This is the big one. If you know anything at all about the 2022 Charter Commission Proposals, you probably know this – “They want to make the mayor more powerful.” This is, of course, a misleading oversimplification, but the importance of the reform is difficult to exaggerate. It isn’t that the Mayor of Portland is becoming “more powerful”, it’s the entire structure of governance being redesigned: eliminating ambiguities, clarifying authority, infusing politics into city management, and involving voters more directly. But before diving in, let’s get some perspective.
There are two primary structures for municipal government in the United States: Council-Manager and Mayor-Council.
Until 2010, Portland had a garden variety Council-Manager government. Council-Manager systems are the most common form of municipal government across the country. In Portland, citizens directly elected a slate of city councilors, and these councilors appointed a City Manager. This manager is not a political figure, exactly, he or she is an employee hired by the Council to run the city. City Managers are usually selected for their experience in managing businesses, nonprofits, and governments; they often have advanced degrees in administration and expertise in relevant fields. They are usually purposefully apolitical, and hold themselves out as someone who will perform their duties to the specifications of the City Council whatever their decisions may be.
The City Manager’s job was running the day-to-day business of the city. Hiring and firing staff, analyzing income and expenses, drafting budgets and other plans, managing the city’s assets, and ensuring that citizens receive satisfactory service. If they do these things well, the Council will retain them, and if they don’t, the Council may choose to replace them. The City Manager was at the top of the city’s “org chart”, being the highest-ranking member of city staff, but they didn’t have any direct political power, being an unelected appointee. That all lies in the Council.
The closest analogy to a Council-Manager system is a joint-stock company, or corporation, in which shareholders elect a Board of Directors to represent them, and this Board hires a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to manage the day-to-day business of the business. This analogy is an unfortunate one, since “running the city like a business” is a politically-charged phrase – used positively by some pragmatic liberals, but said derogatorily by some left-wing progressives. For proponents of Council-Manager government, this is an efficient mode of administration, free from the corruption of petty politics. Most of what a city does isn’t political, advocates say, it’s routine bureaucracy and councils should hire qualified managers. To critics, Council-Manager systems are anti-democratic and corporatocratic, being run by an unelected bureaucrat and prioritizing fiscal responsibility over voter accountability. Cities such as Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Charlotte, and Las Vegas use Council-Manager government, as do most small towns and cities in the country.
Mayor-Council systems, though less common than the Council-Manager form, are favored by many of America’s largest metropolises, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Columbus, Seattle, and Boston. This form of government is more intuitive to those familiar with national and state politics, in which an elected executive (the President or Governor) tangoes with a separately elected legislature, each having their own powers and prerogatives. This is how it is with Mayor-Council systems, where a directly elected Mayor wields executive authority and legislative influence, and is generally expected to lead city government with a particular agenda alongside managing the quotidian duties of administration. Meanwhile, the Council acts as a ‘legislative branch’, passing laws, approving budgets, raising taxes, etc.
The exact powers of the Mayor, and the relationship between the Mayor and the Council vary from city to city, but proponents of a ‘strong’ Mayor assert that this strength gives average voters more say over how the city is run. Critics point out that infusing the necessary business of government with partisan polemic rarely results in the most efficient administration. Issuing permits and managing sewer systems aren’t usually political issues.
What is Portland now? Strictly speaking, we do have a Mayor, directly elected by the people, with some political power, so it would be tempting to say we have a Mayor-Council system. But this is an illusion. Our ‘Mayor’ is more akin to that of a bonus at-large city councilor, with some special powers and duties. Outside of a limited budgetary veto, her role is primarily legislative, ceremonial, and diplomatic. We still have a City Manager, hired by the city council, and they remain the chief executive of the city’s government. The Manager still proposes budgets and directly administers the city.
It may be appropriate to consider Portland’s current government a mixed system, though more closely resembling a Council-Manager arrangement.
This second proposal from the Charter Commission, concerning governance, seeks to put a finger on the scale in favor of the Mayor-Council structure. If passed, this proposal would transform the Mayor into a genuine executive. Several powers would be granted to the Mayor that the office currently does not enjoy, including:
- Drafting and proposing the city budget
- Currently, drafting and proposing the budget is the job of the city manager.
- A general legislative veto
- Currently the mayor can only veto appropriations, but this reform would bestow the power to veto anything the council votes on. Just as a council supermajority can override the appropriations veto, a council supermajority will be able to override this general veto. More on this shortly.
