Portland, Oregon, to vote on major government overhaul

Jun 15, 2022, 12:52 AM | Updated: 1:19 pm

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A commission formed to review the government structure in Portland, Oregon, has voted by a supermajority to send a sweeping slate of reforms to voters in November amid rising dissatisfaction with livability issues and the current leadership structure.

The independent commission, which reviews the city charter at least every decade, voted 17-3 on Tuesday to send the issue to voters, many of whom are angry about Portland’s response to homelessness, rising gun violence and other issues.

Portland’s governing system was established in 1917, when the city was less than one-third its current population. It’s the last major city in the U.S. governed by a city commission style of government wherein four commissioners and the mayor are elected at-large — not by district — and then divvy up authority over major bureaus such as fire, police and transportation.

Critics have argued the citywide elections do little to hold leadership accountable and oversight of major bureaus by elected officials creates silos and conflicts among competing interests. Portland also lacks a professional city manager who is not beholden to voters.

The reforms, if passed, would expand the number of city council members to 12 — three from each of four newly created districts — implement ranked-choice voting and hire a professional city administrator, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The mayor and city auditor would still be elected by an at-large vote, KGW-TV reported.

Multiple attempts at reform have been rejected by voters over the years, including as recently as 2007, but dissatisfaction with the current style of government has created newfound buzz around the upcoming ballot measure.

“This isn’t just fixing around the edges,” said Melanie Billings-Yun, co-chair of the 20-member commission. “This is a big change.”

“This form goes back to 1917 when we had 200,000 people, and there have been several — I believe seven — attempts to change it. The last one was in 2007,” she told KGW-TV. “And I will tell you that it failed by about three to one. The most common reason given by people was that, ‘Why should we change? The city is great, we don’t have any problems.'”

But today’s Portland residents have grown increasingly upset about quality of life issues such as crime, homelessness and rising housing costs, and polls show frustration with the city’s government is running high.

“We spent a lot of time looking at what Portlanders are unhappy about and trying to fix that,” Billings-Yun said. “Basically, what we heard was that they wanted a complete change of government.”

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