Hey, Portland residents!
The Portland Charter Review Commission wants your comments on two topics:
● Portland’s form of government
● Portland’s elections system
As of the commission’s August update, fewer than 200 Portlanders have submitted public comments about the city charter. This is an opportunity to change the basics of how local government operates, so that’s not nearly enough comments!
If you’d like to submit a comment, but you’re not sure what you’d like to say or how to sign up, keep reading!
How to sign up to comment
The Charter Review Commission decided to focus first on Portland’s form of government and city council elections. They’re calling this “Phase I” of the review process. Other topics, such as redefining the role of the Portland Police Bureau or codifying new climate policies, may be covered during Phase II.
If you have thoughts on either the city’s form of government or city council elections, you can either submit comments in writing or sign up to speak at an upcoming meeting.
The next meeting where members of the public can give testimony is Thursday, September 23, from 6pm to 8pm. Additional meetings where you can speak include
● Thursday, October 28
● Tuesday, November 16
● Monday, December 13
To speak, you’ll need to sign up online. You must submit your comments by 8am two business days before the meeting. The deadline for the September 23 meeting is Tuesday, September 21 at 8am.
The signup form to speak is linked to at
The form asks for your name, email address, phone number, how you’ll join the meeting, accessibility requests, and the topic you wish to speak about. It also asks if you’re speaking on behalf of an organization. Don’t worry if you aren’t part of an organization, though — it’s not required in order to speak.
To submit written testimony, you can either email your comments to CharterReview2020@portlandoregon.gov or submit them through the form at https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/public-comment.
Ideas for what to talk about
There are lots of suggestions for ways the city could run elections or alternate forms of government we could use. Unless you’re a dedicated policy nerd, though, you might not feel comfortable talking about those topics.
Instead, focus on your experiences with the current city government and elections system. The more the Charter Review Commission understands how every resident of Portland is affected by these systems, the easier it is for them to make suggestions — and the harder it becomes for current elected officials who want to avoid making changes. Stay on topic as much as possible: verbal testimony is timed and off-topic comments may be set aside for Phase II.
Here are questions to think about when writing your testimony:
Do you feel like the city council and the mayor act in your best interest? Do they represent the communities you belong to?
The current city council is the most diverse city council Portland has ever seen. Jo Ann Hardesty is the first Black woman (and only the third Black city commissioner in Portland’s history). Carmen Rubio is the first ever Latinx commissioner in Portland. But the members of the city council still don’t really represent all the different communities in Portland.
Even with that newfound diversity, though, many Portland residents haven’t seen elected officials respond to our needs. Ted Wheeler, the mayor and self-appointed police commissioner, for instance, has done nothing to address police violence or reduce
homelessness. The city commission form of government makes it easy for Wheeler and his cronies to block effective change on the city level, even when other city commissioners call for that change.
Do you think that candidates for local political office should follow election laws?
Ted Wheeler violated campaign laws and the city auditor, Mary Hull Caballero, chose to ignore that violation. The laws dictating how candidates run for city office are easy to ignore, at least for candidates able to loan their own campaigns six figures at the drop of a hat.
Do you think candidates should be elected with fewer than 50% of votes?
We currently use a winner-take-all system of elections, which means that even if more than half of voters agree that a particular candidate is terrible, they all have to agree on an alternative to defeat that candidate. If you look at 2020’s mayoral election, the results are clear that nearly 60% of Portland voters didn’t want Ted Wheeler in office — but the system itself handed him a win.
Systems like ranked-choice voting could empower voters and improve the odds of electing candidates that at least half of the city can work with. If we’d adopted such a system before the 2020 election, we would absolutely have a different mayor.
How much power do you think the mayor or individual city commissioners should have?
The current commission system of government used in Portland was written into law in 1913 with the explicit intention of concentrating power in the hands of the mayor and just a few city commissioners at a time when only White men could vote (White women may have been able to vote on local issues due to a 1912 ballot initiative). The politicians in charge at that point could see change coming and wanted to ensure that they remained in power.
