How might a proposed change in city government alter the composition of the Portland City Council? – Blogville
Staff of Mercury
You may have heard that Portland has an outdated style of municipal government. You may not know how outdated it is.
Of the 30 largest U.S. cities, Portland is the only one that still uses a form of commission of government in which a small group of city commissioners are charged with both acting as the city’s legislative body and managing its offices.
“World War I was when people started to move away from that and into a different system,” said Jay Lee, a research associate at the Sightline Institute, a North West sustainability think tank. “It’s been like a hundred years.”
Lee is not exaggerating. Even Galveston, Texas, the city that invented the commission system of government after a deadly hurricane leveled the coastal city in 1900, abandoned it more than sixty years ago.
Historically, Portlanders have rejected attempts to move the city away from the commission form of government. Portland adopted the commission system in 1913, and in 1917 citizens rejected ballot measures to abolish it. In 2007, the last time such a ballot measure appeared, more than 76% of voters chose to keep the current system instead of switching to a new one.
But this year, there seems to be a real dynamic of change. Portland’s city charter is under review, and the charter review commission plans to recommend a host of changes to both the city’s system of government and the way it elects its city officials.
The mayor and all of the current city commissioners want change, as do about 70% of voters and a host of influential organizations, including the City Club of Portland, which commissioned a report three years ago urging Portland to bring sweeping changes to its municipal government and elections.
Moving away from the commission style of government could usher in widespread changes to the way Portland is governed. It could also, in particular, modify the composition of the municipal council.
Currently, Portland elects its mayor and four city commissioners in citywide, or “at-large” elections – a system that gives every resident of Portland the opportunity to vote in every city council election. It’s a necessity in the commission’s format, Lee said, because commissioners have to run offices across the city.
But this system has also fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the past decade, several cities comparable to Portland in size and political ideology have transitioned from citywide to district councilor elections. Seattle made the switch by electing a majority of its councilors from geographic districts in 2013, while Austin made the move to districts a year later.
In both cities, journalists and observers say the change has increased the diversity of their city councils – in ideological, racial, gender and economic terms.
A big reason for that is that the power of the city’s median voter — who in places like Austin, Seattle and Portland tends to be center-left, white and older — has been diluted.
“We’ve gone from one median voter to eleven median voters,” said Austin public policy advocate Julio Gonzalez Altamirano. “This change means the people who can suddenly have a voice on city council have changed. Thus, the introduction of a greater number of seats elected from among [electorates].”
Seattle and Austin have elected Socialist council members since the district change, while Austin now also has a Republican on its council. In the municipal elections, which are still contested across the city, the relatively moderate candidates continued to do well.
It’s not just that the influence of the median voter has been diluted in district elections. Because it is significantly cheaper for candidates to run campaigns in smaller districts than citywide, the influence of wealthy campaign donors has also been limited.
“You don’t necessarily have to be independently wealthy or connected to wealthy people,” said King County-based political consultant Crystal Fincher. “If you have a group of passionate volunteers, they can ring the doorbell and make phone calls, and you can actually reach a high percentage of voters in a district and talk to people and get your message across.”
This has been significant in Seattle, where Amazon has poured money into city council races to try to boost pro-business candidates at the expense of progressives and has had, at best, mixed results. There was a similar movement in Austin.
“During the time of the general council, you certainly had members of the council who had different views on development and growth, but each member of the council at the time had a very strong interest in not upsetting certain districts. “said Jack Craver, an Austin-based political reporter.“[Now]they don’t really have to worry about backlash from residents of Austin’s wealthier neighborhoods.
Since the move to district elections, communities that have not always been able to access and accumulate wealth have been better represented on the council, as have women and mothers. The same goes for communities of color, though Lee said that given Portland’s demographics, it wouldn’t be possible to draw a predominantly black, Latino, or Asian American neighborhood in the city.
The cumulative effect in Seattle, Fincher said, is advice more responsive to the needs of people who have historically struggled to have their voices heard in city government.
“Citywide, the types of things we talk about today are very different from the conversations we’ve had before,” Fincher said. “This [is] pushed by people closer to people in difficulty and… demanding [councilors] respond to the things that cause them anxiety, despair and challenges in their lives.
The move to the districts has, in effect, made politics more local, giving residents of different neighborhoods, especially disadvantaged neighborhoods, a clear line directly to City Hall.
“There’s definitely complete clarity on who’s responsible for neighborhood issues now, whereas before it wasn’t always clear who your neighborhood representative was,” Gonzalez Altamirano said. “Now it is quite clear which elected official is in charge of public improvement in an area, consultation on development in an area, responsibility for infrastructure in an area.”
Gonzalez Altamirano said much of the long-term impact of Austin’s change on the districts remains to be seen. But the new city councils, he said, were quick to implement changes where their predecessors had been slower.
“What we can say is that there has been an increase in pace and working majorities between the centre-left and the centre-right,” he said. “You add responsiveness, of course, but to make responsiveness you have to tolerate some volatility.”
But in Portland and cities across the country, it’s not just about moving from general elections to district elections. It is also a question of when these elections take place and how people vote for their favorite candidates.
When Austin transitioned from citywide to district elections, it also pushed back its spring city council primaries to November, where they now coincide with the federal election. The result was a higher turnout, another change that has, to some extent, democratized the process.
“You had this general council that was elected by this little May electorate, and the electorate was nothing like the city – it was so much older, so much whiter, so much wealthier,” Craver said. “The city council was city-wide, but these affluent neighborhoods had a disproportionate impact”
Portland is also considering moving its city council elections from May to November – a change that could coincide with the shift to preferential choice voting or STAR voting, where voters would have the option to rank multiple candidates by preference instead of voting for. only one. The charter commission is also considering expanding the size of the board.
These potential changes, from the system of government to how city councilors are elected, could have a greater impact on Portland’s future than any election or elected official.
Proposed charter amendments approved by three-quarters of the charter review committee will go to the November ballot, while amendments approved by half and three-quarters of the committee will be sent to city council, which can then vote to return them to the ballot. The commission is currently collecting public comments.
“We’re in a political moment where I think people are seeing some of the cracks in the way we’ve been doing it for a while,” Lee said, “and it’s just because that’s what we have been doing for so long, doesn’t mean that’s the best way to solve the problems Portland is facing right now.