 6 candidates, 5 of them leaning left then the chances of the 6th right leaning one would be much smaller in a ranked voting system. Another benefit of ranked voting is you tend to get less “extremist” views that a 2 party system often produces. But it is a challenge of how letting the minorities that are systemically oppressed have a voice while avoiding those with hate-filled opinions.
This is getting into the technical weeds a bit, but “proportional RCV” is actually just a marketing term promoted by FairVote. The system being proposed by the commission is better known around the world as STV, Single Transferable Vote. Understanding how it implements proportionality takes some study, but this explainer is a good visual starting point to seeing how votes get redistributed and candidates get eliminated. The system is pretty complex, which can be a drawback in our low-trust country, but other cities and countries around the world have adopted and retained it. Given a sufficient number of seats (which is generally more than three), it does a good job of proportionately representing popular sentiment.
However, for single-seat elections, like mayor and auditor, RCV suffers from a number of pathologies that make it one of the least effective voting reforms. Rather than moderating candidates, it tends to squeeze out well-liked moderates that don’t have a fanatical base. Using a hyperbolic but illustrative example, a candidate who is absolutely everyone’s 2nd favorite choice in an election will be the first one eliminated by RCV.
Thank you for this information, did not know
The Republic of Ireland uses ranked voting to elect its parliament. They do in fact get a certain amount of extremism on both the right and left, but the closer an extreme party gets towards forming a government, the more they moderate their views to appeal to more voters.
What I think you will find if Portland adopts this system is a greater likelihood of local party formation even if the seats are officially nonpartisan, with major parties indirectly participating, lots of 501c4 PACs getting formed, and the usual influence of unions, teachers, the NRA, and so on. That the candidates will still come from the realty industry goes without saying.
If anyone needs an example of how Ranked Choice Voting works with multiple candidates running for multiple open seats (also called Single Transferable Vote), I highly recommend this video by CGPGrey who has a whole series on how different voting methods work.
As to your worries about right wing candidates getting elected, first it’s not a good idea to use national elections as an metric for predicting local elections. The politics are different.
Second, you provided the vote share for Multnomah county as a whole, but Portland is less conservative than the rest of the County (it was 13.3% of the vote in Portland that went to Trump in 2020) with most of that being focused in outer SE.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that they do. They would have to run a single strong candidate in each district and be up against a large number of other candidates that all split the vote to such a large extent that enough of the rest of the other voter’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices are all eliminated early enough that these extreme candidate gets in. In other words, highly unlikely.
Setting aside the example of Republicans (before I say some unflattering things about them, that the moderators wouldn’t look kindly at), the whole purpose of representative democracy is that voters are represented by the people they elect. The reason the charter commission is making these recommendations is that people aren’t feeling heard. So yes, by increasing the number of seats on the council, we might see some people elected that we don’t agree with, but they do represent the people who vote for them.
The reason why Ranked Choice works better than the status quo is that it helps reduce candidates splitting the vote. If candidate A and candidate B have similar views, it’s likely that people who support candidate A as their first choice will rank candidate B as one of their other choices (and vice versa). That means that if one of those two candidates gets eliminated, but the other candidate gets elected, their supporters will still get someone that they agree with onto the council.
No, it’s worse than that. The commission has proposed a single transferable vote method of ranked choice, where first they take voted deemed “surplus” away from candidates who have met their artificially low threshold. Proposed use of this in multi-member districts is used nowhere in this country.
Here is the actual language: “Councilors of each district are elected proportionally by the single transferrable vote method of ranked choice voting. This method provides for the election of candidates in each district who have a vote count that is at least the number that is the sum, rounded down, of one plus 25% (twenty-five percent) of the number of first-rank votes cast for councilors in the district. That sum is called the threshold. Candidates who have a vote count that is at least the threshold are declared elected. In the initial round, the number of first-rank votes received by each candidate is the candidate’s vote count. In any subsequent rounds, to the extent that the votes counted for elected candidates exceeds the threshold, the votes exceeding the threshold are called the surplus and are counted for the continuing candidates who are ranked next on the ballots that had been counted for the elected candidates, with the counting being in proportion to the total numbers of such next rankings. If, after all surpluses have been counted in a round, no additional candidates have a vote count that is at least the threshold, the candidates having the fewest votes are successively eliminated in rounds and their votes are counted as votes for the candidates who are ranked next on the ballots that had been counted for the eliminated candidates. The process of transferring surpluses of elected candidates and eliminating candidates continues until all positions are elected.”
