We have an obligation to get Charter Reform right

October 2022

A message from Andrew Hoan, President & CEO, Portland Metro Chamber

I urge you to ‘vote no’ on Measure 26-288 in November, then work with the Alliance to support the right change in May 2023.

And I urge you to give to the Partnership for Common Sense Government, who is leading the effort to oppose the measure.

This is one of the most important messages I have sent to all Alliance members in some time. A recommendation of this weight over something so complex also deserves a detailed explanation of why the Portland Business Alliance recommends you ‘vote no’ and an analysis that can’t simply be summarized in 280 characters.

Over the past several years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our daily lives, our city’s civic and political culture has been dysfunctional, and the delivery of basic services, broken.

We have witnessed political extremists from both sides of the spectrum openly brawl on our streets. Self-styled anarchists routinely damage our business districts by indiscriminately vandalizing our beloved small businesses, residences, non-profits, religious institutions; and the homes of our elected officials have been menaced, set on fire and intentionally damaged.

All of this has happened while our city government has seemed completely incapable of making any progress in solving the numerous crises that grip our city – a shameful humanitarian crisis with thousands of unsheltered people on our streets, record levels of violent crime, skyrocketing cost of living and taxes, an out-of-control drug epidemic that preys on our most vulnerable, trashed sidewalks, and graffiti on our city’s walls.

Is it any wonder that only 13% of Portland voters in a survey recently commissioned by the Alliance said our city is on the right track?

Yet, through all this division and vitriol, Portlanders have become united behind one critical prescription to these problems – it’s time for Portland to change our form of government.

The Portland business community has long called for our city to move away from being the last in the nation to stick with the Commission form of government to a modern and proven form of providing city service to our community. Now, more than ever, we need service, not politics.

And, with the failed results of our current system laid bare in the face of a myriad of crises, Portlanders are right. If we don’t change now, we risk squandering all the unique qualities – livability, affordability, and inclusiveness – that have put Portland on the map.

Historically, the business community was one of several civic organizations who led the charge to create the present form of government a century ago as a response to mayoral corruption. And, in the past two decades, as the inadequate nature of our government became an increasing hinderance to effective governance, it was the business community who led multiple efforts to move away from the Commission form and towards districts and professional city management.

With these conditions and our history of advocating for this reform, you would expect that we would be writing today to recommend that you vote yes on the charter reform measure. Unfortunately, even with Portlanders poised to support change – change that this organization has fought to enact for decades, we cannot recommend that you support Measure 26-228.

In the strongest possible terms, we urge you to vote “NO’ on charter Measure 26-228 in November.

We have not come to this position lightly.

Our members have dedicated significant time to researching and discussing the measure and its effects on Portlanders and Portland’s business ecosystem. Our staff spent over a year in conversation with the supporters of the measure attempting to build a coalition. We entered these conversations just like you – with the expectation that the once-a-decade charter commission would model the best parts of successful city governments that exist around the country.

We committed to the process and advanced our positions repeatedly, like many Portlanders, transparently, and through public testimony.

For reasons we do not understand, the charter commission did not take community concerns into account and instead delivered a proposal that no other city in the world has ever tried to implement.

With this measure, the Charter Commission is asking you to move away from a form of government that no one else uses because it is a proven failure, to a form of government that no city in the world has ever tried.

Also, if both the City and County Charter Reform proposals are approved, a Portland voter will be in a location that elects its three local governments (City, County and Metro) in entirely different methods. To imagine a condition where a Portland vote will be counted differently in three local elections is a recipe for distrust and a fundamental threat to our election integrity.

While many in our community continue to deny or downplay it, Portland is teetering on an economic precipice. As part of the more than 2,100 Alliance member community, no one knows this better than you. Just consider the following data points:

  • In a recent study by the University of California Berkeley, Portland’s downtown recovery was rated 60 out of 62 major cities in America, only ahead of Cleveland and San Francisco.
  • The 2021 Urban Land Institute report, placed Portland 66 out of 80 in ranking a market’s measurement of desirability for outside investment and development. In 2017, the same report ranked Portland third.
  • Our latest State of the Economy report, found that population growth in both Portland and Multnomah County has slowed, while Clark County has become the region’s population growth engine, adding more than 7,500 in 2020. A slowing population can lead to devastating impacts on our city. The experience of other cities tells us that this decline is often followed by declining revenue for critical public services and a flight of private investment which inevitably leads to worsening economic conditions. Once this cycle inexorably gains momentum, it can take decades to turn things around.
  • This is extremely serious, and we fear that the adoption of a completely improvised and experimental form of government, which supporters call “uniquely Portland” could very well push us over the economic cliff into long-term decline. Altering the form of government is not the time or place for Portland to ‘wing-it’. We are FAR behind the rest of the nation in basic government functionality and accountability, and we need to join the rest of the crowd.

All we need to do is look to Baltimore, MD, for the next closest and best approximation for what is being advanced as ‘uniquely Portland’. The Baltimore experiment was widely rejected by voters who overwhelmingly threw out a similar model 20 years ago, due to the constant and highly publicized dysfunction it caused.

Admittedly this is a weak comparison, equally as much as international comparisons that are often touted but that operate within a Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentarian-style systems to which the proponents often site, such as Malta or Edinburgh.

We are not Malta.

Predictably, as Portlanders learn about the details and begin to realize that this is not what they were expecting, a growing number of respected voices are speaking out against Measure 26-228.

There is some good news.

Thanks to the brave leadership of Portland City Commissioner and Reed College Political Scientist, Mingus Mapps, we will have the chance to fix the numerous flaws in the current measure. Commissioner Mapps has proposed an alternative, which shows great respect to the volunteer work of the charter commission by only making a few, but hugely important changes that would greatly reduce the cost of implementation and align Portland with other functional cities around the nation. You can see a very detailed comparison of the two proposals for yourself. Here is why we think it is far superior and worthy of your support:

  • Implementation costs are estimated to be half of what the original reform would cost. Lower costs will ensure the proposed changes will be implemented and more funds will be allocated to basic city services. The present measure’s proposed costs are only the floor and grossly underestimate the cost to implement such an unwieldy system.
  • The council will be more representative of the greater Portland community with seven districts instead of just four. Rather than three members per district elected with small percentages, it will ensure that whoever wins has a majority of the support in their district, which is a bedrock of our democracy. Constituents will finally know who to call to have their problems solved, and who to hold accountable if they are not solved.
  • You will understand how your vote is counted. The election system proposed by the charter commission is so confusing, even they cannot explain it. In fact, the charter commission chair said, “you don’t need to know how it works, just trust us that it will work.” In this era of threats to our election system, Portlanders need to know that their vote is being counted.?
  • The Mayor won’t just be a figurehead, as proposed by the charter commission. For three years, Portlanders have demanded more from our mayor. To hold our executive responsible, Portland needs a system that creates clear accountability.
    The Alliance strongly agrees with The Oregonian that we should wait to get this right. By waiting until May we can vote for an alternative that builds consensus and unites us behind the right change for the next generation of Portlanders. It really is that simple.

Portlanders from every corner of our city agree overwhelmingly that change is needed, but we can’t just make change for change’s sake. We have an obligation to get this right for the next generation. I say this as a father of three young children that I hope to raise in our beautiful city. It’s time for our city to grow up, put the basic needs of our residence first, and solve our problems.

I urge you to vote NO on Measure 26-288 in November, then join with us to support the right change in May 2023. And I urge you to give to the Partnership for Common Sense Government, who is leading the effort to oppose the measure.