Portland is changing. Housing prices may (finally) be leveling off, but sea levels continue to rise. Since 2008, the people of Portland have voted twice for charter reform because we want a government that can adapt to changing times; one that works, that we can trust and where our voices are heard.

At the outset, this Charter Commission set a goal to strengthen our representative democracy while maintaining the professionalism of our civil service. This means retaining a highly qualified staff that makes recommendations based on the best policy, while leaving the political considerations to our elected officials. As a member of the commission, I made darn sure that the charter recommendations were structural, not legislative, and that they allowed all of our elected officials to be more representative and effective.

The reforms empower our City Council by electing their chair themselves; the council approves all hirings and firings by the mayor; they will have a better communications policy with staff, and they can remove, recall or censure the mayor should the need arise. The chief administrator will continue to run the operational and budgeting aspects of the city, but the executive mayor will direct the policy. The mayor would also need to communicate executive actions and gain council approval for those lasting more than 30 days. And a joint school board-council school budget committee will ensure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

Clean elections, more council seats and raising councilor stipends will make our government more accessible. And finally, a council-appointed ethics commission and civilian police review board will foster greater trust and accountability in our offices and institutions.

These are not radical reforms, but they are not Band-Aids. And most of them, including land acknowledgment, are not even controversial.

It is therefore ironic, if not Orwellian, that longtime members of Portland’s political establishment (with the help of a D.C. consultancy firm) are trying to halt the enactment of state-mandated charter referendum questions. The approach is oddly nihilistic and perfectly counterproductive to the repair of a system that is compelling people to legislate by referendum. One faction even opposes proportional ranked-choice voting, an issue that conservative and centrist voices have been calling for. Their rhetoric has scarcely anything to do with the merits of the issues.


Why the furious reaction? Let’s unpack.

Those who have built their careers and serve on boards of leading institutions within the current system do not or will not have solutions for the pressing issues of the day.

Instead, we hear appeals to people’s fears. Change can be scary. It is a near-universal fear that a day may come when any one of us will be deemed obsolete. As a commissioner, I heard people bravely express their fears: housing insecurity, higher taxes, an imperious mayor and so on. There is a narrative that maintaining the status quo protects us from change. It does not. It just makes us less adaptive to change.

Yet this lack of change is precisely what proponents are trying to sell.

Perhaps the most substantive argument that I have heard former elected officials put forth is that the strong-manager system provides a capable administration even in the event of incompetent, or corrupt, elected leaders (a rather startling line of reasoning, if you think about it).

I’m not at all sure how well our system worked in the 1990s, but it isn’t working now. So when elected officials are essentially interchangeable, having an appointed bureaucrat as the chief executive ensures that change happens very slowly. The legacy? Critical policy that gets kicked down the road: a crippling pension obligation bond and an extremely inflated stormwater separation project resulting in high taxes.

We’ve seen disastrous decisions like the destruction of Union station, Franklin Street and the razing of hundreds of homes (largely belonging to members of minority groups) along where Interstate 295 now stands. Nor do we have long-term plans to combat the housing crisis or sea-level rise. What’s the point of being a foodie destination if a line cook can’t afford a studio apartment?

The real irony is that the rich and powerful will always benefit disproportionately from any system. But the rest of us want a little more voice. We can use our voice to call for sweeping reform or incremental change. The important thing is that it is up to us.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.