As long as we get rid of the commission form of government, I don’t really care what form of voting is used to select councilors. I just hope that if ranked choice voting is found to be unconstitutional, unworkable, or something, that it doesn’t cause the existing system to be extended. I’m worried that something, legal or otherwise, will cause this effort to lose. We can’t endure another year of this disaster.
The problems with ranked choice voting notwithstanding, there are a few big problems with the Charter Commission’s district proposal.
First, the multi-member districts create the same problems we have now with accountability and responsiveness. Who do you call when you have problems? How do you hold them accountable? Baltimore had multi-member districts for many years and they were a horrendous failure for governance. Once they were jettisoned by citizen initiative in 2003, representation improved dramatically overnight.
Second, because there are multi-member districts, the number of districts is way too small, which means the districts are way too large. Each of the proposed districts will be about the size of Eugene or Salem.The advantages of neighborhood-scale representation will be so dilute as to be meaningless.
We already have the problem of multi-member districts — the city is currently one big single multi-member district. But at least now you get to have an up-or-down-vote on each council position. That won’t be the case under the Charter Commission’s proportional representation / multi-member district /single transferable vote / ranked choice voting scheme which is currently used nowhere in the U.S.
There’s a lot to like about other parts of the Commission’s proposal, but I’m a “no” vote for the multi-member districts alone. My experience in Baltimore tells me that it will be a mistake Portlanders will regret for a very long time.
These are contradictions – that each council seat is voted on separately from the others makes them single-member seats. It would be a very different situation indeed if we had all or even half (at a time) of the City Council up for a vote and the seats simply went to the top 2 or 3 vote-getters in each of those situations. Instead, you’ve got to declare exactly which seat you’re running for, which is strange considering the only distinction – bureau assignments – are handed out by the mayor after the fact.
One of the things OPB’s recent coverage on this has been calling out is that in other places that use this commission form of government, candidates run for specific bureaus. So putting aside whether the commission style is right for Portland, we’re not even doing it correctly.
Using your nomenclature, I do indeed support single-member seats in (more, smaller) districts. Multiple members in a district, regardless of the election scheme, is bad for accountability to constituents and voters.In Baltimore, it was too easy to deflected responsibility to other district-mates (or take credit from other district-mates). Representation was absolutely moribund.
But accountability to voters is especially bad if it goes to the top three vote-getters rather than winners of three specific seats. First, they run in elections in opposition to each other which makes the political motivations inherently fraught. Second, in Portland’s scheme, the threshhold for election will be so low that the simple incumbent advantage will be an almost overwhelming factor in every election. Getting rid of a bad incumbent will be nearly impossible.
Which is fine – if you’re in the 51% majority opinion in your district. The other 49%’s views go unrepresented. No matter how small a district you have, this is the problem of single-member districts. It’s part and parcel of how gerrymandering works, for example – divvy up the unpopular opinion so that even if it represents 40% of an area, as long as it never reaches the threshold of 51% in a given sub-area, it gets no representation (or dilute as much as possible).
I do take your concern about accountability, though I think we’ll see. The argument of “now you have one person you can go to when you have a problem, then you won’t” isn’t compelling to me, because in the proposed change, you’ll have three. So if your first rep doesn’t meet your needs, you go to the second and you vote the first down in the next cycle. If a piece of legislation comes up that you support and two of your three reps do as well, great – vote them up and vote the third one down in the next cycle.
I’m not seeing the mechanism of accountability being any less than what we have today, which has plenty of finger-pointing.
How is the Charter Commission’s proposal any different from gerrymandering? If you can’t do it on a map, you do it with changing the entire election scheme? And what does it get you to have more extreme minorities [cough-Republicans-cough] “represented”? It will still require a majority vote on the City Council to get anything passed.Sure, you’ll have three council people, but now you have four. And you literally have to call all four. How’s that working out for anybody?