- Propose legislation to the city council
- The Mayor would be able submit ordinances and other legislation to the council for consideration and voting the same as any other member of the council could.
- Nominate the Chief Administrator
- We’ll talk more about this in a moment.
- Issue executive orders to the city government
- This too.
The Mayor would, however, no longer have certain powers that the office enjoys now, notably:
- Vote in the City Council
- With this reform, the Mayor will no longer be a member of the Council, and will typically not have a vote in it.
- Preside over the City Council, and set the agenda for meetings
- The Council will now elect a Chair and Vice-Chair from among themselves to set agendas and preside over meetings.
Mayors will also get a small but notable salary bump, from 1.5 to 2 times the median household income in Portland.
As we can see, saying that the reform would “strengthen” the Mayor isn’t quite accurate – the reform would completely reinvent the position, and how the rest of the city government relates to it.
From the office’s current position as the most-special-member of the city council, this proposal would elevate the Mayor to certified mover-and-shaker status. A powerful veto, authority over city administration, and the ability to introduce legislation, these powers could give an incumbent quite a bit of a leeway to act independently of the council, while still being ultimately under their authority.
So, what about the cuckoo in the nest – the City Manager? Will it still be around to compete with the Mayor’s authority? Not to worry, that position has been abolished.
Well, more accurately, it’s been renamed and demoted. The Chief Administrator, as the position would now be called, will continue to be the top of the government’s ‘org chart’, managing the day-to-day affairs of the government. Substantially, however, this position will now be nominated by the Mayor, not directly chosen by the Council, and will be subordinate to the Mayor’s executive orders. This is a crucial shift, eliminating the current tension of authority between Mayor and Manager decisively in favor of the former.
And what are these executive orders? Very similarly to executive orders on the state or national level of government, an executive order is described by the proposed charter amendment as:
“All directives issued by the mayor pursuant to this charter implementing city council approved ordinances, orders, and resolves, and affecting the outcomes of any city services, policies, procedures, or programs lasting more than 30 days (or multiple directives of a similar nature occurring within a 30-day period)“
This might be somewhat hard to digest, but it is essentially a direction to city staff from the Mayor. ‘Do this’, ‘prioritize that’, ‘don’t worry about such-and-such’, etc. These directions are still subject to the authority of the council, but an active Mayor working independently would be difficult for the Council to micromanage. The Council must act collectively and, typically, they meet only occasionally, while the Mayoral office is a full-time job. Legislatures give a degree of latitude to government employees; this is always a necessity to allow for the realities of the job. Now, that latitude will be at the discretion of one person – the Mayor – elected directly by the people and serving a four-year term.
In short, right now, the Mayor is a special member of the City Council with a handful of unique procedural powers and a substantial ceremonial and diplomatic role. Under the proposed changes, the Mayor would become a fully operational executive capable of significantly influencing the legislative and administrative activity of the city.
This shift, while sizeable, shouldn’t be overstated. This proposal does not turn Portland into a banana republic run by a dictatorial mayor. The council will remain the final authority responsible for the governance of the city.
Should this proposal be passed, the council too will take new shape. And far from becoming a disempowered, weaker body, several of its functions and procedures will become more independent and directly influential on city policy. It should be understood that when describing these reforms as “strengthening the mayor”, that strengthening isn’t at the expense of the Council. While this ballot question is most notorious for its impact on the Mayor and Manager positions, the proposed changes to the Council are just as key.
Firstly, the Council is getting bigger, increasing in number from nine to twelve members. The city will be more finely divided into more districts as well, increasing from the current five-district map to a nine. (No map is yet proposed.) It is hoped this will result in a better constituent-to-councilor ratio, each citizen now swimming in a smaller pond. In addition to the nine district-elected members, there will be three at-large Councilors elected by the city as a whole – same as now – but no longer will the Mayor serve as a functional fourth. Without the Mayor as an additional at-large Councilor, this will effectively be an absolute decrease in at-large representation. This shift is subtly crucial for how the future of city politics will play out.
Currently, four out of nine of the council seats are held by at-large members, representing not individual districts, but the city as a whole.
If this proposal passes, only one quarter will be, with a supermajority being district-elected.
To put this another way, under the current system, each citizen has the power to vote for a majority of the city council. Their own district councilor, the three at-large, and the Mayor. This set of five outnumbers the four councilors that you did not vote for. Under the proposed system, you will only vote for one-third of the council. The majority of the council will always be people you had no ability to vote for or against.
