The following editorial contains the opinions of Ashley D. Keenan alone.
If you’ve been with us from the beginning, thank you. We may have failed in doing so, but I, along with my fellow contributors, have genuinely sought to give you, dear reader, all sides of the story. Well, maybe not quite all, as, fractalesque, you can always find a new angle to view and view from, a new edge that someone has been thanklessly grinding at. But I’ve tried very hard to present each of these questions in as reasonable a totality as can be expected, such that any Portland voter will be able to make an informed decision at the ballot box.
Intelligent, informed, decent people I know and have spoken to have fallen on both sides of nearly all of these questions. Furthermore, these questions are largely not partisan, and do not map cleanly onto political divisions like ‘liberal and conservative’, or ‘left and right.’ Some reforms I’ve seen backed by ‘radical leftists’ and ‘right-wing nutjobs’ alike. The proximity of these questions to the citizen-initiated ballot referenda, four out of five of which were sponsored by the local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, has to a certain degree poisoned the well. In response to the activism of the DSA, a political committee called “Enough is Enough”, an eccentric grouping of moderates and conservatives, has amalgamated around the platform of “No to every question.” I was somewhat surprised when I learned that this also applied to the Charter Commission reforms. Whatever one thinks of the (unashamedly) left-wing citizens’ referenda, or the (relatively) right-wing reaction to them, they are quite different in provenance and content from the Charter reforms, and being opposed (in general) to one does not at all necessitate being opposed (in general) to the other.
In any case, I do urge Portland voters to consider these reforms independently of one another, and of the citizens’ initiatives. If your vote is a down-ballot ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I will most likely have failed in my self-imposed mission.
I have been asked, while researching this project, “What’s the most unexpected/interesting/underreported/odd part of all this?” To me the answer is very easy – Question 5, on School Board autonomy. The only question with a substantial legal question mark hanging over it, if the voters enact this reform, Portland could be staring down the barrel of years, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and untold amounts of human effort defending the legitimacy and implementing the niceties of a policy which seems just not remotely worth the effort. The Commission shelved non-citizen voting in Municipal elections for questions of constitutionality, but if they had pressed forward with it anyway, I could at least say they had an admirably absolute commitment to democracy. However, I find the notion of untethering the School Board from the rest of city government to be a pretty quirky idea under any circumstances, and when considering the ramifications on tax policy, civic cohesion, and land use, it quickly becomes very silly. Add to that it being plausibly illegal, and you have a monstrosity.
I certainly do not think that this proposal’s drafters or its advocates are malicious, nor incompetent, rather I think that they’ve latched onto the idea that City Council oversight of school budgets (a common boogeyman) is the, or one of the, primary reasons that schools are suffering. I simply do not believe this to be at all true, and their attempt at medicine for this illness may have rippling repercussions throughout the rest of the body. Then again, I am neither a student, parent, nor teacher. I’d be more willing to defer to those on the inside – but that the Commissioners opposing this reform all do have experience on ‘the inside’, while those supporting it mostly do not.
Beyond this one, odd, underreported disaster of a proposal, I generally think that the rest of the questions are all very reasonable, and in fact even more moderate than many public commenters (both in favor and against) seem to think. I’ve been particularly baffled by claims that the governance reforms are going “too far, too fast.” One might think “too far,” but “too fast?” We’ve been in this intermediate, halfway state for a decade! Things clearly are not working as intended, and standing in the threshold between executive and ceremonial Mayorship is a ridiculous ambiguity that is becoming more ambiguous and more ridiculous with each passing year. I have thought, however, what public opinion might look like if the question on the ballot was not “status quo or executive mayor”, but instead “status quo, executive mayor, or return to pre-2008 manager system.” It would be interesting to see, though I’d fear ‘status quo’ winning almost by default.
Part of the reason I think so many people overreact to the ‘threat’ of a stronger mayor is that many assume we already have a strong, or at least an effacious, mayoral office, and imagine further empowering them to be excessive. Many average people, (most, in my experience), are much more familiar with executive-legislative-judicial triad employed by the federal and state governments, and assume local government to be similar. Again, anecdotally, many young people are surprised that a hired post like City Manager holds so much of the power that we assume to be held by elected officials. The Commission correctly identified this issue in their final report, and concluded from the same common misconceptions that as-is, Mayors are set up for failure. They have little power to independently pursue solutions, yet are well-placed to receive the bulk of the blame for when problems persist. While suggesting that the primary purpose of the mayoral office is to act as a lightning rod for criticism of the Council or Manager would be too cynical even for me… it can certainly feel that way.
Other than Question 5 being far more outrageous (or, if you prefer, revolutionary) than its profile would suggest, and the executive mayoral reforms being less of a cataclysm than many assume, the changes to the Council stand out as the least understood part of the reforms. Despite being quite different from Commissioner Sheikh-Yousef in my political priorities, I found myself nodding along to her proposal to abolish at-large representatives. I simply think that at-large Councilors represent such a large number of constituents that they are too hard to hold accountable to individuals. Such positions become fodder for influence by businesses, nonprofits, and political groups.