I’m a newcomer, but I feel like a lot of people in Portland don’t understand the massive improvement in city representation when there is direct accountability on a neighborhood scale: When candidates must literally knock on every voter’s door during a campaign. When a councilperson knows every pothole, every traffic hazard, every neighborhood school, every encampment issue. Portlanders have never had it so they don’t know what they’re missing.
…it’s entirely different. Different motivations and different outcomes. I don’t mean to impugn, but a statement like this makes me think you’re misunderstanding the proposal or misunderstanding gerrymandering.
I don’t disagree with you, nor do I think anybody would who really invests in this space. The closer a rep is to their constituents, the more representative the system can be. But that’s not what we have today, and what’s on the ballot in November gets us closer to that, not farther. By your own argument, you should be in favor of this.
I don’t have strong opinions on multi member districts. Seems there are pluses and minuses. But it seems to work well enough in Europe, so I’m cautiously open to it.
The size of the districts is absolutely correct though, and shows that the commission did their research. Small districts reflect geographic disparities in wealth. We’d end up with some councilors only representing wealthy neighborhoods and others only representing poorer neighborhoods. In other words, small districts = empowered NIMBYs.
The Europe argument is one I hear frequently. But the huge distinction is that accountability in European systems comes largely through party and government structures that we simply don’t have here. And we particularly don’t have them on a city council level.
As to smaller districts, you’re correct that you’ll get some councilors representing only wealthy districts and others representing poorer ones. But I’d argue that that’s what you want. With the huge districts being proposed, the larger wealthier neighborhoods will still dominate the smaller poorer ones like they do now. Smaller districts isolate the influence of the big rich neighborhoods.
Finally, as to empowered NIMBYs, I’d argue that it’s a code problem not a neighborhood representation problem.To avoid NIMBY concerns, write city code that doesn’t allow for NIMBY influence. Some city uses (housing) should be a matter of right; other uses (petroleum facilities, pig farms) shouldn’t. However, if the city code allows for neighborhood powers to reject particular land uses, then frankly that should apply in smaller poorer neighborhoods too. It’s a fundamental tenet of environmental justice.
When Baltimore rejected its overly-large multimember districts for smaller single-member districts, it ended up creating a couple of smokestack districts where industry was concentrated. Previously, the surrounding neighborhoods had little power to fight polluters because their representatives were getting plenty votes from other bigger richer neighborhoods, and so campaign contributions from polluters was an acceptable political priority. When districts got smaller, the nearby neighborhoods’ votes could no longer be taken for granted, and the power balance between neighborhoods and polluting industry shifted overnight.
This is how it works now — “neighborhood powers” cannot reject particular land uses. The whole “NIMBYs stopping development” is largely a fiction. We’ve disempowered residents to the extent that this can’t really happen.
Sad to see an intelligent and dedicated person like Lisa jump on the bandwagon headed toward the alleged promised land of our City’s “charter reform.”
The best part of her article was the picture gallery, for it gives the perspicacious reader purchase on the mentality and probity of the Commission’s inhabitants, few of whom are sufficiently aged to have experienced our excellent governance under the twelve year aegis of Vera Katz, let alone the even finer eight year regime of Bud Clark before.
Here is the Council headed by Clark: Charles Jordan, Mike Lindberg, Mildred Schwab, Margaret Strachan. No one who cannot cite these names from memory ought to be allowed so much as an opinion on our form of governance.
Was the Charter Commission stacked with incompetents in advance to yield a preferred result a priori? That the Commission’s recommendations resemble the final report of a bad high-school civics project is not likely incidental!
In psychology there is the idea that desire for change for the sake of change is tantamount to narcissism. Our current system of governance will work very well if voters choose good candidates. Do not blame the system for the likes of Wheeler, Ryan, Mapps, and the irrelevant one whose name escapes me. Jo Ann is the only current occupant of Council with chops to do the job.
A good Counselor selection of those now available: bring back Sam and Chloe to restore the quality of theater we cherish; keep Jo Ann, a known and productive force; Mike Reese is preparing a campaign for Mayor and should be supported. With these four almost any fifth would do.