Over a hundred years later, that power remains in the hands of just a few people. Even the city auditor, who is theoretically in charge of enforcing election law and other oversight for Portland’s city government, has minimal power. The city auditor’s office only receives its budget with the city council’s approval, meaning that it can’t do anything that would irritate members of the city council.
How could the city work better for you?
Even if you aren’t interested in policy, consider what changes would be meaningful for you in your day-to-day life. Don’t hold back on opinions that you think might be too extreme. The charter review process needs to consider all its options, even options that seem radical.
And while the most radical comments may not lead to particularly radical changes, they do make the charter commission consider a wider variety of options, maybe even leading them to a more progressive set of solutions. Think of your public testimony as opening a negotiation: ask for everything you want so that you can compromise in a way that gets you everything you need.
Keep attention on the charter review process
Lastly, I want to note that we don’t know how this charter review will end. During past city charter reviews, reforms of the local system of government have been easily ignored by the city council, partially due to low engagement and attention from most Portland residents. And, personally, I’m having some difficulty believing in the power of the process itself right now (as well as in PDX’s city government). However, I believe when elected officials can sense the attention of their constituents, those officials are more motivated to take action.
There are few opportunities for residents of Portland to speak about our needs to people who have power to make change. Don’t let this opportunity pass by — and don’t let the city council ignore our needs.
● The Charter Review Commission
https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission — The City of
Portland’s page for the charter review commission, including links to videos of past meetings
● The Charter Review Commission’s Phase I
https://www.portland.gov/omf/charter-review-commission/subcommittees-f orm-government-city-council-elections — The Charter Review Commission’s explanation of the phases of the review process
● The City that Works
https://lwvpdx.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/City-Gov-Report-LWV-Portl and-9-2019-Final.pdf — The League of Women Voters’ report on the city’s form of government, including a history of prior changes to Portland’s municipal government
● New Government for Today’s Portland
https://www.pdxcityclub.org/new-government/ — The Portland City Club’s report on the city’s form of government
● City commission government
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_commission_government — An article describing how city commission governments work
● Portland’s Form of Government Needs a Makeover
https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2019/02/11/25840232/hall-m onitor-out-with-the-old — An article on Portland’s commission government and its problems
● Frustrated by Portland Bureaucracy? Keep an Eye on the Charter Commission
https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2021/07/15/35096945/hall-m onitor-frustrated-by-portland-bureaucracy-keep-an-eye-on-the-charter-co mmission?cb=6424b09b832764d381f940cc9189271c — An article on bureaucratic issues the charter review commission is likely to cover
● Everything You Wanted to Know About Portland Charter Review But Were Afraid to Ask
https://www.sightline.org/2021/09/01/everything-you-wanted-to-know-abo ut-portland-charter-review-but-were-afraid-to-ask/ — An article covering the charter review process, including its history
● City finds Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler did not violate campaign finance limits
https://www.opb.org/article/2020/11/04/city-finds-portland-mayor-ted-whe eler-did-not-violate-campaign-finance-limits/ — An article covering Ted Wheeler’s campaign violations and their outcome
● Mayor’s proposed budget violates Charter, Auditor’s independence https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/760627 — A memo from the office of the city auditor on violations of the city charter
● The City Auditor and City Council are at a Standoff on the City Hearings Office
https://www.wweek.com/news/2020/05/08/the-city-auditor-and-city-council -are-at-standoff-on-the-city-hearings-office/ — An article describing the disagreement over the independence of the city auditor from the city council
● The Portland City Charter https://www.portlandoregon.gov/citycode/28149 — The full city charter
● ORS 221.315 Enforcement of charter provisions and ordinances https://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/221.315 — The Oregon law which empowers cities to create charters
● Portland’s City Charter in 1910
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Charter_and_General_Ordinances_of _the_Ci/908-AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=portland%20oregon%20city%2 0charter&pg=PA3&printsec=frontcover
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!