On the one hand, this could result in a greater feeling of neighborhoods being pitted against one another, with different district representatives having different interests, as opposed to representatives of the whole city acting in unison.
But on the other hand, at-large councilors represent so many people that it can feel like they’re not responsive to individual constituents. Being accountable to too many people can feel like being accountable to no one.
If one knows their district representative only represents one ninth of the city, (the part they live in,) one can assume the representative will care about their individual opinion more than if they represent the entire city. Of course, this means that district councilors for districts you don’t live in probably won’t care what you think at all, while at-large representatives should care at least a little bit.
This is even moreso the case for the School Board, which is also being affected. From its current composition of four at-large representatives and five district representatives, it will now have nine district representatives and no at-large representatives at all.
Another concern would be that by multiplying the number of councilors, one multiplies the points at which necessary legislation could be stymied. Smaller districts could conceivably be taken over by belligerent political groups and used to disrupt the workings of government. This isn’t so far-fetched, but even if it never comes to pass – a culture may emerge (as it has in towns with similar arrangements) in which district councilors have a ‘soft veto’ over measures that affect their own districts, and the same paralyzing effect could occur. Territorial councilors that resist all change in their neighborhoods could contribute to the dangerous calcification of Portland.
These considerations aside, however, one piece of the proposal is regarded quite highly by many on both sides, especially those who have intimate experience with the Council’s proceedings, as it represents both a step forward and a return to form. When the ’08 Commission’s reforms went into effect, the position of ‘Mayor’ maintained its role as the presiding figure and its responsibility for setting the agenda that Council meetings follow. If you’re unfamiliar with Council sessions it may not seem obvious why this is important, but a competent and cooperative Chair to preside over meetings and create the agendas is very important to Council meetings being productive.
Considering how important these roles are to an effective Council meeting, it made sense that prior to the last mayoral reforms, the Council elected their own ‘Mayors’ to serve these procedural functions. Guaranteed cooperation. But since those reforms, the officer responsible for running Council meetings is elected by popular vote. To critics, this is a little like asking a store’s customers to elect the store’s manager. Hopefully, no significant divide of interests will exist, but if a Mayor’s agenda becomes unmoored from the priorities of the Council, then the trouble can begin. And this trouble doesn’t even have the dignity to completely halt things, in the way a congressional filibuster might. Instead, meetings just go badly. Agendas are inaccurate as Councilors try to formulate their own spontaneous schedules, and disputes between the Chair and everyone else can reach infuriating levels of awkward hostility. In short, it’s a bad look for everyone, as dysfunction and the appearance of incompetence reign. Portland has been spared this for the most part, and impasses have been mostly resolved quickly, but the threat always looms.
With this proposal, City Councils will return to the practice of electing their own Chair and Vice Chair to preside over their meetings and set agendas. This is both a completion of the transition begun in 2008, (confirming the habitat of the Mayor as the executive rather than the legislative sphere), and also a return to how things were before that Commission ever met.
Of course, a smooth-running council able to ignore a democratically-elected Mayor isn’t an unalloyed good. A popularly-elected figure with a stated agenda ensuring that the Council at least considers it, even if it may look awkward, might be a worthwhile speed bump. Council meetings going quickly isn’t always in the best interests of the public. It may be that a complacent Council capable of speeding through bureaucratic processes will be less responsive to emerging objections by citizens, and more able to stymie legitimate minority (or even majority) interests. Councils, compared to either current or proposed Mayors, are more able to obscure accountability by dispersing authority across a group – this is how the United States Congress can have such a poor reputation in aggregate even though individual representatives are popular and consistently re-elected. Individual executives, from mayors to monarchs, are more straightforwardly held responsible.
This is all the more important, because while in the proposed system the Mayor is a powerful executive, he is still bound by the will of the City Council. Nowhere is this more clear than in the surprising potency of the proposed veto.
Much has been made of the fact that under the proposed reforms, the Mayor will have a general veto over the City Council. Will it be too powerful of a weapon for the executive to wield against them? You may believe so, but remember that the council will be able to override this veto with a two-thirds supermajority.
And as a matter of fact, that “two-thirds supermajority” might be easier done than said. With the new total of 12 Councilors, 7 votes will be needed to reach a majority. If only 7 votes are in favor, the Mayor will be able to use their veto and defeat it.
