Portland is not the only political jurisdiction to be governed the way it is, but it does have an unusual structure, and it can be confusing and hard to describe.
It has a mayor and a council, which run and make policy for the city, which is normal for most cities, but it gets confusing after that. Most cities with a mayor and council have either a “strong mayor” who acts as the chief administrator and manager, or a “weak mayor” who serves ceremonially and helps with policy setting but leaves the day to day management of the city to an appointed city manager.
There’s a reason most cities operation along those lines: It works. When our national government was founded the drafted figured out that splitting the administrative and policy-making making functions (and, thirdly, the judicial functions for settling disputes) into mostly cleanly-divided portions of the government was a good idea. The federal executive and congressional divisions to get involved in both functions, but mainly that’s intended as a check to keep anyone from getting out of hand. The core idea is that policy is created over here, and executed over there. It works pretty well.
Portland is one of those places (there are some small communities that do it too) that doesn’t do it that way. Portland does not have a city administrator as such, or at least not a single one. Instead, in what is called “commission government,” the city’s sprawling agencies are divided between the mayor and the council members (the mayor gets to make the assignments), and then each of them, in addition to working on city policy and hearing from constituents, is also the top administrator for a gaggle of city agencies. Those assignments periodically get shifted around, too, and often don’t match up with the backgrounds of the council members.
It has never seemed like a very well-oiled approach to management. But reconsidering the structure of Portland city government is something that has come up remarkably seldom. It did re-emerged last week, though, in a new advisory report by the Portland City Club.
Some of the report concluded that the council has not, historically, provided an especially broad representation of types of demographics – most members, over time, have been prosperous white men – though that is changing, and Portland has hardly been unique in that description.
The report also offered a number of other structural points with some useful ideas for Portlanders to consider:
* The current allocation of responsibility to the mayor and the city council appears to result in poor bureaucratic performance.
* Portland has long since outgrown the size of its current city council and would be better served across many different arenas by increasing the number of members.
* Changing to a form of preferential voting for city council members is urgently needed to deliver more equitable representation.
* Executive authority should be centralized in the office of mayor, but delegated in large part to a city manager.
* Portland should have a professional city manager selected by the mayor, subject to council approval. The city manager must be a qualified professional with relevant training and experience.
* The mayor should serve as the permanent chairperson of the city council and cast tie-breaking votes where applicable, although this is a moot point as long as the total number of city council members (“regular” members plus the mayor) is an odd number.
* Portland should stop electing city council members in at-large elections, opting instead for district-based elections, preferably with multiple commissioners per district.
* Portland should further explore alternative systems of voting, using an appropriate equity lens to decide which system is most likely to produce the best results for Portland. While it was beyond the mandate of this committee to develop a definitive recommendation as to voting system, it is clear from our research that traditional “first-past-the-goalpost” voting is not the best system in terms of equity.
* The size of the Portland city council should be increased to at least eight commissioners, plus the mayor.
I could quibble. But the approach outlined here, which would bring Portland closer into line with many other cities locally and regionally (Seattle, say) make a lot of sense. We’ll be watching to see if this proposal was a temporary ripple in the pond or actually picks up speed.
Which, to judge by the regular complaints in the city about the nature of municipal government, would make sense. And which Mayor Ted Wheeler, who seems to be more frustrated in his current job than in his previous postings at Multnomah County and the state treasury, might want to embrace.