When TriMet was completing plans for the Tilikum, Fred Hansen, then Director, remarked he had chosen Vera to chair the Design Committee because he wanted a “Zero B S” project. If we want “Zero B S” governance we need only elect a “Zero B S” Council.
The alternative is to formulate a non-zero Charter Commission.
I disagree with most of what you say, but gotta admit I enjoyed reading it.
Let’s start with the bandwagon. I didn’t jump on it. Anyone involved with westside neighborhood associations is well aware of the politicization of the city bureaus by commissioners-in-charge, the most egregious example being Civic Life. It got pretty bad, with a city employee at Civic Life actually sending a glitter bomb to the publisher of the NW Examiner because his editorial positions were critical of Civic Life. (His wife ended up being the one to open the package.) That’s really bad.
We have Mingus Mapps as a city commissioner because of the political pressure he faced as a Civic Life employee.
The southwest neighborhood association coalition (SWNI) is (it’s my understanding) the only coalition in the city not to be receiving supportive city funding–it’s been de-funded and is operating as a volunteer group. The city council was also involved with this.
So I’m not on a bandwagon with this issue, commissioners trying to put a political stamp on their bureau portfolios is something I’ve had first-hand experience with for years before the charter commission was even appointed.
Regarding silos between and within bureaus, I’ve got folders full of examples. I can walk out my front door and photograph examples. Again most gathered long before the commission was formed.
Regarding the composition of the Charter Committee, the US has become a gerontocracy. It’s OK to have people in positions of responsibility who are young enough to still be able to make babies.
About the commission reports, I read a lot of City of Portland reports, and have been for several years. The Charter Commission reports stand out for their excellence, they are really, really professional.
Having written all that, let me say that I have a flexible mind. I’m set that we need to get away from the commission model, but I’m still open to arguments about what form the voting system should take. I’m particularly interested in what Mingus Mapp’s best shot at criticism will be–if he doesn’t end up supporting the work. He hasn’t given it his best informed shot yet.
So no, I’m not really a bandwagon person, I’m the introvert who you will always find at the edge of the crowd.
The grass is always greener… I am firmly convinced that folks are going to be disappointed by the results, especially of the election reform. As you say, the problem is our candidates, not the shape of the system.
All we need to implement a strong mayor system is for the mayor to take control of the bureaus again. He did that during his first year, and the results were not exactly stellar.
Everyone is frustrated and hungry for something new, but this proposal is flawed and unwieldy. A series of more incremental reforms would be much better.
Interesting thoughts shared in the comments section. I’ll vote for just about any change at this point. I personally would have opted for more, single-representative districts to improve the accountability as some have suggested. As it stands, I just copy all five city commissioners and hope one of them cares, which is rare. However, we do need more voices on city council and I think increasing representation to 12 persons will help. And the whole get the commissioners out of the daily business of overseeing bureaus is music to my ears. We need trained professionals in charge of the day-to-day administration, led by a single executive. The politicians can then focus on policy. Yes, we may get some conservative voices on the city council, but I welcome a more diverse set of viewpoints. As for ranked-choice voting, I would feel more confident in voting my conscience, rather than gaming the most likely candidate of my political ideology to make it to a runoff.
Is this the final product that we vote on or does the current city council weigh in on and tweak the proposal before it goes on the ballot?
JR, I think it goes straight to the ballot, no city council tweeking. But the city attorney might continue to be involved.
I share the frustration with our city’s governance that is inspiring so many of those commenting to declare they will accept any package that abolishes our city’s commission system. Given the high stakes of this once-a-decade effort, however, none of the key charter reform proposals should be given a free pass. Close scrutiny of each key plank is needed to answer a crucial question: could shortcomings in the electoral reform proposals negate the benefits of hiring a city manager and ditching the city’s commission form of government? Quite possibly. The Charter Commission’s progress reports have yet to acknowledge no other city in the US elects its city council using ranked choice voting in multimember geographic districts. This lack of candor about the leap-into-the-unknown nature of this proposal strikes me as a red flag. As Oregon’s recent experience with drug decriminalization has shown, groundbreaking initiatives can be risky. In this particular case, the risk is the proposed reforms will boost the electoral prospects of fringe candidates. Should that happen, the pragmatic policies needed to deal with Portland’s crime and homeless challenges are unlikely to secure enough council votes to pass . Absent such policies, even a top-notch city manager will struggle to make Portland noticeably safer, cleaner, and more vibrant.
