Portland Charter Reform: A tripwire of flaws

By William MacKenzie,

No question. Portland is “The City That doesn’t Work”. But Ballot Measure 26-228, the charter reform proposal, isn’t the answer.

Driving support for the measure is a commonly held view that Portland’s government is an unwieldy mess that doesn’t serve citizens well.

A recent poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance validates that voters are up for change.

Presented with the text of the ballot measure, 63% of 420 respondents said they would vote for it and 21% said they would vote no.

The 63% figure makes it sound like approval is a slam dunk, but the devil may be in the details.

Of that 63%, only 26% were sure they’d vote for it; 36% were less certain, but leaned toward a yes vote and 16% were undecided. In my view, even though the vote is just weeks away, that means there are an awful lot of persuadables.

The task ahead for opponents is to raise enough awareness of the measure’s complexity and cost to raise doubt about the wisdom of the whole proposal.

For example, Portlanders may think more City Council members will mean better representation. But the proposal for four districts, each represented by three city counselors, won’t necessarily translate into that result.

One reason is because the ballot measure doesn’t specify the boundaries of the new districts. If the measure passes, a separate districting commission would be convened in January and assigned the task of drawing the boundaries. Nobody knows now where those lines will be drawn.

Things get more complicated and uncertain because the measure proposes that the councilors of each district be elected using a proportional method of ranked choice voting known as “single transferable vote” (STV).

In this system, voters rank the candidates and if a candidate gets more votes than needed be elected the extra, or surplus, votes get transferred to the voter’s next choices. The process is so convoluted the measure takes almost 300 words to explain how it would work.

Under this system, a candidate running for a seat in a multimember district could win a position on the Council with as little as 25% of the vote. One consequence could be a councilor able to remain in office by consistently satisfying just that small segment of eligible voters and ignoring those who are disenchanted with their performance because it would require 75% of voters to vote against the entrenched councilor to remove him or her.

As Tim Nesbit, a former chief of staff to Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski and a critic of the ballot measure, wrote in the Portland Tribune, “This will be a ‘welcome to the Hotel California’ for candidates who seek office in the first council election to follow. It will be easy to check in to the council, but much harder to be forced to leave.”

And then there’s the potential cost of the new governance system proposed in the measure. Talk about buying a pig in a poke. Frankly, nobody’s really sure what the cost of the massive changes would be.

The City Budget Office estimates the cost of implementing the measure could be up to a whopping $8.7 million annually.

One unknown is transition costs. Then a Salary Commission that would need to set the salaries of all the newly elected officials. And all those new City Councilors will have staff. And the fact is, government tends to grow. As George Roche wrote in a booklet published by the Mackinac Center for Public policy, bureaucracies “tend to swell up like toadstools on a rotting log.”

Do Portlanders really want to spend MORE on their government? Charter reform proponents don’t tend to talk about this.

The key task ahead is to convince the “less certain” and “undecided” voters to move into the “No” column.

There’s still time.