Opinion: Making Portland a city that works for us all


Melanie Billings-Yun

Billings-Yun is co-chair of the Portland Charter Commission.

Last month, the Portland Charter Commission overwhelmingly adopted a set of proposed reforms to our city’s governance document to make Portland’s government more accountable, transparent, effective and representative of all of our city’s residents. . If approved by voters in November, Portlanders will see major changes in the way our city is run:

  • City councilors will no longer be elected citywide to run offices, but will become a legislative body, living and representing four geographic districts.
  • The day-to-day operations of the city will be managed by a professional city administrator under the direct supervision of a mayor.
  • Portland residents will be more fairly and equitably represented by a 12-member City Council with three members per district, allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than being limited to a single choice.

This significant and bold change stems from the demands of thousands of Portlanders who have testified, written and called the Charter Commission, a 20-member group of volunteer citizens appointed by City Council to review our city’s constitution and recommend necessary changes. . Neighborhood associations, unions, communities of color, business leaders, municipal workers, civic associations and more tell us over and over again that our city is no longer functioning, that no one represents them and that they don’t know where to go to obtain answers to the most basic needs. They are angry at the deterioration of our city and bewildered that such a seemingly simple issue as cleaning our streets is divided among more than 20 different programs under five different commissioners. This is not the fault of any individual, but of an antiquated system of government created for a small town, which is no longer able to cope with the demands of a 21st century city facing a multitude of challenges. complex.

To come up with an integrated system that would better meet the needs of Portland residents, the Charter Commission spent 18 months hearing from experts and examining examples from other cities across the country. We drew inspiration from their best practices, but we didn’t copy any city in its entirety, because no other city exactly matches our demographics, society, or issues.

A few of our proposals will seem unfamiliar to you at first and have therefore naturally raised questions. How Ranked Choice Voting Works ­– the method we recommend Portlanders adopt to determine election winners – work? Where are the neighborhoods? How much will these changes cost? We addressed most of them in our 6th Charter Commission Progress Report (https://bit.ly/3OQ61we) and will continue to add more details in response to questions from the Portlanders.

Let me answer here a common question we heard. Why did we propose a 12-member city council with four districts? We started with the goal of making our municipal administration more representative, responsive and equitable. Our current form of government was created in 1913, when Portland had a population of 200,000. Since then, our size has more than tripled to over 650,000, but our 4-member Board of Commissioners (not including the Mayor) remained the same. This now equates to one commissioner for every 163,000 people. Compare this to similarsize cities: Memphis 1-50,000 or Boston 1-53,000. Is it any wonder that Portlanders feel neglected?

Simultaneously, we have overwhelmingly supported districts with three council members elected by preferential vote, a system widely used around the world, as it creates an elected body that is both more representative of the general population and more capable to deal with the wide range of complex problems. facing our city and its neighborhoods. Given the dispersed population of Portland, no single district would accurately reflect our diversity. Whereas a single-member constituency under our current electoral system only needs to appeal to just over half of its voters – far fewer considering that Portland’s primary turnout is on average less than 40% – a 3-person constituency chosen by preferential vote in a general election reflects the preferences of three-quarters or more of voters. Additionally, major districts are not prey to the polarizing insularity that has led to gridlock in San Francisco and other single-district cities.

Districts should be compact, equal in population and hold communities of common interest and geographic boundaries together. If the proposal is accepted, a separate commission will be appointed by January 31, 2023 to draw the map of the district with the community input needed to make it happen.

From the start, the Charter Commission put transparency first, holding hundreds of public meetings and discussions with community organizations, sending regular email updates to 1,300 subscribers, and hosting a website detailed information. It was a collaborative effort with Portlanders. We heard you and we will continue to answer your questions until election day. Together, we can make Portland the city that works for all of us.

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