Judge rules against Business Alliance challenge to charter reform

The Multnomah County Circuit Court has ruled against the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) challenge to a voting and governance measure slated for November’s ballot. The PBA had argued that the broad package of changes referred to the ballot by the Charter Review Commission violated the state constitution’s single-subject requirement.

In today’s ruling, Judge Stephen K. Bushong concluded that the measure does not violate that requirement.

This is the second charter reform defeat this summer for the PBA. In July, the City Auditor’s office declined a PBA request to conduct a constitutional review of the proposed reforms, responding that the Auditor only reviews “initiatives”—measures brought to the ballot via signatures—not “referrals” to the ballot made by governing entities. Despite that setback, the PBA unsuccessfully pressed forward with this same argument to the Circuit Court.

In response to the ruling the co-chair of the Charter Review Commission, Melanie Billings-Yun, told BikePortland that:

The court has agreed that the Portland Charter Commission has developed an indivisible and comprehensive plan for bringing meaningful change to our city government. As Judge Bushong so rightly said in his ruling, “All the provisions in this package of reforms are properly connected to the unifying principle of reforming the structure and operation of city government.” That unifying principle is creating a governing system that is accountable, responsive and representative of all the people of Portland. Now Portland voters will have the power to choose a better future for our city.

Today’s decision brings to a close a strange interlude in which the City Council has been in the awkward position of watching the City Auditor’s and Attorney’s offices defend the legality of recommendations made by the council-appointed Charter Review Commission, even as council members’ reaction to the full package of those recommendations ranges from tepid to testy.

The Charter Review Commission (CRC) is an independent body of 20 volunteers called together by the Portland City Council every ten years to review and recommend changes to Portland’s city charter, the constitution of the city. Each Council member is allowed to nominate four charter commissioners who are then subject to Council confirmation. A super-majority of 15 out of 20 CRC commissioners can refer their recommended changes directly to the voters. By a comfortable 17 to 3 vote this past June, the current CRC referred its package of amendments to the November ballot.

Mayor Wheeler summed up the relation between the City Council and the Charter Review Commission in the June 29 Council meeting in which the CRC informed the Council of their recommendations:

You have voted with your super-majority to refer this directly to the residents of the City of Portland. Obviously, you are their body, not our body, and our comments here are truly for informational purposes only, as opposed to policy making.

As of today’s Circuit Court ruling, the fate of changes to Portland’s form of governance and method of electing city officials will be in the hands of November’s voters.

Between now and November, however, the charter reform measure will face organized opposition. Both Commissioner Mingus Mapps and former Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky have political action committees which will oppose the full suite of changes proposed in the measure. As BikePortland previously reported, Mapps’s Ulysses PAC will host forums on alternatives to the current measure, and Mapps himself plans to put forward a draft alternative proposal for the Spring 2023 ballot.

Mozyrsky has teamed up with Chuck Duffy and Steven Moskowitz, former staffers of late Mayor Bud Clark, to form Partnership for Common Sense Government which brashly opposes the ballot measure.

But the measure also has a growing number of proponents, including the City Club of Portland, the League of Women Voters and the Urban League. And a recently formed group, Portland United for Change, is a coalition of organizations working to support the CRC measure.

Stay tuned as we continue to cover this story.

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Damien
Damien
1 month ago

This remains an easy “yes” vote for me, and I’m glad it’s cleared all the hurdles to allow me to do so.

I don’t see it as a panacea – no reform ever will be. Rather it’s a distinction between “a reform that will allow better results” versus “a status quo that will all but guarantee the same or worse results”. One could quibble with me on that by pointing out that there were times when Portland’s current form of government served it well – I’d reply that those times are gone. It’s a different city in a markedly different country than even just, say, six years ago. Definitely ten years ago. The worst combination you can have is dysfunction coupled with a lack of representation – that’s how authoritarianism starts taking hold (which can quickly eliminate that dysfunction, but also that representation).

