The Portland City Council's agenda is published every Friday afternoon, for the following week's meetings. I will be commenting on upcoming items of interest regularly. Here's one that can't wait:
On January 18, 2007, at 2 p.m., the Council will be considering the recommendations of the Charter Review Commission. This citizen-led committee has been meeting for 13 months. It was charged with reviewing only four specific parts of the City Charter, not the whole document. Those were: the form of government; the relationship between the City and the Portland Development Commission (PDC); Civil Service rules and policies; and the potential for periodic Charter review. The last comprehensive Charter review was done more than 80 years ago; the amendment creating PDC was in 1958.
This is a huge issue coming down the pike, which deserves much more attention and time than is possible over the next three weeks - particularly since information about the proposal is not yet (as of 12/27, three weeks before the public hearing) posted on the City's Charter Review web page.
* Recommended change to Strong Mayor, hired Chief Administrator
* Reduced role of City Commissioners
* Does not include switch to district representation
* Proposed to be on the May 2007 ballot, as four separate initiatives
The Charter Review Commission's membership is highly diverse, and participants have worked diligently and with many opportunities for public input. But it was hard to find their web page (it's linked from the Mayor's page rather than from the front page or Charter section of Portlandonline.com), and only 20 comments on the form of government issue have been posted on their blog, over a year.
The Council will be asked to refer four ballot measures to voters in May; the January 18 hearing leaves very little time before the ballot language has to be filed with Multnomah County in February.
I'm going to cover the four main proposals of the Charter Commission in separate posts. Today's is the most important and far-reaching:
Expand the duties of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), accountable to the Mayor, and enhance the oversight responsibilities for the Council
The Charter Commission is carefully not calling this a "Strong Mayor" form of government, but that's what it is. Commissioners would no longer have bureau oversight, and bureau directors would be political appointments of the Mayor and CAO only. Only the Mayor would have the power to fire the CAO, which s/he could do without Council approval. The proposed Charter doesn't specify the limits of authority of the CAO, so a candidate for the position could negotiate with the Mayor for more power via his/her contract. The Mayor and CAO would have the power to hire and fire upper level bureau managers as well as bureau directors, if the proposed Civil Service changes are approved.
Commissioners "may" form citizen advisory committees to provide public input on bureau policies and regulations, but these committees would not be required by the Charter. Councilors other than the Mayor would be limited to trying to persuade the Mayor and CAO to attend to problems in bureau functions, rather than being able to take care of them as the Commissioner-in-charge.
The proposal does NOT include switching to district representation/election, but otherwise it is very similar to the structure of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.
I oppose the Stong Mayor/CAO proposal, because of its likely impact on Council oversight and understanding of bureaus, and on citizen access to decision-makers. I've found Commissioners learn most about practical implications of policy and budget decisions by hearing from citizens about how they work (or don't) on the ground, in the neighborhoods. Being accountable and responsible for a few bureaus forces each Commissioner to focus attention on their assignments, rather than just their pet policy projects and/or general political grandstanding. Citizens quickly learn who is the Commissioner in charge of a bureau, and have relatively easy direct access to that Commissioner - with the exceptions of the Mayor, both Katz and Potter, and Dan Saltzman, in my experience. The Mayor, even now, is too busy, and Commissioner Saltzman relies on his excellent staff. But even with detached Councilors, a citizen can meet with the staff who perform liaison work with specific bureaus. Citizens would not have access to the City Manager/CAO, and it would be even more difficult to meet with the Mayor's staff or to find someone who understands and cares about specific concerns and details, if everyone's concerns have to funnel through the one office.
Since the Mayor would have control over all the bureaus, all citizen commission members would be appointed by the Mayor. Currently, the Commissioner in charge of bureaus like Parks, Planning, and Development Services gets to appoint citizens to the Parks Board, Urban Forestry Commission, Planning Commission, and Development Review Advisory Committee. Although in both systems these citizen appointments are confirmed by Council, as a practical matter confirmation hearings are pro forma and usually on the Consent Agenda. It is highly unlikely a Council member would annoy powerful developers or investors, for example, by protesting their appointment to the Planning Commission. I sincerely doubt I would have been appointed to the Planning Commission, to speak for neighborhood and environmental concerns, if the Mayor (Vera Katz) rather than the Commissioner in charge of Planning (Charlie Hales) had been making the choice. So the proposed Strong Mayor format includes giving the Mayor more power over formal citizen input, too.
Even State Representative Mitch Greenlick was unable to get an appointment to talk with Mayor Potter, before the Linnton Neighborhood Plan went to Council - and that's under the current commission form of government, when the Mayor delegates significant authority to other Commissioners. What chance would citizens have of meeting even with the Mayor's staff on details of bureau policy, under the expanded duties proposed? Would the other Commissioners have fewer staff, and the Mayor's office many more? What would be the net cost of this change?
The Charter Review Commission wants the Council to refer their proposal to the ballot in May. May is too soon to allow for adequate public education on the issue and its ramifications. Most Portlanders don't know what the Charter is, or what it does. Few will vote in an odd-year May election. Doesn't the first major update of the Charter in more than half a century deserve better public process than that? And, it's likely the "public education" process for the election will be funded by downtown business interests and supported by The Oregonian. Of course these stakeholders would support a Strong Mayor form of government - why buy five Council members' elections, when currying favor with just the Mayor will serve the same ends?
Do we really want to put a major change in our city government on the ballot with short notice, then allow current insiders to fund the election advertising? While respecting the work of the Charter Review Commission's citizen members, I think not. At the very least, the Council should refer any charter changes to voters in November - preferably November 2008, unless there is clear consensus on necessary amendments other than the form of government.
The bottom line is this: Even if you like the idea of giving Mayor Potter more power, would you have wanted more independent authority for every past mayor, and will you want it for every future Mayor whether you like their policies or not? That is what this Charter proposal is recommending.