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Portland City Hall
By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 14 February 2019

Portland’s current form of city government needs to change, argues a report released Sunday by the Portland City Club.

Portland voters have twice, in recent years – in 2002 and 2007 – rejected a shift to a strong-mayor form of government, and the report also argues against such a move. Instead the report, authored by 11 City Club volunteers, includes the following recommendations:

Centralize authority by strengthening the mayor’s role; Create a city manager role – someone selected by the mayor and approved by the city council – with relevant training and experience; Stop electing city council members in at-large elections and switch to district-based elections, ideally with multiple commissioners per district; Increase the size of the city council to at least eight commissioners, plus the mayor; Explore alternative systems of voting.

"I sometimes hear people say that Portland is weird, so it's government should be weird," said Amanda Manjarrez, vice-chair of the research committee, in a City Club press release. "But it's not 'weird.' It's deeply inequitable."

The report argues that Portland’s current form of government is outdated for two reasons. First, the city was much smaller when it adopted the commission form of government in 1913 – 200,000 versus 639,000 – meaning the five commissioners each serve a larger number of constituents. It notes that with fewer exceptions, cities with similar populations have larger councils than Portland.

The other reason Portland’s city commission system is out of date, the report argues, is that it’s rooted in racism.

“While not generally discussed in public, there was another motivation for some cities preferring the commission system with its at-large voting system. As federal courts later found, in some jurisdictions racism was a motivating factor: electing commissioners citywide prevented individual wards or districts with majority African American populations from electing their own favored candidate and greatly decreased the likelihood that minority candidates could be successful in any campaign,” the report notes. In one landmark case, the Supreme Court found that at-large voting systems ‘tend to minimize the voting strength of minority groups by permitting the political majority to elect all representatives of the district.’”

Researchers also found that the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to a “precipitous decline” in the number of cities using the commission system, as federal courts ruled that at-large voting meant ethnic minorities were systematically underrepresented on commissions.

The report begins by noting the uniqueness of Portland’s commission system among American cities of comparable or larger size. Citing the National League of Cities, it says a large majority of cities in the United States, are governed either by a strong mayor/city council form of government, or a city council/city manager form. “Among cities with a population over 100,000, roughly 55 percent have selected the city council/manager system, and roughly 34 percent use a strong mayor/city council system. The National League of Cities also notes that strong mayor/city council form is ‘found mostly, but not exclusively, in older, larger cities or in very small cities.’”

 “Most cities that once had the commission form of government differed from Portland’s system in that commissioners ran for office and were elected to oversee specific parts or bureaus of the city government. Someone would run, for example, to become Commissioner of Public Works, and then serve in that position, running the water and sewer agencies while in office,” the report reads. Portland’s system is different because the mayor assigns bureaus to commissioners – and often, cities with a commission form of government don’t have an elected mayor. Instead, one commissioner is appointed chairman or mayor, with the principal role of chairing meetings. Portland is among a small number of commission-government cities to have an elected mayor with the authority to assign or withdraw executive responsibilities from other commissioners.

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