Portland used taxpayer money to mislead voters on charter ballot measure, complaint alleges

Opponents of a ballot measure to radically reshape Portland’s form of government and election system are accusing city officials of deliberately misleading voters about crucial details of the contentious proposal — on the taxpayers’ dime.

Members of the Partnership for Common Sense Government filed a complaint with the Portland city auditor and Oregon secretary of state this week that claims information published online by the city and mailed to thousands of homes is “thinly disguised advocacy in favor” of Measure 26-228.

“Portlanders have been clear they want accountability in politics,” said group co-founder Vadim Mozyrsky, a disability law judge. “We have to ensure that voters have the needed and correct information in order to make an informed choice about the future of our democracy.”

Mozyrsky, who ran unsuccessfully for Portland City Council in the May primary, served on the 20-person charter commission that crafted and approved the ballot measure. He was one of three members to vote against it.

The complaint alleges city officials violated a state law that prohibits public employees from actively promoting or opposing a ballot measure while on the job

In a statement Wednesday, spokeswoman Sofía Álvarez-Castro said the city of Portland “is committed to providing only neutral and factual Information about [the] ballot measure.”

She said all of the city-sponsored materials about the proposed charter changes were crafted in consultation with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office and are in compliance with state election law.

But David Knowles, one of the other two charter commission members who joined Mozyrsky in voting against the proposal, said: “The secretary of state does not do a fact-check for accuracy.”

Measure 26-228 would end Portland’s unique approach of having individual City Council members act as administrators over the city’s many bureaus and turn most of that responsibility over to a professional city manager overseen by the mayor.

It would also create a 12-member City Council with three members elected from each of four large geographic districts about the size of Eugene or Salem. Voters would select candidates using a form of ranked-choice voting — known as proportional representation or single transferrable vote — that requires only 25% to win and is not used in any major U.S. city.

The mayor, elected citywide using a simpler and more widely-used form of ranked choice voting, would only be allowed to vote in the case of a tie and would not have veto power.

So far, the city says it has spent about $190,000 on two separate ballot measure mailers sent to homes in Portland.

That’s on top of nearly $1 million raised by proponents of the proposal, who’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars from organizations bankrolled by out-of-state donors.

Supporters of the measure, as well as the city of Portland, have routinely cited figures that show more than three dozen U.S. jurisdictions have adopted some form of ranked-choice voting, including New York City and Alaska.

However, only Cambridge, Massachusetts uses a version of proportional representation like the one proposed for Portland City Council races, which critics claim is too untested and experimental.

According to the complaint, Portland officials have repeatedly misrepresented the prevalence of proportional representation voting in the U.S. because the public materials they’ve shared on the measure only reference how many jurisdictions use any kind of ranked-choice voting.

The complaint also alleges that the city has hidden the total cost of the proposed overhaul.

The city of Portland officially cites an annual price tag of between $900,000 and $8.7 million online and in mailers. But that doesn’t include an additional cost of $4 million to $5.9 million per year that city budget officials estimate it will cost to implement the charter changes in the first three years, opponents say.

“In other words, the city has deliberately omitted estimated costs of $12,000,000 to $17,700,000 for the 3-year transition period,” reads the complaint.

Opponents, who are also advocating for dramatic changes to City Hall, have urged voters to reject the current measure and support an alternate package of fixes floated by Commissioner Mingus Mapps.

In September, Knowles, who previously served as a Portland planning director and Metro councilor, asked city officials to consider changes to how they had characterized provisions of the ballot proposal, emails provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive show.

His suggestions were rebuffed, said Knowles, who added that he could not remember any other instance when the city spent as much money and time to communicate with voters about a ballot measure.

“I have watched and participated in city policy and politics for many years,” he said. “I do not recall any other ballot measure where city staff so aggressively used public dollars for direct mail to voters and certainly not for mailers that don’t tell the complete truth about how our votes for City Council would be counted.”

— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632

Email at skavanaugh@oregonian.com

Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh

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