Judge to rule by Monday on fate of move to overhaul Portland government

Portland City Hall.

Amanda Troxler/OPB

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Bushong said he would rule by Monday on the fate of a sweeping November ballot measure aimed at overhauling Portland’s form of government.

The judge heard arguments Thursday on the merits of a lawsuit challenging the scope of the proposal. The Portland Business Alliance sued the city last month, arguing the ballot measure violated the state single subject rule of the constitutionwhich requires polling metrics to focus on one topic.

Attorney Steve Elzinga, who represented the city’s main business chamber, accused the charter commission of pulling together a “hodgepodge of unrelated topics” because members believed it would give the most risked a better chance of passing.

“Commissioners are trying to force voters to support provisions they don’t like in order to get provisions they like, which defeats the very purpose of single subject protection,” Elzinga explained. .

The measure, as currently drafted, would rewrite Portland’s oft-criticized government structure. The council would grow from five members to a dozen. Members of the reorganized body would be responsible for drafting legislation rather than overseeing offices. The mayor would no longer be part of the council and, instead, would oversee the city’s executive functions as well as a newly hired city administrator, who would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city offices.

The measure would also reshape the city’s voting system, dividing the city into four separate districts. Each district would be represented by three council members. Voters would elect these council members in the same election cycle using a ranked ballot, a form of voting where people list their preferred candidates in order of preference.

The measure was crafted by the once-a-decade city charter commission, a 20-person volunteer group appointed by the city to propose changes to the city’s guiding document. Early on, the founding members said they were considering scrapping Portland’s single government commission, where council members are elected citywide and oversee a portfolio of offices assigned by the mayor. Critics say the structure is deeply flawed, leaving too much political power in the hands of wealthy, white residents, and forcing elected officials to serve as trustees for offices they have no experience running.

After a year of research into what has worked and failed in other cities, the Charter Commission voted 17 to 3 to send back a set of changes to voters that would rewrite both the city’s form of government and its voting structure.

Members of the commission and city prosecutors argued the package conforms to Oregon’s single subject rule. The unifying principle, they say, is to “change the structure of Portland’s government.” And they argue that it is essential that the measure is not split into separate parts for the changes to work.

Deputy City Attorney Maja Haium doubled down on the argument Thursday, likening the proposal to a three-legged stool.

“If a measure or one of these fundamental reforms is not passed or is not approved by the voters, one or both legs of the stool becomes an ineffective stool,” Haium said. “And that has been a constant theme of the commission since it began its deliberations 18 months ago.”

Bushong also heard from two parties on Thursday that said the wording of the ballot measure should be simplified. Lawyer and expert in electoral law Margaret Olney said that while she believes the measure complied with the single subject rule, she had concerns about the syntax of the ballot title. James Posey, co-founder of the Oregon National Association of Minority Entrepreneurs, said he believed the complex language of the ballot would be “a clear deterrent” to voters.

Portland City Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky during his election night at the Grand Stark Hotel on May 17, 2022 in Portland, Oregon.

Portland City Council candidate Vadim Mozyrsky during his election night at the Grand Stark Hotel on May 17, 2022 in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan Levinson/OPB

Posey, who said he was there to represent the average voter, said the Oregonian/OregonLive he originally filed his legal challenge against the measure after being approached by the Portland City Council candidate’s former campaign manager Vadim Mozyrsky, now one of the ballot measure’s most vocal opponents.

“Really, it’s a form of voter suppression that it comes out as it comes out, all lumped together,” Posey said.

Bushong said he too felt the ballot language was too complex for the average voter with terms such as preferential choice voting, single transferable vote and instant second round not defined.

“It’s something voters need to understand, and I know I didn’t know what those terms meant until I looked at the report and got a more detailed explanation of what they meant.” , said the judge. “I may not be as smart as the average voter.”

Next steps

If Bushong reverses the measure when he governs on Monday, there are several avenues to secure another measure to restructure Portland’s government in a future ballot.

The Portland City Council could vote to return its own measure to the November ballot. But they should do it by the end of next week and would need at least three board members to back it up. Council members are considering a package that would maintain the reforms recommended by the charter commission but split the current proposal into different parts, such as first reported by the Oregonian/OregonLive. The proposals would also come with a trigger that would mean that if one part fails, none of them are implemented. This decision seems likely to increase the chances of the whole package failing.

Alternatively, the city council could wait and return something to the ballot at a later date.

Mozyrsky, a former member of the charter commission who resigned from the commission earlier this month, said he hoped the judge would strike down the measure and the city council would vote to return its own primary ballot measure. of May 2023. Mozyrsky was one of three commission members who voted against the charter commission package in June, fearing the group was taking too big a gamble combining multi-member districts with preferential-choice voting.

Mozyrsky said if the measure returned by the commission fails and the council doesn’t put something else on the ballot, his Partnership for Common Sense Government coalition, one of several groups opposed to the commission’s measure, will collect funds to request something else on the ballot. for May 2024.

Another alternative is to wait for the charter commission to try again to come up with a package of government reforms. The earliest the commission could put anything on the ballot is May 2024 in the next primary election.

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