I’ll stick on that point about representation, because that’s the part the business alliance and coalition of old white guys have the problem with. Just about everybody agrees on the city manager part (feels like that could’ve just been done by the council without all this, but here we are). The rest of the reform is targeted at increasing representation, which is in direct opposition to the power of those aforementioned groups.

You’re going to hear a lot of “untested! Nowhere in the US does this!” – when you hear this, keep in mind the key “in the US” part – the US has never been very democratic. We’re configured for an unsustainable minority rule and have probably only avoided that fate up until now by luck, which appears to be running out. Most of the population could not vote for most of the country’s history. “Not tried in the US” is not a negative – it’s a positive.

I do wish they’d have gone with their subcommittee’s recommendation that was 3:1 in favor of STAR over ranked-choice, but the latter has a multi-million dollar lobbying industry behind it, and multi-member districts are too big a step toward representation for me to vote against the package just because of ranked-choice alone. I’ve also heard from some folks who spend even more time in this space than I do that the particular flavor of ranked-choice coupled with multi-member districts mitigates some of ranked-choice’s downsides. Undoubtedly any follow-up proposal by Mapps or others should this not pass will drop most of the parts that actually increase representation, remaining in favor of the business interests position.

Should this pass, in a few years’ time, you’ll have three representatives for you and your neighbors you can bug directly about better cycling infrastructure. I sure will be.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  Damien

city manager part (feels like that could’ve just been done by the council without all this, but here we are)

Could be done by the mayor alone; simply assign all the bureaus to himself, designate a manager, and away we go.

And in fact he did just this at the beginning of his first term, and the results were so unremarkable that most people have forgotten it even happened at all.

Damien
Damien
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

And in fact he did just this at the beginning of his first term, and the results were so unremarkable that most people have forgotten it even happened at all.

As I would suspect from an ad-hoc, short-term/temporary move to a collection of large institutions, as opposed to a systemic, long-term change. Like turning the steering wheel on the Titanic for five minutes before turning it back and wondering why they still hit the ice berg.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  Damien

Or, more likely, the details of how the chairs on deck are arranged won’t make intractable problems less intractable, or mediocre leaders better. The iceberg still looms.

I would probably support (or at least not oppose) moving to a city manager system, but I harbor no illusions that it will help with any of the important issues facing the city today.

If we formally adopt a strong mayor (in November or May), a lot of people are going to be disappointed.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
1 month ago

That’s too bad. I think that the charter review commission showed a dangerous level of overconfidence with their insistence that all three items must be packaged together in a take-it or leave-it measure. It completely reeks of hubris on the commission’s part. People want change but I am not sure that all of this is what they hand hoped to vote on. And we now have to vote for all 100% of it to get any charter reform. The final measure language is terribly confusing, and many people will just end up voting NO.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

No, Jay – we all need to vote YES, since this initiative is our only chance of getting meaningful reform to city gov’t in our lifetimes.

Of course it’s not perfect – nothing (except for a bike ride on a cool, clear day) ever is.

In case you haven’t noticed, our city is a complete s**tshow at the moment, and our city gov’t has been shown to be completely hapless at dealing with the significant problems we face.

If we vote this charter reform down, we will see a massive exodus from Portland to the suburbs, where people get boring, competent governance (see Beaverton as an excellent example). I will be at the front of the line.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred

I’m leaning towards “No” myself; though I think it’s been way overpromised (we tried strong mayor during the first months of Wheeler’s first term, and everything was not magically better), I am willing to support changing the charter to strong mayor.

I don’t at all like the idea of pioneering a brand new voting/district system, especially after talking to friends in Seattle about their (now abandoned) trial of something similar.

If the combined measure fails, it seems likely that parts of it will be put on the ballot in May 2023, so most of us will get another chance to support it in our lifetimes.

If failure triggers a mass exodus, housing prices will fall, so maybe that’s another reason to vote No.