But a two-thirds supermajority can overturn this veto. And 2/3 of 12? That’s only 8! So, with just one additional vote, the veto is overruled.
Only a single additional vote being necessary to override a mayoral veto, it would seem, does put the proposed reform into perspective. And with just one more vote, a total of nine, the council can call a public election to recall the Mayor and vote for a new one.
The City Council does not need to provide any particular reason for removing the Mayor, they just need to provide a reason at all. It could be for the color of the shirt the Mayor’s wearing, it wouldn’t matter. Nine votes over two meetings and the Mayor is out.
Needless to say, the council will remain a powerful and independent body in Portland.
The restructuring of the relationship between the City Council, the Mayor, and the City Manager/Chief Administrator is the meat of this reform, to be sure. But there are some potatoes too. As previously mentioned, the School Board will be transitioning to fully district-elected, with no at-large members at all. There are other measures concerning the School Board, however we will discuss this in greater detail when examining Question 5.
The proposal also directs the City Council to build mechanisms for engaging public participation in the drafting of budgets, prioritizing hearing from as many residents as possible. If you’ve ever been to a city meeting where much public comment is given, you may be of two minds about this. But more perspectives are, usually, a net benefit to a government. Modifications to the Capital Improvement Plan processes are also included, involving both the Chief Administrator and Superintendent of schools acting jointly.
Another issue that had been dogging local government, inadequate provisions for handling vacancies in the City Council and School Board, has also been addressed. If a seat becomes vacant at a time when the next election is more than six months away, then a special election to fill the vacancy shall be held. If the vacancy occurs within six months of the next election, it shall be filled then, but in the meantime the City Council or School Board shall appoint a qualified interim candidate to serve. The specific procedure for appointing such stand-ins will be developed by the respective bodies.
The Big Picture
This a very significant question being posed to the voters, and characterizing it as “strengthening” or “empowering” the Mayor is unhelpful. This is a question about how Portland should be governed, primarily by the City Council and a subordinate body of city staff? Or by an executive Mayor in (hopefully creative) tension with a legislative branch? Will Portland continue to behave like a town, with an unobtrusive and technocratic government? Or will Portland seek to emulate the great cities of the continent, and adopt political formulas almost certain to invite passionate party polemic? While one should bear in mind the heavy weight of decades in contemplating this question, one should also consider the near future, and who will have a hand in it.
Why might you vote in favor? – If you believe that a potent, full-time Mayor, directly elected by the people, should be running the day-to-day affairs of the government instead of some stuffy MBA hired by the council that no one’s ever heard of. This is how work is done, how progress is made, by having a human being at the helm able and willing to steer the city to safer waters. No more getting lost in the miasma of slow-moving council politics, an executive Mayor would be motivated to implement rapid change, knowing that the state of the city directly reflects his or her own competence. After all, they’ll have re-election on the horizon.
Alternatively – If you believe, reasonably enough, that having a larger and more granular city council is more likely to result in your voice being heard. Fewer at-large councilors, who in representing the entire city owe little to any individual voters, and smaller districts, meaning there’s fewer other voices drowning out yours, are good things. This will result in a council that’s dynamic, responsive, and familiar. The current council is slow, unaccountable, and distant, it’d be hard to make things worse.
Why might you vote against? – If you believe that mayors aren’t presidents, and Portland isn’t America. Running the city’s day-to-day affairs is more like running a company than running a country, and competence is a lot more important than politics. With an elected executive, who knows what sort of ideological and partisan nonsense will get in the way of the boring (but necessary!) duties of the city government. Cities don’t decide the big questions of the day, things like immigration or abortion or LGBT rights or religious freedom – cities do things like garbage disposal and zoning permits. Keep politics out of these humdrum issues.
Alternatively – If you believe that more councilors in the city council will result in more chaos, unpredictability, and incompetence, not ‘dynamism’. And these councilors won’t even owe allegiance to the whole city, just their tiny individual districts. What’s to stop them from opposing things that would be good for the city as a whole but bad for their neighborhood? Or vice versa, supporting things bad for the city but good for their little district? This would change the council from a cooperative, deliberative body into a combative, polemical one. No thank you, we can do without that sort of counterproductive drama.
Background ~ What is the Charter Commission?
1 ~ The Land Acknowledgement
2 ~ Governance
3 ~ Elections
4 ~ Voting
5 ~ The School Budget
6 ~ Peaks Island
7 ~ Police Oversight
8 ~ The Ethics Commission
Conclusion & Opinion