Should Portland go strong-mayor?

Portland's commission form of government was once the dominant way that cities were organized. Today, it's unusual. Even rare. (The Oregonian, betraying a lack of historical perspective, even called it "wacky.")

Under the commission form, the members of the council are also the chief administrators of their own agencies. Most big cities today are run by a "strong mayor" - with a city council that works primarily as a legislative body. Councilors would conduct oversight, but not management, of agencies.

But that might change. Cue the O:

Mayor Tom Potter's big initiative to rewrite Portland's city charter is nearing a close. His charter review commission is supposed to be back in January with recommendations for the May ballot.

One main issue: Should Portland keep its wacky commission form of government? The charter review folks so far have suggested a strong-mayor format. ...

In case you're counting at home, here's how the vote looks for now:

Potter: Yes.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman: Yes. Whether he agrees or not, he says voters should get a chance to decide.

Commissioner Randy Leonard: No. Did he say that loud enough? He's down on the idea and doesn't want voters to see it.

Commissioner Erik Sten: Eh, maybe. He doesn't like the strong-mayor idea. "I'm not sure why we would switch to the Multnomah County form of government," he said. And he says he must be convinced it needs to go to voters.

And that leaves ... Commissioner Sam Adams: Not sure. He says he needs more study time.

So, BlueOregonians, go ahead and weigh in. Which form of government do you think would create better management, better accountability, and more responsiveness to citizens? Would a change really make a substantial difference, or is it not worth the trouble?


  • lin qiao (unverified)

    The commission form seems in principle to have as its primary merit making commissioners serve in an administrative role as heads of city bureaus. The idea seems to be to keep commissioners from becoming detached from the daily workings of government. In practice, however, it's arguable whether it works out well. Would, say, the Water Bureau billing fiasco have been averted with a different system? I don't claim to know. If it comes to a vote, my decision will be based on pragmatic considerations and definitely not ideology.

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    Put me down in favor of the strong mayor or whatever it takes to get the commissioners out of the administrative positions. The water bureau is the classic case of having someone in nominal charge who didn't know what he was doing. To make it work it will also require that the dept. heads have no union or civil service protection and can be fired by the mayor. Otherwise you end up with a version of the mess we have in the Sherriff's office. We need dept. heads who are experts in that field but who can be fired if they screw up.

    In addition I would like to have commissioners who actually care about citizen input. At this point if I have a complaint about my street I have to go to the commission for that function, but the rest of the commissioners will generally duck the issue as 'not my job'. As a result there is very little time set for communicating with citizens vs. administering a dept. or sitting in the council meetings. I am not aware of ever having been invited to a neighborhood meet the commissioner meeting outside of an election campaign. Congressmen and local representatives do it all the time.

  • Adventuregeek (unverified)

    Part of me thinks a strong mayor system might be an improvement, certainly in the area of moving important projects forward rather than endless debate. However the idea of concentrated power scares me as well. What do they say about power and corruption ... With the the passage of clean money election financing in Portland I'm a little less worried about business using a strong mayor as a tool for their own interests, but the risk is still greater than with the commission system. Overall I think the Portland system works better than most cities and if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but that could be just because we do things better here in general.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    We need dept. heads who are experts in that field but who can be fired if they screw up.

    Or replaced by the mayors campaign supporters and cronies? I think there is a case to be made for old-fashioned patronage where city employees serve at the pleasure of elected officials. But you ought to be clear that is what you are going to get. Some folks who are qualified, others who aren't. Witness FEMA.

    Its not clear at all the water bureau problems had anything to do with who was in charge at the commissioner level. Would it have changed if Vera Katz had managed the staff? I don't think that is obvious.

    If you look at Multnomah County some of the problems were personalities, but not all of them. The idea of a chief executive in charge with a bunch of full time commissioners whose only real job is to kibbitz and plan their campaigns for mayor is not really a reassuring idea. You either need to expand the commission, so that just getting a majority for the legislative functions requires real effort, or you need to make the commissioners part time. Because being a commissioner without portfolio really is only a part time job.

    There is some real advantage to having the top leaders of bureaus elected. It makes the city much more responsive on issues which may not be politically important enough to grab the mayor's attention. Capping the reservoirs is a good example I think.