Ten
Ten
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

Your Seattle friends are misinformed about how Seattle city elections work then. Since the early 1900s they have had a strong mayor-council system. They changed a couple times over the 20th century from districts to at-large, to in 2013 when the voters approved a charter change to go back to a hybrid of 2 at-large and 7 district seats.

This coming November voters there will be voting on a proposal to implement ranked-choice voting.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred

I don’t disagree with you Fred, I think we desperately need reform. But it’s a really badly written ballot measure that I am sure will turn many people off. Im still unsure how I will vote or if its better to defeat this so we can have next year’s ballot initiative that Maps will float, if but I really think the CRC shot themselves (and us by proxy) in the foot.

Below is the exact language that people are expected to yes or no on in Nov:
”Should Administrator manage city government, 12-member Council (three from each district) make laws, voters elect officials using ranked choice process?”

pigs
pigs
1 month ago
Reply to  Jay Cee

Talking with my friends and with people on my NA board, they seem to clearly understand what this reform is proposing. Whether or not they agree with it is another question, but it’s definitely not a lack of understanding that is the issue.

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
1 month ago
Reply to  pigs

Yes but how many outside our circle of policy wonks /NAs will say ok this ballot is what I totally want to vote for? I hate to poo poo on this but damn CRC you put us Portland voters in a very tight position

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago

I read the article looking for any mention of “bike” or its variations and didn’t find any. I’m all for BikePortland covering stories like this, but my suggestion would be to tie it to bike-related issues so that there is a easy-to-spot nexus between the story and the bike issues I care about.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin
Reply to  Let's Active

I hear you. And trust me, I’ve spent years making sure all our stories have a clear and present tie back to cycling.

But this is about our form of government, so I guess I figured it was obvious. Thanks for the feedback. Also, if you read past articles on this we do make that connection more clear. Also, this was done under a deadline so sometimes we don’t take time to give all the context for every story because we sometimes work very quickly.

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago

Makes sense. And to reiterate: I love this type of story on your news outlet!

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago

You made me smile, too. Look forward to the future coverage, Lisa!

one
1 month ago

Without a doubt, this Charter Reform is the most important legislation in decades. All three changes are a MUST (Ranked Choice Voting, District Reps, and a City Manager.) These changes will have a rippling effect and propel Portland forward. I’m sure the Oregonian will be loudly against the Charter Reform, and the PBA will not quit fighting it with all that they have. PLEASE read the Mercury article about it.

https://www.portlandmercury.com/news/2022/08/15/45061907/measure-to-change-portland-charter-can-stay-on-ballot-judge-rules

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  one

That Mercury article ends with a PBA quote:

“Our members and board will now have to weigh the unfortunate options to either oppose the measure and keep our present dysfunctional system, or to support the measure in favor of a completely improvised one that will likely lead to a different system of dysfunction,” the statement read. “We suspect we are not the only ones that feel this way.”

I think that about sums it up.

pigs
pigs
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

PBA is just pissy that the new system won’t let them effectively buy and lobby politicians.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  pigs

I don’t think that will be a problem for them. The way elections would be structured, having early money/support will let you get out front at the outset, after which you would be hard to stop.

Their preferred candidates will have an easier run of it.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago

If we’re electing 3 candidates out of a pool of, say, 13, and one gets out in front early with a polished professional campaign, you’d need to find three other folks to beat them in order to keep that candidate out of office. Given the difficulty getting news coverage and educating the public about so many candidates, I’m not sure how one accomplishes that. How much did you really know about the less well known candidates in the primary?

One way to think of it is by focusing my resources on a chosen candidate, I have a better chance of my guy winning than someone who spreads their resources among a broader slate trying to obstruct me. I don’t need to control all of council to get my way; one candidate in each district may be enough.

That said, I’d like to better understand the argument that I’m wrong. I can be convinced.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago

A lot of cities used it!

A lot of cities elected multiple members from a single pool using RCV? Why did they stop?