We can enact charter reforms at any time; we don’t need to everything all at once. We should break the proposal down into smaller chunks and consider them independently.
“One of the three commissioners who voted against the reforms was recent city council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky. Similarly, City Commissioner Mingus Mapps has not taken a strong public position in support or in opposition to the whole package.”
Both apparently are now public in opposition.
Two Political Action Committees Plan to Push Back Against Portland Charter Reform Ballot MeasureOne of them is a PAC launched by Commissioner Mingus Mapps last fall explicitly to support charter reform.
And also see
Vadim Mozyrsky: “The status quo is better than the reform proposal”.
I wish Mapps would spend more time overseeing his bureaus, like on-the-edge-of-crisis BOEC, and less nursing his PAC.
Lets vote on replacing the commission form of government. Period. Adding the rcv and extra council positions mean this ballot is going to fail in November… or potentially worse, we are just going to create a new 2.0 version of a dysfunctional and unaccountable city government. It seams like a massive mistake that they are adding on these extra things when all we asked for was to get rid of the archaic commissioner form of government.
And a significantly more expensive version at that. Add up the costs of salaries, staff, district offices, new council chambers, and this proposal isn’t going to be cheap. Many of the costs will be ongoing.
There has been very little public conversation about this aspect of the proposal. Has the review committee discussed it at all internally?
There’s a section dedicated to discussing one-time and ongoing costs in the CRC’s progress reports. In the most recent one the section starts on page 18.
Watts, the Progress Reports are thorough and answer most questions. I’ve pinned the link to the 6th report at the top of the comments.
Thanks for linking to that. The range of ongoing costs ($900,000 to $8.7M, a range of about 10x) is a sign that there are many cost issues yet to be decided, or the uncertainty is high, or both. We also know that Portland is not particularly good at doing things cheaply.
And take those numbers with a bit of salt — would $900K even pay the salary of all those new representatives?
Have you calculated the cost of having a grossly inefficient city government? (the status quo)
Our local government is too important to take a flier on an experimental system. A list of the most successful governmental forms should have been researched and the best selected. I am not a fan of the commission style but there is too much risk in reinventing the wheel.
This is basically exactly what the Charter Commission has been doing for the last dozen-ish months.
I would encourage folks to dismiss the “not tried in the US” argument frame, because the US has never been particularly pro-democracy.
Curious what country is more democratic compared to the US? Also what country has world class government we should establish in Portland?
You look like you are on the path to lumping together local and national governments–that confuses the discussion.
At the national level, many countries organize themselves in a way which is more democratic than the US. The US is famously anti-majoritarian, it doesn’t pretend not to be. In fact, many Americans consider it a feature, not a bug, and we treat the constitution as the foundational document of a secular religion–so we aren’t likely to change the way we organize our government, ever.
Two quick examples of undemocratic structures: The 703,000 residents of Washington DC aren’t allowed to vote at the national level, yet the 581,348 residents of Wyoming are represented by two senators, some representatives, and get three electoral college votes.
A second example: California–population almost 40 million people–is represented by two senators. So is Wyoming (see above for population.)
That’s undemocratic, and there are many more examples of our relatively weak democracy, including the insurrection of January 6, and the supreme court gutting the Voting Rights Act.
As far as local level voting goes, there is much information in the article above, in the Charter Commission report, and in the links provided by a couple commenters. Go for it!
I want to second that the charter commission has done their homework here. Single transferable vote (RCV + multimember districts) is used in Ireland and Australia for national elections. Scotland and Wales for local elections. It’s well studied. The downside is counting is somewhat complicated. It is well established, however that it results in much more proportional representation than first past the post. Just because you aren’t familiar with it doesn’t mean it’s untested. And RCP alone without multimember districts has a bunch of problems – the multimember aspect solves a bunch of them.