PORTLAND — Voters this month clearly supported the formation of a charter review commission, but it could be close to a year until the full commission is chosen and even longer until changes are recommended.

The City Council Monday started the process by forming a four-member committee made up of Councilors Pious Ali, Tae Chong, Nick Mavodones and Mayor Kate Snyder to vet the names of those who may be interested in the three council-appointed commission positions. The full council will vote on those names Aug. 10.

The remaining members will be elected by voters, but it could be June 2021 before that happens. City Clerk Kathy Jones said it is impossible to elect members at the Nov. 3 general election because nomination papers must be available 127 days in advance of the election, which would have been June 30.

What the commission will look like when formed and what recommendations may come out of its work is anyone’s guess. A request that the city provide public campaign funding for local elections spurred the need for a charter commission, but advocates also want it to recommend a transferal of power from the city manager to the mayor and to address institutional racism.

The commission will be required to present a final report of its recommendations within 12 months. Any changes would go to voters at a regular or special election.

At the July 14 primary and school validation vote, 13,200 voters, close to 73%, approved a charter commission for the purpose of revising the city charter, which dictates how the city government is organized and how it is run. The charter was last updated in 2010 when Portland changed the way it chose its mayor, shifting from a council appointee serving for one year to an elected four-year position.

The City Council determined a charter commission was needed to consider a request to provide public campaign funding for candidates running for school board, city council or mayoral positions. Fair Election Portland’s Board Chairwoman Anna Kellar told The Forecaster earlier this year the campaign funding measure is necessary because of the increasing amount of money being spent in local races every year, which makes it difficult for candidates without access to capital to run. On average $150,000 to $160,000 is spent in those races, she said, and she estimates it would take $200,000 to have the public funding program in place.

“(Fair Elections Portland) is excited about the charter commission and the possibilities it opens up for many structural changes in Portland,” Kellar said in response to the July 14 vote. “We are going to work for public funding of municipal candidates to be included (in the new charter). It is one of the reforms that will make it easier to hold elected leaders accountable to the people they serve and make it easier for individuals from marginalized communities to run.”

Steven Biel, founder of Progressive Portland, said a public campaign fund should be “a priority on day one.”

“That should an absolute given for anyone on the charter commission,” he said.

The charter lays out, among other things, how elections are run, the composition of the City Council and Board of Education, how public meetings are run, the timeline to develop a school budget, the citizen referendum process and the powers and responsibilities of the mayor and the city manager.

It is that last element that Biel and other members of Progressive Portland also want to see readdressed. They want the charter to be updated to give more control of how the city is run to the mayor and less power to the city manager.

“We have always been supportive of a stronger elected style of government,” he said.

The issue, he said, is not with City Manager Jon Jennings as much as it is with the structure of his position. Progressive Portland wants the mayor’s role strengthened with the ability to “enact a meaningful policy vision for the city.”

The charter calls the mayor the “official head of the city, responsible for providing leadership” and refers to the city manager as the individual “in charge of the day to day operations of the city and administration of the city budgets approved by the council.”

In an email encouraging voters to approve the creation of a charter commission, Progressive Portland said “instead of creating a truly democratically elected city leader, the 2010 charter gave the un-elected city manager the powers that most people expect a mayor to have. The city manager writes the budget. All city staff report to him, and he has the power to deny the mayor and councilors access to city staff and constituent services. Despite the fact that they have so little power, our mayors have been regularly blamed by the council and the media for anything that goes wrong, leaving voters frustrated and confused about how to make their voices heard.”

“The voters in Portland were promised a strong elected mayor in the newly drawn charter in 2010. We were sold a bill of goods. That is not what we got,” Biel said.

Kellar said she also hopes the charter commission addresses racial issues in the city.

“We are so grateful to Black Lives Matter Portland and allies for raising the profile of the charter commission and getting out the vote. We can and should use the charter as a tool to root out institutional racism. The last charter commission was all white, and a crucial first step will be to make sure that (Black, Indigenous and people of color) people are well-represented this time,” she said.

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