Democratic self-government means the people have the power.

We elect leaders and hold them accountable for their decisions at the ballot box. This is most true on the local level, where our representatives are closest to us and we can easily see the results of their decisions because the directly affect our lives.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. In reality there is a little-discussed factor that keeps the people out of the process, especially on the local level:

Governing is really hard and, for the most part, really, really boring.

It’s a lot to ask someone who has worked a 12-hour day to sit through a four-hour city council meeting, listening to first readings of license applications and recognitions of the middle school track team, before getting to an issue that they care about.

So, most of us tune in at election time and tune out shortly after the votes are counted, only paying attention when something outrageous catches our attention. Between outrages, we need to trust the people we’ve elected and the people they hired to do the boring stuff in our names. There is no democracy without trust.


But, we live in a cynical age and trust is in short supply. In my town, Portland, a significant number of people don’t trust the city government. This is playing out in a couple of ways.

One is government by referendum. Progressive activists loosely affiliated with Democratic Socialists and former Mayor Ethan Strimling have had success passing referendums that enact bold policy changes that would not have made it through the City Council process intact, at least not all at once.

In 2020, they passed four major policy questions (rent control, green building standards, a $15 minimum wage and a stronger ban on the use of facial recognition software by police) and this year they are trying to get four more on the ballot, boosting the minimum wage to $18 an hour and strengthening tenants’ rights.

The other approach is government reform. Last year, city voters elected a charter review commission, sending them off to study the ways that Portland could operate with clearer lines of authority and more accountability to voters.

What they have come up with is taking final shape now and will need approval by the voters in November to take effect.

Of the two approaches, I like the second one, and it’s not even close.


I may not vote for all or any of the charter amendments the commission proposes, but I appreciate the work that went into them. Based on the social media-fueled outrage that accompanied the election of the commission last June (including a tweet by a commissioner calling the city manager a white supremacist) you might think that this was a radical group.

But if you tried to watch their meetings over the last year, you would have seen a traditional local government process – in other words truly boring.

They did their work in public, took comment from critics, consulted experts and eventually came to a leadership model that a majority of the commissioners could support.

Instead of the current system, in which the popularly elected mayor is a super-city councilor with a City Hall office and a full-time salary, the proposed mayor would be an elected city executive who is responsible for the city’s operation, from public safety to public works, policing to potholes.

In this system, the City Council would be the legislative branch, developing policies and passing ordinances, which the mayor and staff would implement. If the mayor goes rogue, the council could fire him or her with a super-majority vote.

This model just came into focus in the last weeks, after hours of discussion. It’s cleaner and easier to explain than the preliminary report sent to the City Council in May, and it will be easier to sell to voters in November.


That’s what you get when you have people committed to doing the hard, boring part.

Referendum questions burst from the head of Zeus, fully formed. We don’t know what process the drafters used, who they talked to and what surprises they anticipated. And in Portland, ordinances passed by referendum can’t be changed by elected officials for five years without going back to the voters.

But most importantly, referendums are what you do when you don’t trust your government to do the right thing. Since so much of what goes on at the local level comes in response to unforeseen events, it’s better to elect people you can trust to do the hard, boring work, and replace them if they let you down.

If redrawing the lines of authority inside City Hall builds public trust in the institution, it’s worth doing. Because, in the end, we’ve got nothing without trust.

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