Proponents of Portland's ongoing charter reform effort were thrown for a loop last week when news broke that some Portland City Council members were working on their own, new charter reform proposal that would change significant aspects of the policy 58% of Portland voters approved in November 2022.
Portland's government transition has been officially underway for months now, with multiple Council-appointed committees currently in the final stages of fleshing out logistics of implementing the changes approved by voters. While Portland Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan—who are leading the charge to overhaul three components of the original charter reform measure—say they have valid concerns about the policy voters supported, people involved in the charter transition think Portlanders have already spoken. City Council held a work session Tuesday morning to discuss a potential amended charter reform referendum that would give the mayor veto power, reduce the new council to eight members instead of 12, and change the planned ranked choice election system to align with the system other states use.
"Portlanders voted for charter reform because they want their city to work better for them. The siloed approach to how our government runs is not working," Commissioner Ryan said at the work session. "This is a chance to hit pause and get [reform] right."
Ryan and Gonzalez said any changes they propose would be decided by voters in either the November 2023 or May 2024 election.
"All of this is to focus on what tweaks we might make to assure better implementation in a more effective government," Gonzalez said. He acknowledged the tight timeline to make changes so the new charter can be implemented by 2025, saying he felt it was a moment to "speak now or forever hold your peace."
"We are at a historic moment in the city's history, facing simultaneous crisis of homelessness, crime and drug problems... I would submit for my colleagues and to the public that it is important for us to at least consider whether the City of Portland can take another experiment that may go awry," Gonzalez said, citing drug decriminalization Measure 110 as an example of one such "experiment."
Commissioners didn’t vote Tuesday, and it’s unclear whether Gonzalez and Ryan’s proposed changes would draw the support needed from the majority of the council, but the hubbub illuminated deep chasms within Portland politics.
Protesters say new changes could ‘sow distrust’ among public
The Council was greeted by a slew of protesters who urged them to listen to the will of Portland voters, noting the proposed changes erode public trust.
Melanie Billings-Yun, who co-chaired the Portland Charter Commission, called the proposed changes “shameful.”
"I implore the remaining [commissioners] to live up to your promise to respect the will of the people, not to derail a transition that is already well underway, and most importantly, not to trample on the hopes of those thousands of Portlanders who we promised would have a government they could trust to fairly transparently represent them," Billings-Yun said.
Ryan denied allegations that the potential charter reform amendments would "circumvent the will of the voters." He said he wanted to offer voters an opportunity to consider a different policy that would break apart some of the initial measure’s reforms that they may not have agreed with.
Mayoral powers questioned
Under the current iteration of the city charter that’s set to be implemented in 2025, the mayor won’t vote with the council, but would serve as a tie-breaker vote when needed. Ryan and Gonzalez advocated for also giving the mayor veto powers, saying it was a necessary form of checks and balances.
"I feel strongly we should not implement a system of government where Council can pass legislation [without the mayor having veto power]," Ryan said at the work session.
Candace Avalos, who served on the Charter Commission before the measure went to voters, said that topic was considered by the commission, but public feedback led them to refrain from it.
"When we created this larger council by tripling the amount of councilors and therefore tripling the representation to Portlanders, we felt it was important that council have a significant amount of power to balance against the executive branch," Avalos said. "In a situation where they come to a standstill, there's an opportunity for the mayor to weigh in [with the tie-breaking vote]. But when it comes to the council making these policy decisions, it's important to the people that representatives can have that power."
Avalos said the mayor would be heavily involved in council discussions and could always renegotiate a decision.
"The whole point of those branches is to collaborate,” she said. “We think that we've created an environment where there's equal power share... I don't see why the mayor couldn't go back and be a part of discussions with the council."
The Charter Commission wasn’t always in unanimous agreement.
David Knowles, who served alongside Avalos on the commission, said he supported mayoral veto power because under the new charter, the mayor will be the only elected official representing the entire city, and that should be reflective in the power they have.
"The mayor has the responsibility for the administration of the city and for the implementation of policy," Knowles said. "Our concern was the council would adopt a policy or make legislation [the mayor] was not capable of implementing."
Avalos reminded the City Council that all of the topics on the agenda for Tuesday’s work session had been previously vetted during a robust public input campaign that included public meetings, hearings, and community engagement sessions.
Even the current mayor disagreed with the need for veto power, noting it’s “rarely” used by other elected leaders, and shouldn’t be considered a tool for undoing policy decisions.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who joined the work session remotely, surprised some advocates with his defense of the original charter reform policy.
"It's no secret that I expressed concerns about a number of proposals [in Measure 26-228], including the mayoral veto," Wheeler said. "That being said... [the Charter Review Commission] held public meetings, and deliberated in public... they referred all of the policies to the public and the public overwhelmingly agreed."
Wheeler said charter review is an opportunity only available to Portlanders once every 10 years, making it different and more time-sensitive than other policies City Council considers.
"This is not the opportunity for elected officials to tell the public how we think they should be governed. This is [the public's] opportunity to shape their government in the way they want, for better or for worse," Wheeler said. "I would caution my colleagues before changing the process at the eleventh hour, after we've already committed to upholding the will of the people as fast as we can, to say we want to make some last-minute changes."
Wheeler’s comments sounded strikingly similar to those who rallied outside City Hall to protest Tuesday’s work session. Most who rallied said Gonzalez and Ryan's plan eschewed democracy in favor of maintaining a status quo favoring institutional power and business interests.