I’ll look at the paper, but my argument is that it will be as easy, if not easier, for a well funded special interest candidate to get elected in the proposed system as it is in the current system (and hence PBA’s opposition to the proposal is not for the cynical reasons suggested).

Our recent election for Hardesty’s seat provided a pretty solid embodiment of my argument — three candidates in a large pool got out in front early, and no one else stood a chance (how many voters could even name one of the other candidates?) We see that dynamic in almost every election with lots of candidates. Voters have limited bandwidth, so focus on a few “serious” candidates, so all PBA has to do is elevate their choice to that top tier, which is easy with early money.

I don’t doubt there has been a lot of research on alternative voting systems (I read a comprehensive and fairly mathy book on the topic myself a few years ago, though it did not cover the particular variant we’ll be voting on in November, which throws so many different ideas into the stew). If the commission relied on research for its proposal, it should promote that fact.

Generally in this type of forum, I find a synopsis of an argument to be useful — discussion by reference can be exhausting (though links backing up specific assertions can be useful).

Jay Cee
Jay Cee
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

That is an interesting quote that I can’t help but find substance in. I’ve no love for the PBA at all, but I still haven’t had anyone clearly explain to me how we are not just proposing to end one mess to just be replaced for another more complicated mess. Can you imagine the nightmare of 12 Portland council members, three – not one – per district, ever agreeing on much of anything or getting anything done in a timely manner? Someone please help educate me here because I’m really trying to see how this isn’t just a proposed dysfunctional disaster in the making. I can’t be the only one wondering this.

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago
Reply to  one

There’s a lot to like about this Charter Reform proposal. The ranked-choice voting is one thing I’m not sold on yet. If I end up voting no, it’s solely because of this element of the package.

Will
Will
1 month ago
Reply to  Let's Active

What are your qualms with ranked choice voting? The system is designed to give more proportional representation on the city council.

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago
Reply to  Will

My point was more that I need to understand it better before the vote (that’s on me to do the research). Here’s one experience in Vermont that had interesting results fwiw: https://www.timesargus.com/opinion/perspective/gierzynski-ranked-choice-voting-problems/article_7f3d05f2-1c6e-5f2b-950e-b221a8b58eb9.html

Karl Dickman
Karl Dickman
1 month ago
Reply to  Let's Active

Beware of some terminology issues. “Ranked choice voting” (RCV) properly refers to a whole constellation of voting systems in which voters rank candidates, so you need to be very careful about which voting system is being described. That article is talking about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), whereas the charter proposal is for Single Transferable Vote (STV). In both systems, the voter ranks the candidates in order from most favored to least favored. But when the ballots are counted, IRV picks exactly one winning candidate, whereas STV picks more than one winner–three in the case of the charter proposal.
To take one quote from the article (I don’t have time to respond to the whole thing):

One of the paradoxes of RCV IRV is that a candidate who is preferred by a majority over the other candidates can lose in an RCV IRV election. This happened in the Burlington mayoral contest. An examination of the actual votes cast showed Democrat Andy Montroll was preferred over Republican Kurt Wright by a margin of 56% to 44% and over Progressive Bob Kiss by a margin of 54% to 46%. Under RCV IRV, Kiss won the election.

In the Burlington example, the candidate in the center, Montroll, lost first-choice votes to both Kiss on his left and Wright on his right, but could have beaten either in a head-to-head election. (This phenomenon is called “center squeeze.”) Center squeeze exists under STV as well, but the effects are attenuated by having multiple winners. If it was a three winner election as proposed by the charter reform, Montroll would just have to finish in the top 3, and he almost certainly had enough support to do so.

Let's Active
Let's Active
1 month ago
Reply to  Karl Dickman

Interesting. Thanks, Karl. I’ll look for info on STV.

soren
soren
1 month ago
Reply to  Will

In a city that is increasingly becoming an exclusive enclave for upper-income people, multi-candidate district RCV could dilute representation of “districts” that have significant numbers of low-income people.