In the words of an English poet, “What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them.”
The Commission elected not to abolish the at-large positions entirely, but rather to severely diminish their relative power over the Council. A reasonable middle-ground.
I also hope that the anodyne, mechanistic reforms, especially questions 4 and 6, which are only controversial in a sort of dry, academical way, do not get dragged down into the partisan mud-slinging which has already emerged in this discussion. A common lay assumption seems to be that supporting the reforms, any and all of them, is ‘progressive’, while opposing is ‘conservative’. This is in general not at all true. The only questions that I think this can be meaningfully applied to are questions 1 and 3. Land acknowledgements, even in countries where they are more common, remain a left-liberal shibboleth, and publicly-funded elections are always going to appeal more to those who oppose business interests than those who support them. The other 75% of the reforms are hard to call either left or right wing, either liberal or conservative, in aggregate. In fact, some may be more appealing to a right-of-center voter in a vacuum. But due to a mixture of personality and circumstance, things like executive mayors, proportional voting (despite most likely helping local conservatives), and a more powerful school board have been stamped with a “progressive” seal, for better or for worse.
To finish off this odyssey, I will not be giving a final opinion on all of the reforms. However, there are a few I’d like to say a few words about, to perhaps give you some parting thoughts and to be transparent about my own values.
First, there is no good reason, I believe, to vote ‘no’ on questions 4 and 6. Both the voting reform and the Peaks Island Council affirmation are essentially long-overdue updates to the technicalities of the Portland Charter. Bug fixes.
The voting reform will correct an error inserted into the city’s constitutional order by mistake during the implementation of ranked-choice voting, and will prevent a similarly chaotic and unrepresentative election as that which happened in June 2020.
The Peaks Island Council, for all intents and purposes, already is a basic part of the governance structure of Portland, and is a necessary olive branch after years of fighting over the place the island holds in the hearts, minds, and wallets of Portlanders everywhere. Entrenching it into the Charter will finally put to bed a long-disturbed issue.
I will vote YES on 4
I will vote YES on 6
I doubt this conclusion will surprise many. I find it hard to put in words how irresponsible the Commission majority acted in allowing Question 5 to go to ballot. This measure is very likely unlawful, and even if it isn’t, it wouldn’t be worth the price of the paper its printed on to defend in court, let alone the hundreds of thousands of dollars it actually would cost to do so. The School Board is charged with governing Portland’s public schools using a budget drafted in collaboration with the City Council – the people’s elected officials. The idea that a minority interest group should be allowed to directly enact tax raises or tax cuts, checked only by an underinformed and highly sympathetic June electorate, is ludicrous. Furthermore, the Portland School Board, in my opinion, has not shown itself to be a body worthy of being trusted with such power. This question is a powder keg, and should have been shelved alongside non-citizen voting for its legal risks alone.
I will vote NO on 5
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I find the sober, well-reasoned reforms to citizen oversight for Portland’s police as drafted by the Commissioners to be a delight. While there was much overheated rhetoric in 2021 on the issue (for both sides) every bit of Question 7 seems to be crafted with care, so as neither to be an insufficient response nor an overreaction. I believe this cautious yet confident update to citizen oversight will be one of the brightest legacies of this Charter Commission, if enacted.
I will vote YES on 7
I look around at who falls on the two sides of this question, and I’m surprised by just how strange bedfellows can be. Nevertheless, I am deeply guided by something I believe to be in all cases true regarding governance – clarity of authority is crucial. Those who do good work should receive credit and credibility. Those who do harm should be held accountable. The status quo in Portland is unsustainable, as it obscures authority to the point of opacity. The City Council is a miasma of sluggish confusion, city staff are unaccountable and dogmatic, the ‘Mayor’, such as the office is, serves predominantly as a professional scapegoat – a bureaucratical sin-eater. To be absolutely clear, I am not criticizing any of our fine Councilors, or the resourceful interim City Manager, or our dutiful Mayor, nearly all of whom I respect and admire. Rather, I am criticizing the woefully counterproductive structure which has been haphazardly raised up over the years in fitful bursts of Calvinistic reforming energy, one which has neither the efficiencies of a grand design nor the durability of an organic order. It is not the officers but the offices which are failing. Repair the offices, and we’ll see which officers shine.
I am sympathetic to those who claim the ’08 Charter Commission was a mistake. Many think, not without cause, that the “Mayor” position it created was a meaningless, expensive, disruptive, confusing, overwrought, ridiculous, half-baked half-measure. Maybe Portland was better off with a simple Council-Manager system. But the die is cast; we can’t go back, not easily. The only way out is through, by completing the transition from a Council-Manager town to a Mayor-Council city. No more partial solutions, no more passing the buck.
I will vote YES on 2
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