What Do I Need to Know About the Portland City Charter?

The City of Portland uses a foundational document, known as the City Charter, as a guide to how the city should be governed (similarly to the way the US relies on the Constitution). Portland’s charter requires that the document be reviewed and updated at least once per decade. It’s time for just such a review and the city is kicking off the process now.

The Charter Review Commission has an opportunity to examine the way the existing charter works, including how the government operates, how officials are elected, and how the government is structured. The commission determines its own scope and sets its own timeline. The City of Portland oversees the selection of 20 Portland residents to form the commission and has vocally committed to creating an inclusive commission that is representative of Portland’s demographics (as well as the city’s geography). Each city commissioner selects four Portland residents to serve, including the mayor, for a total of 20.

Due to COVID-19, the Charter Review Commission will meet virtually. Commission members will receive a stipend of $500 in place of childcare, food, and transportation they would have received under normal circumstances. Commission members should expect the process to last for 18 to 24 months.

Several key issues are expected to come up during the commission’s review process:

  • Portland’s form of government: Portland is one of the few remaining cities using a commission-style government. Portland City Club published a report in 2019 (https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/) on the inequities of commission-style governments and our need to adopt a more inclusive form of government. In the report, they directly connect the incredibly low numbers of women (9) and people of color (3) elected to the local use of a commission-based government. JoAnn Hardesty, elected in 2018, is the first woman of color to be elected to Portland’s city government. 
  • The City Auditor’s office: While Portland’s City Auditor is independently elected, the city charter grants control of the auditor’s budget to the city council, effectively allowing the city council to limit the power of the city auditor. Given that the auditor’s job is to examine the city council’s work and report back on the results to the people of Portland, the current city auditor, Mary Hull Caballero has concerns about that control. The city council asked that the Charter Review Commission examine the question.
  • Policing and community safety: The city charter sets expectations for public safety and could be used as an avenue to address defunding police, as well as implementing new approaches to public safety in Portland. 
  • Election reform and security: As other cities have adopted ranked-choice voting and other reforms through ballot measures, the city charter review process offers an alternative opportunity to explore municipal election reform. Furthermore, during the primary, the incumbent mayor and police commissioner, Ted Wheeler, accepted donations significantly larger than those allowed by the city charter.
  • Neighborhood associations: Portland’s neighborhood associations wield significant power and are primarily composed of affluent White home owners. The past few years have seen major critiques of these neighborhood associations as well as the Office of Community and Civic Life (formerly the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), which oversees the associations.
  • Prosper Portland: Previously known as the Portland Development Corporation, Prosper Portland’s existence is based on the city charter. The organization is responsible for a variety of so-called “urban renewal” projects that have gutted Black communities and stolen Black wealth in Portland, as well as displacing other communities.

Critics of the charter review process do suggest that city commissioners can prevent meaningful action by the Charter Review Commission, because they can vote to block the commission’s recommendations from taking effect. During the last charter review, in 2011, the commission pushed for the adoption of a new form of city government, but were largely ignored by the then-mayor and city council. The Charter Review Commission can choose to send recommendations directly to voters, provided 75 percent or more of the commission members agree to do so.

While the Charter Review Commission’s power is limited, there are arguments for participating in the process: commission members are empowered to investigate the way the City of Portland conducts business, which could help all residents of Portland better understand whether elected officials truly are working on our behalf. The city council may feel more pressure to listen to residents during these times of heightened attention on police forces and governments. And if city commissioners don’t listen to the Charter Review Commission? Portlanders know how to throw a good protest.

Tentative Timeline

  • June 30, 2020 — Charter Review Commission Work Session -read notes from the work session here. (https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/events/2020/6/30/charter-review-commission-work-session)
  • Fall 2020 — The City of Portland appoints Charter Review Commission members
  • Winter 2020 — The Charter Review Commission develops a work plan, including community engagement strategy and procedures
  • Early 2021 — The Charter Review Commission meets with community members to gather feedback.
  • Late 2021 — The Charter Review Commission provides an initial report to the Portland City Council.
  • January 2022 — The Charter Review Commission provides recommendations to the Portland City Council.
  • Spring 2022 — The Charter Review Commission and the City of Portland determine if changes to the charter must be voted on as ballot measures before implementation.

Additional Resources

Compiled by Thursday Bram. Please contact @ThursdayB on Twitter with comments, questions, and concerns. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. If you’re interested in using this information to create a more visually-oriented explainer, please contact Thursday!

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