  • Israel Bayer (unverified)

    After just living in Seattle for more than I year I would say, "No, no, no, noooooo!"

  • Garrett (unverified)

    As much as we might want to say that our system is's why go and fix something that isn't broke? I prefer our system just how it is and I would hate to have a system w/ a Chief Executive in charge. I just don't think it is very effective or bipartisan.

    John...I can assure you that our city councilmen do care. In fact I had a concern about a public employee not long ago. I e-mailed Erik Sten who was in charge of the bureau the employee worked for. I promptly received a response and then I received an explanation of the steps taken. A week later I also received a letter from this employee's direct boss who told me exactly what he had done to correct the situation and make sure it never happened again. As much as I hate to tell you there aren't enough employees or money to go fix the potholes in everyones streets. I'd love for the city to repave the road behind my house but I know they can't do it. Instead I avoid the potholes by turning the wheel of my car. There is a simple way for you to voice your opinion. You vote. I'd give every one of our councilmen a yes vote again except for Saltzman. I never have liked him for some reason. he seems sort of slimy like Francesconi did.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Isn't this the classic Mussolini dillema? A competent strong leader can usually get much more accomplished than a commission elected and operated on democratic principles, but you often pay a price by giving too much power to one person. Seattle's current mayor Greg Nichols is a good example. Sounds like Nichols is quite the tyrant when it comes to imposing his ideas on the rest of the Seattle council.

    Notwithstanding the historic bumbling management of the water department, I would rather take my chances on the status quo.

  • djk (unverified)

    Personally, I kinda like being able to vote for the entire City government, instead of one district rep plus the Mayor. And yeah, Garrett's right: the system isn't perfect, but it seems to work well enough, so why mess with it?

    Look at Multnomah County, which (as Erik Sten pointed out) uses the equivalent of the "strong mayor" system. Is the County better governed than the City? More efficient? More responsive? (It doesn't look that way from where I sit, but maybe I'm not seeing the whole picture.)

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    For those who think that cronyism and incompetence is a problem and use the county as an example I say look at what happened. Diane got voted out because she couldn't run it properly. There can clearly be a period where the wrong people are in charge but the mayor is then accountable and the voters can decide. Today it is mixed. Sten screwed up the water bureau and the mayor moved him to a different bureau. Come election time, no one is accountable.

  • jim karlock (unverified)

    Why don’t we elect the major department heads and their budgets?

    This was described to me as being like a series of service districts that some un-incorporated areas use.

    Then we could elect a figurehead mayor and wouldn’t even need a city council.

    If we must have a city council, let them be elected in neighborhood sized districts, to keep the campaign expenses down.

    Thanks JK

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Answer: No.

    Portland needs a Mayor for ceremonial purposes and to maintain order at Council meetings.

    The legislative function is distinct from the executive function: vesting both branches in a single body provides zero accountability, and only as much transparency as the press is willing to demand (which is not much in P-town). Without this first step, politics and pet projects will continue to supercede the public interest.

    The Commissioners should retain limited legislative powers; the executive power should be vested EXCLUSIVELY in a City Manager who has hiring/firing power over each department head (with the exception of the Auditor, who should report directly to the Mayor/Council.

    The budgeting process would be vested in the Council, together with the subsequent oversight function to ensure budgeted funds are spent efficiently and to the greatest possible effect (the Auditor being their primary investigative tool). The City Manager should be provided with an ironclad employment contract that grants him/her multiple years worth of severance if terminated for anything less than malfeasance, criminal acts/incarceration, or gross negligence. This relative autonomy coupled with the public's disdain for large severance packages will discourage the red-faced Commissioner from trying to get somebody fired because they didn't return his call within established etiquette. Translation: the Council will have think long and hard before terminating the City Manager's contract, knowing they are going to give them a big payday, and then have to undertake a national recruiting campaign under the cloud of "difficult Council"...

    I could go on and on. Sadly, I believe that nothing is going to change while the current meatheads remain on the Council (Saltzman excepted).

    Meritocracy, not mediocrity. Democracy, not demagoguery.

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    the Auditor, who should report directly to the Mayor/Council.

