Editorial by Publisher-Editor Tony Zeli
In 2015, I asked a newly elected Mayor Ethan Strimling how he was going to effectively work with city council. “My job is to turn that body of nine into a body of one,” he said. “To build the relationships with each person so that they are feeling heard and their perspective is being incorporated, so that we can find answers that help move us forward.”
What went wrong?
It wasn’t all Mayor Strimling’s fault. The previous charter commission did a poor job designing the mayoral position, and the past years have proved so. Three popularly elected mayors have each failed to enact the will of the people, leading to ballot question fever and mayoral turnover – the voters have yet to elect a sitting mayor to a second term. Surely, many will argue that we need to give Mayor Kate Snyder more time. We are out of time.
The last charter commission placed their recommendations before the people of Portland a decade ago. Back then, some argued that unresolved issues would need to be reviewed again and too soon. How right they were.
Unresolved charter commission issues
In 2009 and 2010, charter commission members debated many issues: noncitizen voting rights, ranked choice voting, public campaign financing, the makeup of the city council and how districts are drawn, and of course, the driving force behind the formation of the commission, the popular election of an executive mayor.
A divided charter commission – seriously, their first vote for whom among them would serve as Vice Chair was a six-to-six tie – failed to give people what they wanted. They didn’t accomplish legal noncitizen voting rights. The issue came up later as a ballot initiative that barely lost a popular vote. They did put forward ranked choice voting, but only for the mayor. Back then it was a controversial issue. The previous commission didn’t address public campaign financing, and now we have the formation of a second charter commission driven by that very issue. And instead of a popularly elected mayor, the commission gave us a little understood, rarely implemented, hybrid form of government.
Seemingly, a city manager continues to run the City of Portland, a professional administrator who the council shields from public accountability. And the popularly elected mayor is mostly a figurehead, an ultra-city councilor with a longer term of office. Leaving the voters to plead with a complacent city council.
What’s up for round 2
To the Portland City Council, as you choose your appointments to and endorse candidates for charter commission, better to have a transparent agenda then hide behind process, facilitation, and technicalities.
To the voters, elect charter commission members who stand on issues and support a strong mayor’s office that will have the power to resolve the people’s issues.
And to the future charter commissioners, listen to the people and create the charter the people are asking for. Listen to the advocates and activists who made this commission happen. Get the job done right, the second time.
Tony Zeli is publisher and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.