Tuesday’s election in Portland sent a clear message: The city is ready for change.

It’s the only way to read the voters’ selection of the members of a new Charter Commission.

Each of the nine races, one in each of the city’s five districts and four for at-large seats, was won by a candidate who backed fundamental change in the ways the city elects its leaders and how their power is distributed.

Only one of the nine, former school board member Robert O’Brien, has ever been elected to office in Portland before Tuesday. O’Brien is also the only person who will serve on this Charter Commission who also served on the last one, which was assembled in 2009.

That commission included three former mayors and two longtime municipal employees. It proposed revisions that brought Portland its first full-time elected mayor in nearly a century, but it also limited the mayor’s role and maintained the executive authority of the city manager, who is appointed by the City Council.

More controversial ideas, like noncitizen voting in local elections, were discussed but not put forward as part of the commission’s recommendations for fear of sinking the whole package, which ultimately needed approval from the voters.

The newly elected Charter Commission will also have to present any changes it recommends to the voters, but at this point, concern over pushback from the electorate does not appear to be in their playbook.

Eliminating the city manager position, giving the mayor stronger executive power, changing the number of seats or the district lines for the City Council, revising the budget process and public funding for local election candidates all have been advocated by some of the new Charter Commission members.

So have affordable housing, racial equity and police oversight, which are currently considered policy matters that are the purview of the City Council and do not appear in the municipal charter.

This is the second time in less than a year that voters have sent a strong message that large numbers of city residents feel that they are not represented at City Hall and are impatient with the pace of change.

In November, four out of five referendums proposed by the advocacy group People First Portland were approved by voters, each requiring the government to catch up with the people on minimum wage, rent control, green building codes and banning the use of facial recognition software.

As in that election, Tuesday’s voters responded to calls for fundamental change. That was just as true in the district races, where ranked-choice voting did not come into play, as it was in roller-coaster at-large races, where cooperation between a slate of progressive, feminist candidates upended the initial results and contributed to the election of three of the four winners.

It would be a serious mistake to discount the importance of Tuesday’s election because turnout was low. A group of candidates has won the chance to work for a year and come up with ways to make city government more accessible, responsive and just.

The voters will get the final say on whether any changes they propose are right for Portland. But for now, the voters have spoken and their message couldn’t be more clear.

 


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