July 2, 2010

City voters to decide: elected mayor and ranked-choice voting

The Charter Commission decides to send both proposals to Portland residents on the November ballot.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Voters will decide on Nov. 2 whether Portland will have a popularly elected mayor chosen through an unusual system called ranked-choice voting.

AT A GLANCE

CURRENT MAYOR

A city councilor chosen by the council for a one-year term, subject to removal at any time by a council vote.

A member of the City Council. Chairs council meetings.

Official head of the city.

PROPOSED MAYOR

Elected by voters for a four-year term; removed through a recall election.

A member of the City Council. Chairs council meetings.

Official head of the city.

Facilitates implementation of city policies through the city manager's office.

Oversees the process for hiring, reviewing and removing the city manager, corporation counsel and city clerk.

Provides public policy guidance to the city manager in preparation of city budgets and capital improvement plans. May make comments about manager's budget upon presentation to the council.

Facilitates passage of city and school budgets.

Directs agenda preparation for council meetings.

Leads an annual council workshop on city goals and priorities.

Makes an annual State of the City address.

The city's Charter Commission voted Thursday to "bundle" the two issues into one ballot question.

While some members said confusion over a novel election system could derail support for a popularly elected mayor, supporters said it is the most effective way to ensure that the mayor has a political mandate from a broad section of the electorate.

Ranked-choice voting is so central to the proposal for the elected mayor that both issues must be on the same ballot question, said Commissioner Laurie Davis.

"This is our best proposal. Take it or leave it," she said.

The commission also voted to clarify the relationship between the mayor and the city manager, and give the mayor veto power over the city budget.

Thursday's meeting was the commission's last for making any significant decisions about proposed charter changes.

The 12-member commission, which began its work a year ago, will meet for the last time on July 8 to take a formal vote and pose for a group photograph.

The group's proposals will go directly to voters in November and do not need approval by the City Council.

As envisioned by the commission, the elected mayor would have "soft powers" and serve as a voting member of the City Council. The mayor would not be a chief executive.

Commissioner Jim Gooch said the mayor would be a "consensus-building, community-organizing mayor."

The mayor would serve a four-year term, chair council meetings and act as the city's official representative within the city and with other governments. It would be a full-time position that pays at least $67,359 a year.

On Thursday, the commission clarified the responsibility of the mayor and the city manager over formation of the city budget.

Rather than giving "policy direction" to the manager, as was written in a previous draft, the mayor would give only "policy guidance," a change that would tip the balance of power in favor of the city manager.

The commission also added wording to say the city manager would deliver the budget to the City Council, and the mayor would be able to provide comments on the budget at that time.

In a previous draft, the manager and the mayor would have "jointly" presented the budget to the City Council.

During Thursday's public hearing, former City Manager Tim Honey told the commission the previous draft would blur the line of executive authority and lead to confusion about who would be accountable. He urged the commission to restore the authority of the city manager.

The Portland Community Chamber also lobbied for the change.

The commission decided later to give the mayor veto power over the city budget, including budget amendments.

It's not a lot of power, though. Six councilors could override a veto. In effect, the mayor would issue a veto only if he or she were on the losing end of a 5-4 vote.

Much of the discussion Thursday centered on ranked-choice voting, which is essentially a series of runoff elections, tallied in rounds.

On ballots, voters rank candidates in order of preference by filling in the first-choice bubble next to their favorite candidate, the 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.

The process continues by rounds until one candidate emerges with the majority.

Commissioner Nathan Smith, who chaired a subcommittee that researched the issue, said he has become convinced that the system is better than a primary or a runoff election because there is typically a sharp drop-off in voter turnout in a second election.

Also, holding a second election would be more costly for the city and the candidates, he said.

In a single plurality election with multiple candidates, a well-organized minority faction could elect a mayor with only narrow public support. Under ranked-choice voting, that would not happen, he said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

 

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