Portland may decide to change its governing structure, but those making plans should first think about what they need to know. What’s ill-conceived is starting with the idea that the city manager system must go because the Klan was involved when the system was created in Portland about a century ago.

For one, it’s an incomplete version of history, since many cities created city manager positions to counter the power of corrupt political machines. Moreover, that historical determinist view would lead us to jettison all sorts of policies people want and like.

For example, when Social Security was created, it left out agricultural and domestic workers, a choice powerful Southern congressmen insisted upon to exclude many Black people. And when Margaret Sanger worked to make birth control available, she had associations with eugenicists.

Would those calling Portland’s strong city manager system irredeemable because of its history want to jettison Social Security and birth control clinics? Instead of focusing on the origins of the city manager system or calling the current city manager a white supremacist, as Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef recently did, the Charter Commission should take some time to study other cities to find out how systems of governance translate to better or worse outcomes for all.

It may turn out that the choice is not that consequential. After all, there are plenty of cities with strong mayors that have plenty of racial discrimination. But if research shows that city manager systems are worse, then Portland should pursue change.

Amy Fried
political science professor, University of Maine

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