    As long as the Auditor is an elected position, that position reports directly to the people, not the Mayor or Council.

    The budgeting process would be vested in the Council, together with the subsequent oversight function to ensure budgeted funds are spent efficiently and to the greatest possible effect (the Auditor being their primary investigative tool).

    Again, the Auditor doesn't belong to --or report to-- the Council. It is an elected position, reporting to the public, not the Council. That the function has not played out that way currently reflects more on the politics of Council, and the Auditor, than anything. After all, it was the Council --controlling the budgetary process-- that rewarded the current Auditor with a salary increase bringing that position equivalent with that of Council members.

    I agree, however, that there needs to be a wall between the electeds and the bureaucrats, so that policy-makers then let the bureaucracy function without continual political interference. That was the whole rationale behind civil service reform in the first place.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    My bad, Frank. After watching Auditor Magoo all these years, I tought he reported directly to the Mayor.

    Where's Hardy Har Har been hiding out lately? Wasn't there going to be a grand jury convened on the Golovan/Boyles matter?

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    What Garrett said -- it ain't broke, don't fiddle with it. (Put a study group on it if it needs study.)

    Why is The nOnewspaper dragging this red herring out of its wrapping? Distraction from what?, what are they NOT reporting by using the space for this tripe? Okay, so The zerO don't like Potter. That makes us equal, we don't like Stickel. Maybe the paper should reform itself for readers, with a Information Council group overseeing the tone and important topics for each segregated (never integrated and comprehended), peripheral-blind view in their current 'Sectional' journalism.

    ... which segregation quarantining serves to smokescreen from notice any epidemic of downturn or leftist turn that develops across all sectors, when people are no longer Sports about Living the Business of Metro monopolist News.

    ... which 'non-notice' syndrome may have surfaced in the prior comment -- "After watching (insert name_of political target_for hatchetjob ____) all these years, [in the paper?], I thought he reported (... elsewhere, and thought wrongly, since it was never rightly explained)."

  • Brandon Rhodes (unverified)

    We need a city government that will stop doing what the developers say, and start getting the developers to do what they say. As much as I love our city and denser development schemes, I'm still disappointed in the city for how much they seem to have bowed to the big $$ for the South Waterfront + Tram. A city government that threw its weight around as they partnered with developers is what we really need.

    As for a stronger local executive... we need to give them a bit more power, if only to push for a more central vision for the city. I love this city to pieces, but it's hard to know what kind of vision the city has for its future. The city does a good job, but needs to do a good job in a specific direction, ya know? Someone with the chutzpa to, say, develop the east waterfront, and have a city government that can get behind that kind of a vision.

  • Mister Tee (unverified)

    Tenskey: if YOU are rising in defense of the status quo, then Portland's form of government must need serious reform.

  • Frank Ray (unverified)

    Being a transplant to Portland, I initially thought our form of city government was looney. After working closely with both the Bureaus and City Hall, as a volunteer, I think we would be crazy to change. I think there is much greater accountability and responsiveness with the elected folk overseeing operations at the bureaus. Although there is much room for improvement, it definitely ain't broken - leave it be!

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    I think there is much greater accountability and responsiveness with the elected folk overseeing operations at the bureaus.

    I'd like to hear why you think so.

  • (Show?)

    It is no accident that every city in the nation has abandoned this form of government. It's possible that Portland knows something that no one else knows. Or it's possible that our traditional conservatism and adherence to old fashioned ways of doing this is our undoing. Which do you think is more likely? In this as in many things, Portland is not ahead of the times, we are far behind, and it hinders our ability to compete with other urban areas.

    The problem with our current form is that is does NOT assure responsiveness. We do NOT elect people on the basis of their expertise in running particular bureaus. There is absolutely no linkage between the campaigns and the bureau assignments. Did we evaluate Leonard on his skills running the water bureau? Adams for transportation?

    Furthermore, under the current system, we undercut the ability and incentive of commissioners to attend to ALL of city government. After all, they have enough work learning and managing their own bureaus.

    The council should have legislative authority. Executive authority should reside in the mayor's office, and we should then address the big question of a non-partisan city manager or an elective mayor.

