The race for the District 4 seat on the Portland Charter Commission pits a former longtime city councilor against a progressive activist.

Cheryl Leeman, who retired from the council in 2014 after nearly 30 years in office and opposed the switch to a popularly elected mayor a decade ago, said she is running to be part of a collaborative process and has no predetermined agenda.

Her opponent, Marcques Houston, a field organizer for former Mayor Ethan Strimling’s unsuccessful re-election campaign and board member of Progressive Portland, would like to give more power to the elected mayor and “put more power back in the hands of the people.”

District 4 includes East Deering, most of the Back Cove neighborhood and parts of the Deering Center and North Deering neighborhoods.

The charter commission was originally proposed in response to a citizen effort to create a public financing, or clean elections, program for municipal candidates. But confusion over the authority of the elected mayor, coupled with inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and rising calls for racial justice, have many residents and candidates interested in sweeping changes to local government.

The 12-member commission will include four at-large members and one member from each of the five City Council districts. Those nine elected members will join three members already appointed by the council. The panel will spend the next year reviewing the charter, which is essentially the city’s constitution and establishes the organization and power structure of city government. Any recommended changes would have to be approved by city voters.

Absentee voting is already underway. Election Day is June 8.

MARCQUES HOUSTON 

Houston, a 25-year-old Democrat and parent organizer at Starting Strong, which focuses on early childhood education, said he’s running to ensure that “everyday Portlanders have a voice in City Hall” and would like to make city government more accountable to voters.

To do that, he supports giving more power and staff to the mayor, including drafting the initial city budget for the council to consider, a task currently performed by the city manager. Under the existing charter, the mayor is a full-time position that has no staff, no executive control over the city and must work collaboratively with city councilors and the manager to implement policy. The mayor is also a member of the council.

A city manager or administrator, hired by the council, would still be needed, Houston said, to help run the city’s daily operations in a nonpartisan manner.

“Right now, the city manager is an unelected position that’s not really accountable to the people, but has the ability to make a budget, appoint officials and that sort of stuff, and so I think that we could re-democratize City Hall by giving the mayor more executive power and leaving policy decisions up to the positions that are directly elected by the voters,” he said, adding that the mayor should not be part of the council.

He supports a public financing program for municipal candidates, saying it’s a good step toward reducing the influence of money in local politics, especially in the mayoral race, where four candidates last year spent over $300,000 combined. “This would force candidates to talk to more people in their district, therefore making them more accountable,” he said. 

Houston, who is a board member of Equity in Portland Schools, which has advocated for increased funding for schools, said the elected school board should have more budget autonomy. That could include no longer requiring the City Council to approve the school budget before it goes to voters, he said.

“I don’t necessarily think that it has to go to the council,” he said. “The council can collaborate in that process.”

He supports restructuring the City Council by converting four at-large seats to district seats, and then creating smaller council districts that better align with neighborhoods. He said part-time councilors and school board members don’t necessarily have the time and resources to adequately serve a citywide constituency.

He supports allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections. He appreciates concerns from immigration advocates who worry that the city would need to create a voter roll for noncitizens, which could then be used by immigrant agents. However, he thinks there are ways to safeguard against that, noting that noncitizen voting happens elsewhere in the country.

CHERYL LEEMAN 

Leeman, who served 30 years representing District 4 on the City Council before retiring, and three years on the school board before that, said her experience and institutional knowledge would be valuable to the charter commission. During her tenure, Portland – especially the Old Port – evolved from a hardscrabble place to be avoided to a city that is routinely celebrated as a top travel and restaurant destination.

“I have seen so much over my tenure as a city councilor,” the 73-year-old, self-described moderate Republican said. “When I saw how this was unfolding, I felt a huge responsibility to share my experience for the sake of the process. This is a big deal and potentially could have a huge impact on the future of Portland and how we move forward.”

She said she has no agenda, other than keeping an open mind and being transparent in deliberating any idea that is brought before the commission.

She’s not advocating for any changes to the mayor or city manager positions. She believes issues that arose under former mayors Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling were largely personality based, not structural. She believes there’s value in having a professional city manager oversee the city’s daily operations, including the hiring and firing of city staff.

She said the charter sets the framework for city government and making budgetary and policy decisions. Although the manager can and does make budget and policy proposals, it’s ultimately the elected representatives on the council and school boards that have the final say, she said.

She was surprised to learn that so many candidates have staked out positions and declared plans to make certain changes to the charter before conducting community outreach and carefully studying each issue.

“If the objective here is to put people first, that begs the question about the process,” she said. “You can’t go in there with foregone conclusions until you have had full public participation and vetting of the issues in order to put the people first. This is not a political review.”

Leeman opposed the previous charter change to have the mayor elected by popular vote, but she said that will not cloud her work on the commission, if she’s elected.

“Once the people have spoken and the system has been put in place then it’s something I support because it was passed by the people,” she said. “It’s really important that we put Portland over politics and that we look at this with an eye towards what’s going to be in the best interest of our city.”

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