Measure would alter structure of city government

A measure appearing on the May 15 Multnomah County ballot could give Portland’s mayor greater control over city government bureaus.

A measure appearing on the May 15 Multnomah County ballot could give Portland’s mayor greater control over city government bureaus.

Currently, commissioners on the Portland City Council are in charge of city bureaus, such as the Portland Development Commission or the city Parks and Recreation division, which the mayor divides among the council.

If passed during the city special elections, Measure 26-91 would have the mayor appoint a chief administrative officer to run city bureaus. After the appointment, City Council would confirm or deny the mayor’s choice.

The appointment of a chief administrative officer would deviate from section 2-301 of the Portland city charter, which states that the mayor may redistribute bureau management and work among departments from time to time.

With the chief administrative officer in charge of the bureaus, the City Council would be left to legislative duties. The mayor would take the responsibility of preparing the budget and hiring and firing employees.

“I think the mayor sincerely believes this is the right way,” said Chris Smith, co-chair of the Committee for Accountable City Government, who opposes the measure.

The measure fails to recognize the good of the current system, Smith said. He said the benefit of the current system is that citizens directly elect the commissioners. The new measure would give the mayor too much power, Smith said.

“I think we should always be open to change,” he said. “There are opportunities to make it better.”

Smith said he does not believe that this measure is the way to do it, however. The turnaround between the citizen review commission and the ballot was too quick for the measure to be well thought out, said Smith, not allowing time for public discussion.

Some say that having city commissioners run the bureaus was causing a breach of communication among the bureaus. Lack of communication between bureaus cost the city $27 million during a recent water billing fiasco, said Kyle Chisek, campaign manager for Citizens to Reform City Hall, who supports the bill.

“You don’t know how the decisions were made,” Chisek said about the current system. “We want to prevent that from happening again.”

The measure would also provide a level of accountability the current system does not have, Chisek said, because the mayor would choose a chief administrative officer with professional qualifications.

“It could very well be an elected position at some point,” he said. A different measure on the ballot calls for a charter review commission every 10 years, which could reappoint the position.

Chisek said that the commission did not want to make the chief administrative officer an elected position right away, in order to downplay any political implications.

“I don’t see that it’s been rushed to the ballot at all,” Chisek said. He said that the Charter Review Committee has gone over the information since 2006, and revised their suggestions well before the ballot came out.

Richard Clucas, a professor of political science at PSU, said that there was a trend in the 1990s to make local government more responsive. At the time, the city began to use the manager system rather than the commission form.

“You need experts who will run the city well,” Clucas said. Not everyone is good at both bureaucracy and legislative activities, he said.

Clucas said that very few cities, large or small, still have commission systems. Portland is the largest city in the United States to still be run with city commissioners, he said.

“My gut reaction is it probably won’t pass,” he said.

The measure comes from a 26-volunteer citizen review committee that was formed to make improvements to the 1913 Portland city charter. The committee has held 100 meetings since November 2005, resulting in the changes outlined in the measure.

Similar measures have been turned down seven times since the city charter was enacted in 1913.

Measure 26-91 is part of a four-measure campaign to reform Portland’s city hall. The other measures are measure 26-89, which would require the city to periodically review the city charter; 26-90, which would streamline and modernize city civil service requirements by eliminating outdated and confusing language; and measure 26-92, which would change the relationship between the Portland City Council and the Portland Development Commission.

Ballots are due by 8 p.m. on election night, May 15.