In Portland, as in communities across the country, I applaud those fighting for social justice long denied for too many in our society. As a Black man who has felt the sting of racism, I understand the pain, the anger and the dehumanizing feeling of being deprived of basic liberties for no other reason than the color of my skin. This is one of the reasons I started a career in local government, and one of the reasons why I believe specifically in the council-manager form of government.

Through my career, I have served as the executive in both a “strong mayor” form of government and a council-manager form. So, I know firsthand the differences in how cities operate when administered by an elected mayor rather than a professional city manager. Under the council-manager form of government, policy decisions must be made by elected officials representing the interests and will of the people. When it comes to social justice, the elected leaders must identify what types of changes they wish to see in the community and take political actions to support those ends. These become the policies under which the local government operates.

The city manager serves the City Council and the community by developing and implementing programs and services based on data, experience and sound management practices to ensure that the policies set by the council and mayor are met. They are responsible for hiring professional staff accountable to meeting professional standards and performance measures agreed upon by the council and mayor. Ultimately, the council-manager form also creates greater accountability to the people. Specifically, if the city manager is not meeting the needs of the community as established by the council and the mayor, the council and mayor have the authority to separate with the manager at any time and find someone more keeping with their goals and expectations. Additionally, if the people are dissatisfied with the results of the city manager, or any other aspect of their local government, they can voice their concerns directly to the council and mayor to try and move them to take necessary actions.

Contrast the council-manager form of government to a city with an elected mayor responsible for running the daily operations and administration of the city. Unqualified mayors who fail to address the needs of the people will hold their office for the entirety of their term with no way for the people to hold the mayor accountable until the next election. Even then, whereas the city manager is responsible to the needs of all people in the community, an elected mayor is accountable only to the voting majority. And when it comes to hiring decisions under the “strong mayor” system, the ability to hire and fire department heads as political appointments means that political loyalty is more important than professional ability. So, from a social justice perspective, the “strong mayor” system clearly increases the likelihood of continued disenfranchisement and systemic bias against those already marginalized from the political power structures.

Certainly, if we seek social justice, we must push for change. We must elect leaders who support our vision. We must have city managers with the knowledge, skills and abilities to run city government, implement the policies of the council and mayor, and make certain our government serves the community – not just those in the community who vote in the majority.

The city of Portland is a vibrant and thriving community, and its success is a direct result of the work of elected officials and the city manager working in partnership with staff, residents, businesses and community organizations for a better future. Yes, there are challenges, but they are not the failings of the form of government. As we look to protect people from oppression and enhance equity here in Portland and in communities across the country, there is no doubt that the council-manager form of government is best suited to that end.


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