June 29, 2010

Portland Charter Commission to take up two key issues Thursday

Commissioners could propose ranked-choice voting and veto power for the city's mayor.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The city's Charter Commission will decide Thursday whether a popularly elected mayor should have veto power and whether voters should elect the mayor in ranked-choice voting.

Those are the two biggest issues remaining as the commission struggles to finish its work in time to send a proposal to voters on Nov. 2. Although the commission will take a final vote on July 8, Thursday's meeting is the last opportunity for members to propose new wording for charter changes.

The commission has already decided that the mayor should be elected to a four-year term and earn more than $67,000 year.

Last year, the commission quickly dismissed the idea of giving the mayor veto power over the City Council. Now, some members who rejected the proposal say they want to discuss it again because of the public's concern that the commission is proposing a mayor who would be too weak to serve as the city's leader.

Under the current proposal, the mayor would chair City Council meetings, but his or her vote would count the same as those of the eight councilors.

Pamela Plumb, the commission's chairwoman, said the commission faces a question: "Have we given the mayor enough decision-making power to move things forward?"

Plumb said there is no consensus about whether the mayor should be able to veto any action by the council or just votes that relate to the budget. Also, it's unclear how many council votes should be required to override a mayoral veto.

Commissioner Robert O'Brien said he plans to meet with Commissioner Jim Cohen to determine whether they can agree on a proposal to present Thursday. Both have expressed interest in giving the mayor veto power.

O'Brien said he has some misgivings. While many residents might like the concept of a more powerful mayor, he said, they would be furious if the mayor combined veto power with the support of a minority voting bloc on the council to consistently undermine the majority of the council.

"It would drive citizens crazy," he said.

The other big issue to be decided Thursday is how the mayor would be elected.

Earlier this year, the commission voted to support ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference by filling in a first-choice bubble next to their favorite candidate, a second-choice bubble next to their second favorite, and so on.

After the polls close, the first-choice votes are counted for all candidates. If no candidate gets a majority, the ballots are recounted and the last-place candidate is eliminated.

The remaining candidates get any second-choice votes cast for them on the ballots won by the eliminated candidate.

In later rounds, if a second-choice candidate has been eliminated, voters' third-choice votes are redistributed. The process repeats until one candidate has a clear majority.

The commission has been bombarded in recent weeks with e-mails from people from around the country arguing for or against ranked-choice voting. In response, the commission created a subcommittee to examine the arguments.

Commissioner Nathan Smith, who is leading the subcommittee, said Monday that the committee has found no reliable evidence that the new voting system would cause widespread confusion or disenfranchise voters.

Ranked-choice voting is the best and most cost-effective way to ensure that the mayor is elected with a majority vote, Smith said.

Ranked-choice voting would save the city the $20,000 cost of holding a runoff election, if that alternative were to be adopted, Smith said. In addition, far fewer people typically vote in runoff elections, he said.

Cohen said the commission could decide on Thursday to let voters decide the issue by making it a separate ballot question, rather bundling it with a ballot question on the popularly elected mayor.


Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com


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