After months of meetings, debate and public feedback, the Portland Charter Commission has narrowly approved a proposal for city leadership that would shift more power from the appointed city manager to the elected mayor.

The commission’s 7-5 vote on the leadership proposal last week represents a milestone in its work as it nears the deadline for a preliminary report on recommended changes to the city charter. About a dozen proposed changes are being looked at, though most, including the leadership model, still need to be voted on in final charter language.

All proposals made by the commission must be approved by voters before they can be enacted. That step is likely to occur in November after the commission completes a preliminary report on its work by May 9 and delivers its final report to the City Council by July 11.

The balance of power between the elected mayor and the city manager, who is appointed by and reports to the City Council, has been a key issue before the commission, which was convened in response to a citizen effort to implement clean elections but has taken on a range of proposed changes to the key document outlining city government.

Work on the leadership model has consumed a large portion of the commission’s effort over the last few months, and last Wednesday’s vote came after more than four hours of commissioners debating amendments and finessing the language that could ultimately appear in the charter.

“Primarily (the major change) is making the mayor the chief executive of the city,” said Jim Katsiaficas, the commission’s attorney, in summarizing the proposal for the public and the commission at the start of the meeting.


Under the proposal, the mayor would be the official spokesperson for the city and could form public task forces with staff support for any issue not taken up by the City Council. The mayor would preside over meetings of the council, but would no longer have a vote on most items before the council– a change intended to balance out some of the other enhancements to the mayor’s authority.

The appointee once known as city manager would now be the chief operating officer and would carry out day-to-day operations, oversee department heads and report to the mayor. And while the city manager now prepares the city budget in consultation with the mayor and presents the budget to the council, the proposal calls for the mayor both to direct the chief operating officer in preparing the budget and to present it to the council.

The proposal also removes authority from the city’s top civilian job – the city manager at present, possibly the chief operating officer in the future. Under the current charter, in addition to taking the lead on preparing the budget, the city manager also nominates department heads, who then must be approved by the council.

But the proposal approved last week creates a new executive committee, made up of the mayor and two councilors, that would recommend department heads to the full council for approval. The new chief operating officer would retain the city manager’s duties of supervising department heads and overseeing day-to-day operations.

“I think it represents a compromise between the various positions on the commission,” said Chair Michael Kebede, who voted in support of the proposal. “I think it would be a step forward for democracy in Portland and would bring more transparency and greater accountability to city government.”

Other commissioners who voted in favor of the proposal were Zack Barowitz, Robert O’Brien, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Catherine Buxton, Patricia Washburn and Marcques Houston. Opposed were Dory Waxman, Marpheen Chann, Peter Eglinton, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Ryan Lizanecz.


Commissioners who supported the proposal said the structure they voted for would allow the mayor to better carry out policy proposals while adding more accountability to voters in city government. They said it is a less extreme shift in power than earlier proposals that would have given the mayor more authority.

Over the last several decades, Portland has seen its system of government serve the city well in some areas but not in others, Barowitz said, citing as one example land use policy that he said stifles revenues and drives up housing costs. “We have reached a point where the servers, laborers, direct care workers – the people who make Portland run – are finding it increasingly hard to remain here while at the same time wanting a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives,” Barowitz said in a statement. “The expanded mayor role is an incremental change, but a necessary one.”

O’Brien said he was wary of some of the amendments being proposed ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, but many of those amendments failed – and he said he ultimately felt comfortable with the decision the commission made. One amendment brought forward by O’Brien, allowing the chief operating officer to submit a budget memo along with the budget presented by the mayor, was among those added to the proposal last week.

“I’ve had 48 hours now to sleep on it and talk to people about it and I’m becoming more and more confident in supporting it,” O’Brien said Friday. “I think the compromise that’s remained is reasonable and I compare it to the system we have now. Lots of folks want to kill this and keep the system we have now, but I look at the system we have now as being pretty imperfect.”

Under today’s charter, O’Brien said, it’s hard for mayors to pursue the policies they campaign on and effect change. “There are a lot of people who ask with the current system, ‘What’s the point of having a mayor? We’re basically spending $90,000 for a council chair we used to get for free,'” he said. “I think this compromise is a reasonable attempt to build in an elected mayor who can pursue policies and initiatives with checks and balances.”

Some commissioners who voted against the proposal said they didn’t see what problems the proposal would solve and expressed concerns with the process. The proposal was built out of a series of informal “straw poll” votes on different aspects of a leadership model that the commission took during meetings held to gather consensus.


Chann said that process didn’t make sense to him and he found it frustrating for the commission to form a governance model from disparate aspects of governance that were considered independently.

“What we ended up with as a result was something that wasn’t a compromise but something that was forcing commissioners to do an up-and-down, binary vote rather than discussing it in depth,” he said.

Chann said there are aspects of the mayor’s role – such as in budget development or performance reviews – that the commission could have strengthened by unanimous vote. He said the narrow approval of the current proposal doesn’t bode well for the city or for voter confidence.

“If a constitutional convention is split and only a slight majority approves something, that signals to the voters that something isn’t right,” Chann said. “It just points to how the governance committee discussion and process has gone awry.”

Eglinton, who also voted against the proposal, said he opposed it because there was a lack of demonstrated need for the changes. He said it presents a risk that the mayor and the council could become polarized and the possibility of undue political influence over day-to-day operations. “I supported the recommendation of the original governance committee, which included more targeted fixes for identified issues in city government,” Eglinton said in an email.

The leadership proposal, like several others before the commission, still requires a final vote on charter language that will incorporate amendments approved last week. The commission may also consider a proposal O’Brien made at the meeting to add language into the charter ensuring the mayor’s involvement in large economic development projects.

Some of the other proposals the commission is considering for inclusion in the preliminary report include: noncitizen voting in municipal elections; a code of ethics and ethics commission; redistricting; clean elections; removal of council approval from the school budget process; a citizen police oversight board; and proportional ranked-choice voting.

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