For example, a district that is more likely to elect a single poor renter under the current system may now elect a poor renter and two economically-comfortable homeowners. (Poor people are less likely to have the time, resources, and money to run for office in this oligarchical anocracy so are often underrepresented on candidate lists.)

PS: I’m de-registered so will not be voting either way.

Damien
Damien
1 month ago
Reply to  Let's Active

It is the weakest part of the package, for me, and if I were to vote no, it would be for the same reason. Ranked-choice is the worst of the reform options for plurality – but it is, in many metrics, better than plurality. I remain disappointed they skipped over one of the best reform options instead, but that’s the power of money and momentum for you.

Jakob Bernardson
Jakob Bernardson
1 month ago

DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE 101

I, no fan of PBA, say it probably is better that the whole shebang booted out by the Charter Review Commission go before voters as one.

I would vote against it for sundry reasons. No one need feel compelled to follow.

As a young man I lived in Australia for a while but never understood how its system of governance works, except that politics was brutal to a fault. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago famously remarked, “Politics aint bean-bag.” That’s Australian politics in spades.

Australians otherwise are wonderful folk, kind, generous, welcoming, self-reliant, socially responsible. I felt more accepted and valued there than ever in my native country.

Recently, upon intense application of Wikipedia, I have begun to decode its governance: “Washminster;” half from the US, half from the UK. Like the US, states in Australia have substantial powers, regulation of firearms, for example. English settlement of the continent as prison colonies resulted in violence that makes the American West appear a Sunday-school picnic. Tasmania, most brutal of colonies, is notorious for scuttling national firearms control. It also hosted the worst mass shooting, 35 killed.

Each state is organized as a unitary parliamentary system. “Sydney” is composed of 33 local “Councils,” but police, fire, schools are run by the state of New South Wales. This is much like the UK. Other states are similar.

At national level things are different. It is a bicameral federal system, with a House of Representatives and a Senate, just like the US. The “government,” which originates legislation, is formed from the lower chamber, with prime-minister selected from the dominant party; the upper chamber has important but restricted powers of assent.

Sub-ministers have certain “portfolios,” for example, defense, treasury, health, with specifically defined authority over departments of the civil service, certified by the Governor General, representative of the British Crown. The PM can’t overrule them, but can sack them if so inclined, although they retain their elected seats.

Not much different from Portland’s City Council, is it?

Presently there is a great scandal. Scott Morrison, the previous PM, an almost Don Trump weirdo, secretly had the Governor General assign five extra ministries to him personally, without notifying the five members of his own “Liberal” (read here arch-conservative) party who held them officially and publicly, or anyone else. Imagine Ted Wheeler operating secret channels to PBOT and everything else, knifing all Commissioners in the back whenever he chose.

My point is that parliamentary systems are the most widespread means of democratic governance, with long and productive histories.  Our city’s present form is not much different.

It works well if the citizenry elects intelligent, dedicated, diligent people.

Jakob Bernardson
Jakob Bernardson
1 month ago

Two practical matters:

First, one who has run for office in our City knows that a tiny sliver of Portland lies in Clackamas County and another tiny sliver lies in Washington County. Under the proposed system of voting election officials in those counties would have to engage not only in recording votes and passing totals on to Multnomah County officials, but engage in computation of arcane algorithms in consultations among all three, all for minute fractions of their voters.

Election officials would not be happy.

Second, enlarging Council from 5 to 13 would require complete rebuilding of the Chamber in City Hall.

Under Vera Katz structural upgrades to City Hall also involved reversing positions of Council and citizenry, location of Council becoming more compact along the west wall. There is barely room for 5 positions now.

Accommodating 13 positions would require reversion to locating Council in the rotunda of the east wall; even there so many positions would be cramped.

One wonders if the worthies of the Charter Review Commission engaged in such mundane considerations.