The City Club held an event at the Alberta Rose Theater last night to discuss their recently released report on whether Portland needs a new form of city government. Speakers included Kristin Eberhard of the Sightline Institute, Jesse Beason of the Northwest Health Foundation, Mischa Webley of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, former city auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade, former parks director Mike Abbaté, John Russell of Russell Development, and researcher Amanda Menjarrez.
Eberhard gave a brief history of the commission form of government, which was first established after a massive storm in Galveston, Texas. The philosophy behind this form of government was that subject matter experts would be better able to run city bureaus efficiently and with less corruption. Portland adopted the commission form of government in 1913 out of frustration with the previous system, where elected officials would put their biggest financial backers in charge of bureaus as a reward. But in Portland, the Commissioners are not required to be experts and the Mayor has the power to re-assign bureaus at will.
Former city officials Griffin-Valade and Abbaté emphasized the extent to which this can cause chaos at city agencies. Griffin-Valade explained that commissioners' allegience to the bureaus they are in charge of can create unnecessary "turf wars," which make it hard for bureau staffs to resolve conflicts. Abbaté added that when bureaus get reassigned, priorities can change drastically and staff are left scrambling.
Mischa Webley discussed the role neighborhood coalitions are forced to play in the absence of district-based representation. He described the initiative to create a new form of government as "the most boring revolution," but said it is necessary to give neighborhood stakeholders input. Webley said that NECN and other similar groups are forced to fill a hole left by a system of government that is not accountable to city residents.
John Russell admitted that he helped orchestrate the defeat of the ballot measure that would have changed Portland's form of government several years ago. At the time, he believed that the plan for a new form of government was not fully thought through, and he believed the system worked when there was an exceptional mayor in charge, such as Vera Katz. But he now believes that democracy works best when representation scales down to the local level. He advocates a robust, transparent public process to determine where the city should go from here.
Amanda Menjarrez, who represented the research committee that wrote the report, said that the at-large voting system means that only the large white majority and the largest donors are represented in Portland's city government. She said that while the city population has more than tripled since 1913, the number of commissioners has remained the same - the research committee did not find another large city where such a small council represented so many people. The research committee advocates creating a district-based system with 8-12 representatives, and a new voting system that would incorporate instant runoff and ranked choice voting. While the research committee advocates for a council-manager system, they are hoping to start a transparent public dialogue to determine what the best system of government will be to bring the city into the future.