Portlanders have approved a ballot measure to transform the city’s odd, century-old form of government and election system, paving the way for a dramatic overhaul of both amid multiple municipal crises.
Among the most costly and consequential measures to appear on Portland ballots in recent memory, Measure 26-228 had garnered just over 56% of the vote in partial returns tallied as of 7 a.m. Wednesday. with a tens of thousands of ballots yet to be counted.
Two rival, well-funded campaigns spent months offering competing visions for the city’s future and debating whether a radical reset or more time-tested set of changes would produce the best outcomes for Portland going forward.
“The passage of Measure 26-228 is an historic step towards a democracy that truly gives all Portlanders a seat at the decision making table and a government that meets their basic needs,” said Sol Mora of the group Portland United for Change, which championed the proposal’s passage. “This victory was powered by the people for the people.”
Those who led the fight against the ballot measure, meanwhile, lamented their defeat.
“This is not a victory that should be celebrated,” Chuck Duffy of the Partnership for Common Sense Government said in a statement. “Our city tonight is divided and Portlanders just rolled the dice with the future of our city with one of the largest and most expensive overhauls of government during historic crises.”
The proposal will 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 will also create a 12-member City Council with three members elected from each of four large geographic districts with about the same population as Eugene or Salem. Voters would select candidates using a form of ranked-choice voting — known as proportional representation or single transferable 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, will be allowed to vote in the case of a tie and would not have veto power.
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Portland voters had previously shown little appetite for scrapping the city’s commission form of government since it was first created in 1913. Attempts to do so failed eight times at the ballot box between 1917 and 2007, records show.
In recent years, a growing chorus of politicians, business leaders and civic activists began to call for change once again, arguing that the status quo was inherently inequitable and had become an obstacle for City Hall officials seeking to meaningfully address homelessness, gun violence and other challenges.
That near-universal consensus for change crumbled after a citizen-appointed charter commission finalized its reform package last summer and overwhelmingly approved it as a single measure, despite concerns over various components.
Proponents of the proposal said it would more fairly distribute power and offer better representation to communities that have historically lacked a seat at City Hall.
They also defended bundling several substantial charter changes into one all-or-nothing proposal, arguing that each is dependent on the others to succeed.
The measure won the support of dozens of progressive, labor and civic groups, as well as some business owners, academics and numerous lawmakers representing east Portland, an area long overlooked by City Hall leaders.
Portland United for Change, which led the coalition of proponents, raised $1 million, almost entirely from a small cluster of progressive nonprofits and out-of-state donors that pushed for elected City Council members through proportional representation, the proposal’s most contentious provision.
Opponents, who also favored sweeping changes to city government, argued that the prospect of a novel, largely untested system could potentially sow even more dysfunction than the status quo.
They included longtime civic and neighborhood leaders predominately from the city’s west side, former Portland elected officials and City Hall staffers, and a smattering of wealthy businesspeople and power brokers.
The Partnership for Common Sense Government raised and spent just over $175,000.
Members of the group had asked Portlanders to reject Measure 26-228 in favor of an alternate proposal released by Commissioner Mingus Mapps that included seven single-member council districts and a mayor with veto power, among other provisions.
Fewer than 50 U.S. cities use ranked-choice voting and only about a half-dozen employ a version of multi-member districts.
No U.S. city uses the hybrid system detailed in Measure 26-228.
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh
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