Portland voters will be asked in June if they want to create a charter commission – a move that would open up the entire governmental structure to changes, including either strengthening or eliminating the elected mayor position.

The City Council voted overwhelming, but reluctantly, Monday to put the question to voters. Councilors said they were legally obligated to do so because of language in a petition submitted by Fair Elections Portland, a group that wants to create a taxpayer funded elections program.

“On the narrow question in front of us, I think we are obligated by law to put this out,” City Councilor Justin Costa said.

Several councilors said they would urge voters not to create a charter commission.

“Once this goes out, I hope it gets voted down,” City Councilor Belinda Ray said. “I don’t want a charter commission. We don’t need a charter commission.”

Fair Elections Portland sued the city in September, after the council voted against sending the clean elections proposal to voters as a charter amendment. Such amendments are allowed for minor changes to the city’s governmental structure.

Instead, the council’s attorney ruled that a funding provision in the proposal would fundamentally alter the power structure of city government, making it a charter revision that would would first need to be reviewed by a charter commission.

Fair Elections Portland originally asked that language be inserted on their petitions that would require the council to ask voters to establish a charter commission if the city determined the proposal was a charter revision. But that language was mistakenly left off the petitions by the city clerk.

Fair Elections Portland sent out an email last week denying that it had ever asked for a charter commission. And the group’s chair, Anna Kellar, repeated that Monday.

“I want to make it clear that this issue that’s in front of me has nothing to do with the petitions that we gathered and submitted and that this council chose not to send out to voters as a charter amendment,” Kellar said. “We did not ask for this charter commission and we were not consulted about it. And given there is an open lawsuit in front of you … I really don’t see what this is trying to achieve.”

Councilors took offense to statements made by Fair Elections Portland and signature gatherers contending they never intended to ask the city to create a charter commission.

“I’m not sure how you get off the hook of asking for that language after you have specifically gone through the hoops to get it on there,” Ray said. “It’s mind-boggling to me to have people stand up and say they didn’t want this. Then you shouldn’t have put it on your petition request.”

The council voted 7-1 to send the question to voters, with Mayor Ethan Strimling opposed and City Councilor Pious Ali absent.

Strimling did not explain his vote Monday. But the last time the issue was before the council, Strimling said that he disagreed with the city’s legal opinion and sided with an attorney representing the activists, who determined the clean elections proposal would be a charter amendment, not a revision.

Costa and Ray have said they are committed to putting charter amendments for both municipal clean elections and extending ranked-choice voting to all city races to voters.

Despite these assurances, councilors have been criticized by activists and Strimling’s re-election campaign for their recent actions on both proposals.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Nov. 18 to send the ranked-choice voting question to voters in March, even though Fair Elections Portland did not gather the number of signatures needed to get it on the ballot.

Costa said the council actions involve complex laws and requirements. And he urged advocates to dial down the heated rhetoric, since they’re all working towards the same goals.

“We need to try to bring the temperature down a bit,” Costa said. “It would be deeply unfortunate if we somehow leave the impression that our democracy is being undermined or there’s some existential threat going on here.”

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