In November, Portland voters will decide on eight ballot questions that will change our city charter – our city’s constitution. Two questions – Questions 2 and 5 – would send Portland dramatically in the wrong direction and should be rejected.

Recently, we joined 13 other Portland mayors in opposing Question 2, which would install a so-called “strong” mayor to run the day-to-day operations of our city. This proposal inappropriately politicizes basic municipal services and vests too much power in one politician.

We oppose a “strong” mayor partly because Portland’s current governance model, while not perfect, has allowed Portland to grow and thrive over the decades, including time periods when other Northeastern cities experienced disinvestment and decline.

For a century, Portland has operated under a “council-manager” system, adopted as part of a government reform movement aimed at reducing political corruption. Most cities of Portland’s size have a similar system, a system that gives policymaking authority to elected city councilors and leaves implementation of those policies to a professional city manager, hired and overseen by the council.

Over time, Portland’s system has evolved, and we now have a balanced, nine-member City Council with five district councilors (like we were) with a neighborhood perspective, and four at-large members (including our mayor) with a citywide perspective. Our council functions like a House and Senate rolled into one, allowing our city to affirmatively act on challenging issues like affordable housing and homelessness while still considering neighborhood concerns.

Twelve years ago, Portland decided to form a charter commission to consider ways to further improve our city’s ability to act. That commission, on which we served, was comprised of 12 thoughtful individuals, including three former mayors and two experienced former city staffers. Ten members of that commission ultimately recommended – and the voters passed – a modest change to the role of mayor that otherwise left our council-manager system intact.


Now Portland faces another referendum on its governance model, this time a proposal from another charter commission (supported by only eight members) that would dramatically restructure city government in harmful ways.

Question 2 is not modeled on small cities like Portland, and the commission’s final report contains little substance, cites unnamed critics as the basis for key recommendations and fails to understand that Portland’s governance model represents the most common form of governance among small American cities.

Instead, Question 2 seeks to emulate America’s largest cities – like New York and Chicago – which have “strong” mayors. Question 2 would give one elected politician – our mayor – control over basic city services with authority to hire and fire police chiefs and decide which streets and sidewalks should get fixed, among other powers. Instead of professional city management, Question 2 would place municipal services under the control of a single politician motivated by electoral politics and special interests.

Equally concerning is the fact that Question 2 would gut our council’s ability to serve as a meaningful check on the mayor’s expanded authority. Question 2 removes the ability of our council to select the person to implement its policies, and it expands our council to 12 members by adding three more district councilors. Not only would this greatly diminish the important citywide perspective currently on our council, but with an even number of members, our council could not act without a 7-5 supermajority.

Moreover, Question 2 would give our mayor new veto authority, necessitating an eight-member supermajority to override any veto. This is a formula for gridlock and NIMBYism that will prevent Portland from tackling key issues like affordable housing and homelessness.

Finally, it is important to touch on Question 5, which would remove our council’s authority to approve the local school budget, an important check on the power of the school board. We believe this proposal violates state law, which is why the charter commission’s own lawyer refused to sign off on it.

For many reasons, Portland cannot afford Questions 2 and 5, and we urge a “no” vote.

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