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    Mr. T -- My position is not to defend the status quo, which might well need to change, (although I wouldn't see changing it of its own, in isolation, but as one part of a comprehensive system-wide reformation).

    Just that my instinctive first comment is to deny The zerO to change it. When Stickel wants city government changed, I don't. Since anything he wants is for his gain, and his gain only, always prefigured to become a loss for the city and its citizens.

    When he and his newspaper depart, then civic discussion can be fair and informed, whether about changing mayoral matters or anything else.

    Hey, whatever happened to the ice rink over Pioneer Courthouse Square idea ...

  • John Mulvey (unverified)

    If this proposal gets on the ballot it will be DOA.

    Two reasons: 1) There's no compelling reason to change. Be as wonky as you'd like about the merits of this or that system, the need to rearrange the deck chairs, etc., but you still have to point voters to some specific reason to dump the current system and go to something new. There needs to be some nexus between a problem and a solution and I haven't heard any.

    2) There's no campaign. Outside of the Mayor and a few City Club-types, there's no motivated base of support. Why would anybody donate money to this? The public education effort, so far, has been nonexistent.

    Does anyone really think that --knowing almost nothing so far --the average Portlander is going to look at something called "The Strong Mayor Proposal" and vote "yes"?

    I like and respect the Commissioners, but their mission has been ambiguous from the start and they've never been given the resources or direction to really accomplish what they've been asked to do. That's probably a good thing, since what they're trying to do isn't a very good idea.

    John Mulvey

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    Hey, whatever happened to the ice rink over Pioneer Courthouse Square idea ...

    Ain't happening. Too much opposition to restricting for private use too much of this very public space. still have to point voters to some specific reason to dump the current system and go to something new. There needs to be some nexus between a problem and a solution and I haven't heard any.

    I totally agree. And I think, fundamentally, Portlanders prefer a less-powerful city government --and Mayor-- despite the limitations this creates, or, better yet, precisely because of those limitation. It would probably take a major scandal of epic proportions to precipitate a change of heart on this.

    Besides, with the ability to assign and remove bureaus from Commissioners, and control of the budget office, the Mayor has a lot more power and control that can be exercised in pursuit of an agenda. Mayor Katz putting all bureaus under her during the budget process was pretty clever politicing.

  • Garlynn (unverified)

    What exactly is the problem (are the problems) with the existing system that a strong-mayor system would seek to fix?

    And how exactly would it go about fixing them?

  • Mark (unverified)

    "What exactly is the problem (are the problems) with the existing system that a strong-mayor system would seek to fix?"

    That is just it, there are no (or minimal) existing problems that could be ameliorated by changing form of government, so the ridiculous "charter review commission" has spent the last year inventing some. The most laughable so far is something called the "silo effect," in which the various bureaus are described as being vertical "silos," among which cooperation is impossible under the present form of government.

    The fact that this waste-of-time commission was not able to find any viable solutions during its original 9-month mandate led only to it being extended to an 18-month duration.

    My guess is that this matter will appear on the 2008 ballot, at the same time Potter will be running for reelection, in order to serve as an excuse for his lackluster first term. "See? I have a reason for such a poor performance on city council: I was a weak mayor!"

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    To me, the first priority for reforming city government would be to have the four council members elected by district.

    I know this was tried a few years ago by ballot initiative (or at least an attempt was made to gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot). What is needed are a few good arguments to convince enough people that this is the way to go.

    Back then, some of the usual conspiracy nuts of the Left said that the big, bad corporations must want to make that change and that therefore a "No" vote was recommended.

    But let me tell you this. In the early 1900s when the management style of city government was implemented city by city under the guise of progress, complete with eliminating districts and replacing them with at-large seats, one of the major backers of this change (a fat cat) said that by having at-large elections for the entire council, it would be harder for "socialists and Negroes" to get elected.

    Now, I'd always vote against a socialist for city council, but I'd prefer seeing one elected by a district than to have all elected at-large. By having at-large elections, the same bloc of voters can elect each member. We could have a well-known and respected citizen of North East Portland, opposed to many downtown interests, win hands down in a NE district but never get elected at-large.

    That's what's wrong with the way we elect them now.

    Bob Tiernan

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