"We can either have a democracy or we can have elections where results are ignored if it's unfavorable to powerful interests, but we cannot have both,” Robin Ye, a former member of the Charter Review Commission, said at the rally.
Ye defended the policies in Measure 26-228 approved by voters last fall, saying voters understood what they were approving when they voted "yes" on charter reform.
"At the heart of charter reform is the idea that government is better when more of us have a say, when more people vote, and when our government is more reflective of the political viewpoints and experiences this beautiful city represents," Ye said. "Proportional ranked choice voting leads to elected bodies that are more reflective of the city as a whole, rather than only those with money and connections to elect every seat to city council.”
Gonzalez, Ryan want to shrink council size
Inside City Hall, Gonzalez echoed a refrain from charter reform skeptics, noting the increased cost of having 12 elected councilors, especially considering the new, increased salary proposals from Portland’s Salary Commission.
Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who recently announced his bid for mayor in 2024, said he is “reluctant to try to manage costs through reducing the number of people on council” and instead suggested cutting some of the expensive capital projects to renovate City Hall in order to accommodate so many new city officials.
“I think we might be able to get by without doing some of that,” Mapps said.
The increased cost to the city’s Small Donor Election program was also noted as a rationale for reducing the council to eight, rather than 12 people. Gonzalez posited more positions up for election would mean a bigger candidate pool vying for election program funds. Current estimates assume a roughly $4.5 million shortage in the fund, come 2024 election season, but city staff and Mayor Wheeler reminded Gonzalez and Ryan that reducing the number of elected positions doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of candidates applying for small donor funds.
City staff said it’s too soon to tell what the city’s increased, unexpected costs tied to charter reform implementation will be.
Regardless of costs, charter reform advocates say reducing the number of elected councilors would erode representation for historically marginalized communities.
Marcus C. Mundy, executive director of the Coalition for Communities of Color, said even though the current City Council is the most racially diverse it's ever been, it's also been "inexplicably the most hostile to communities of color." He said charter changes were crafted to ensure Portland's new form of government would be more inclusive of marginalized communities throughout the city.
"The ability for communities of color—and all Portlanders—to obtain self-determination is deeply affected by the structure of our government and elections. This measure is going to reduce barriers to communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and others to access services and have a stronger voice on city council," Mundy said. "I cannot fathom why these commissioners would oppose such an outcome."
Ranked choice voting scrutinized
Finally, commissioners began the discussion on perhaps the most wonky topic of the work session: ranked choice voting. The system of ranked choice voting planned for Portland’s new charter employs a single transferable voting system, which will enable voters to choose their district’s three council members by ranking up to six candidates in order of preference.
If a candidate gets over 25% of the first-choice votes, they earn a seat to council. If fewer than three candidates earn more than 25% of those votes, the person with the least amount of votes is eliminated from the candidate pool, and people who voted for that candidate have a percentage of their vote transferred to their second choice. Voters whose favorite candidate earns over 25% of the vote also get some of their vote moved to their second choice candidate, and the process continues until three candidates achieve 25% of the vote or there are only three candidates left standing. (The city of Portland has created a video to help people understand single transferable voting.)
Gonzalez and Ryan say they don’t want to do away with ranked choice voting, which Gonzalez said is “deeply embedded in the 2025 charter.” But they’re concerned with the single transferable voting system, which differs from Multnomah County and the state of Oregon’s upcoming ranked choice voting systems. Election professionals say the voting system works well under governments with multiple representatives per district and it would be chaotic to change the system now.
Mike Alfoni, the Co-Founder at Ranked Choice Voting Oregon testified in favor of maintaining the single transferable system in the charter.
“It doesn’t matter what the [new ranked choice voting] proposal is, it’s going to be a mess,” Alfoni said. “Democracy’s a dumpster fire right now, there are huge concerns [about elections] at the local and national level, and to go back and forth in front of voters makes us look like a clown car… while possibly well-intentioned, I don't think any further changes to the structure of our elections or districts is going to do anything but cause further discomfort for voters.”
Ryan said the discussion about amendments to charter reform will continue next week with a first hearing at City Council, where members of the public will be able to testify. It’s unclear if Council will vote to put an amended charter reform measure on the November ballot at that hearing.
“No matter what, this is going to be confusing and challenging, because that's change,” Ryan said. “I wanted to take an opportunity while it’s not too late to pull these [reforms] out and maybe give voters a chance to weigh in… thank you, this is democracy in action.”
Along with Wheeler, Commissioner Carmen Rubio appeared to indicate she would not support an amended proposal, saying “it was clear the voters made a choice” and she feels her role is to “help determine how we as a city council ensure we have the strongest implementation possible right now.” Mapps expressed uncertainty about elements of the proposal as well, even though Gonzalez and Ryan’s proposal lines up with the charter reform policy he initially campaigned for last year.
If the proposal does earn the required three City Council votes, charter reform proponents say they’ll do their best to campaign against it. But that will be difficult in an uneven election year and under such a tight time frame, so they hope City Council will turn the proposal down.
"I was really heartened by the mayor's comments. He said exactly what I've been feeling, so that was a good sign," Avalos told the Mercury after the work session. "I hope he uses his power on the bully pulpit to protect what voters want. We cannot afford to erode [trust] any further."