Portlanders Deserve Real Choices with Charter Reform

July 2022

This opinion piece appeared in the Portland Business Journal on July 15. Read Op-Ed.

Portland’s future depends on our ability to move toward a good and effective form of city administration.

Nothing is of greater priority to our members’ needs, nor to our larger community, than the functional delivery of basic services by our Chamber’s namesake city. The effectiveness of government in Portland is not only a priority for local business, it also has statewide, regional, and national significance.

The time for change is now.

For decades, we have assumed growth in population and growth in the economy, which up until recent years has helped families keep pace with the cost of living. Those assumptions are no longer valid. Previously, the dysfunction of government was masked by positive economic and demographic trends and merely an inhibitor to greater growth. Now, it is a direct contributor to our inability to keep residents, attract and grow new businesses, and is exacerbating the rising cost of living.

Simply put, the city that is supposed to work is not working. We need a new system.

Our position is this: certain elements of Portland’s proposed charter reform deserve support and, simultaneously, voters deserve more choice.

That is why today we filed a ballot title challenge to the proposal from the Charter Commission concerning the unconstitutional combination of multiple subjects into one.

At the onset of the process to reconstitute the city’s form of government, our members leapt at the chance to support changes to move us away from being the ‘the only city’ in the nation with our current dysfunctional commission form of government.

We were one of only a few initial endorsements and financial supporters at the launch of the City Club’s efforts to galvanize a conversation around reform.

Our position and objectives as a business community have always been transparent and focused on the absolute and unequivocal need to remove the legislative branch from the executive and provide the mayor and a city manager with the responsibilities and, more importantly, the accountability for the city’s administration. Effective delivery of services for the taxes we pay is something that Portlander’s overwhelmingly want from Charter reform, and we agree.

While elements of the Commission’s work were – to large extent – good, what concerns us are the elements related to elections and how we vote for our council. Unfortunately, the proposed multimember districts coupled with rank choice voting would leave Portland, once again, as ‘the only city.’

This time Portland would be the ‘the only city’ (that we’re aware of on the planet) that would combine the two concepts of multi-member districts and ranked choice voting. Even the proposed version of ranked choice voting would be unlike any utilized anywhere else.

Perhaps these proposals are meritorious and the drafters and advocates behind them are completely correct in the outcomes they believe will be derived from this novel, and completely improvised, form of elections. Perhaps not.

Either way we cannot say because there is no comparison. We cannot argue or agree with these concepts because no one can, in good faith, present examples that come anywhere close to the proposed system. Our best and last example, and it’s a stretch, is Baltimore, which in 2002 voted two-to-one to eliminate multimember districts because of how seemingly dysfunctional it made their legislative body.

In absence of any comparison, we fear the worst; that the coupling of the good and expected reforms to the city’s administration will be brought down at the ballot by the improvised concepts advanced through the new form of elections.

Sadly, this could have been easily avoided by the Commission referring two or three questions to the city. Predictably, there is now strong and organized opposition to these experimental proposals. This is why we are working for Portlander’s to have the choice to agree with all, none, or some of the Charter reforms.

If we are successful in our challenge, then voters will get more choice, more votes. They will be empowered to make their own assessment.

Should we fail, voters will have less choice and must take it all or leave it all.

A Portland without opportunities for choice contradicts our city’s history of a strong democracy that works for all.