The Case for More Direct Representation in the City of Portland

Nels Johnson

By Nels Johnson of Portland, Oregon. Nels works at the government relations firm State Street Solutions. He also moonlights in city politics from time to time.

Equity has become a center issue in the 2012 Mayoral race. From the beginning of the Primary Election until now, candidates have consistently tried to one-up the others in their commitment to equity. From promising to fully embrace the Office of Equity, to who can have the most diverse administration, to who can make the biggest promises to East Portland. All of these things are great, and much needed, but none of them will ever really achieve true equity. What’s needed is a change from an at-large election system to one with more direct representation. Changing the way our districts are apportioned is a major and fundamental shift, lets look at why its necessary and the only way we’re ever going to achieve true equity in the city of Portland.

I personally care deeply about issue of equity and believe its one of the most important issues of our time. But my care is limited by lack of first hand knowledge of issues facing disparate communities in Portland. The fact is - I don’t know Portland east of 82nd Ave very well. Sure, I can tell you all about the Gateway community, or talk about the great things going on at David Douglas High School, or tell you how to get to various places east of 82nd Ave, but I don’t really know East Portland because I don’t live out there. I don’t know what its like first hand, to have my children walk to school along the ditch because there aren’t enough sidewalks. I don’t know what its like to have my neighborhood be a hub for drug and gang violence like the folks living in Rockwood. I don’t know what its like to have limited access to public transportation as a result of TriMet repeatedly cutting routes on the east side. My lack of direct, first-hand knowledge distorts my view of how city government decisions actually and directly affect those who live east of 82nd Ave.

The fundamental problem is that we suffer from a lack of direct representation. In Portland, we have a very unique form of government made up of four at-large elected commissioners plus a Mayor. That means it’s possible for all five elected officials to come from the same part of town rather than from a diverse range of communities. This is exactly what’s happened in Portland. As a city we’ve only had a single commissioner, Randy Leonard, live east of 82nd and we’ve never had a Mayor do so. Make no mistake, this isn’t about electing Charlie Hales or Jefferson Smith to Mayor, both are fine individuals and both will be committed to equity. But the problem is structural, not personal.

I have no doubt that all four City Commissioners and the Mayor, as well as all remaining candidates deeply care about equity, and are working very hard to achieve it. But few if any of them have first hand knowledge of the issues facing folks in East Portland. This becomes critically important as the City puts together its budget. Projected revenue for the City for the next five years looks to stay flat at best but more cuts will be likely. This means the City will have to prioritize its obligations. Where do we cut services? If we have to reduce park services, does it make more sense to reduce services at the East Portland Community Center or the Southwest Community Center?

The current debate over how to create more affordable housing illustrates perfectly the need for greater direct representation. This past June, the Oregonian reported that 93% of all new enrollees in the City’s affordable housing program are living east of 82nd Ave. What this means is that the City’s affordable housing policy is having a disproportionate effect upon disparate communities who should have direct representation on the Council to directly advocate their positions.

Additionally, a more direct democracy is not exactly a novel concept. Virtually every city in America larger than Portland divides itself into wards or districts and allows citizens to directly elect their representation rather than an at large system. Here in the Portland-Metro area we have citizens directly elect their representatives to both Metro and the counties. We can do the same here in the city of Portland

Some wonder why more residents living east of 82nd Ave don’t run for citywide office. The fact is, the barriers in running for office are greater; its tougher to raise money when you live east of 82nd and don’t have the same name ID as politicians or community leaders from the other parts of the city.

In the seminal work on environmental justice entitled From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster talk about the importance of disparate communities “speaking for themselves” and that for “communities to be heard.” This calls for greater participation from disparate groups, but it also calls us in Portland to fundamentally change the way we elect our representation. Only by changing our structure from an at-large one where the commissioners are all elected city wide to a more direct model of representation by wards or districts, we can ensure that the communities directly affected by decisions will have a seat at the bargaining table and thus ensure that tough decisions are made in a more fair, just and equitable way.

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      I moved to Portland from Missoula, MT, where the county commission is elected county-wide, but has districted seats mandating geographic diversity on the commission. So people have to live in a district to run, but face an electorate comprising the entire county. A similar solution in Portland would ensure a more geographically diverse city commission, while keeping with having commissioners who must think about and be responsive to the full city.

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      Thanks for the thoughts. First off, you are correct, there are plenty of great things going on east of 82nd and I don't mean to belittle them or only highlight the negative aspects of Portland east of 82nd.

      But I do think changing the structure of our election system would have an impact on the way we do things, namely, because there would be accountability. Right now, the Council could all hypothetically vote to on a budget that decreases transportation funding for projects east of 82nd by 50%. That's a big deal if you live there, but maybe not such a big deal if you don't. The problem is that there just aren't enough votes east of 82nd to throw out the commissioners who voted to cut funding funding for transportation projects east of 82nd. Electoral accountability for disparate groups simply doesn't exist under the at large voting system.

      You could completely change the commissioner form of government, but you wouldn't necessarily have to. Simply changing commissioner elections to direct and still having an at large election for the Mayor means that the Mayor still decides bureau assignments. The structure of government doesn't change, just the constituents.

      Additionally, if you want to keep the current bureau system, that's fine, but everyone has a vote on the budget and that's a perfect place for greater accountability to exist. A more diverse council of commissioners would lead to better, more informed decisions.

      Finally, my point isn't that by changing the structure of our representation that we can end poverty or downtrodden neighborhoods. You're quite right, you can't. But I do believe that the change would produce better quality decisions for all of Portland and require greater accountability from our elected officials.

      I think we can all agree that as a City, we ought to strive for a government that continues to make better decisions and works for everyone.

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    Welcome to the fight and good luck. I am not optimistic, even though you are right on so many counts.

    I have shared with Kari Chisholm in the past, and am happy to share with you, a presentation about Portland made by Ken Meyer, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies publicly financed elections.

    I invited him to talk about our public finance system, but as his visit approached, he began to contact me in disbelief about our elections system. He could not believe that we had "districts" as large as we did. We are completely out of whack with everyone else.

    What is so deeply frustrating is how our representation system undermines the many ideals that we claim undergird Portland politics, such as lower campaign spending, undercutting corporate influence, and representing less-empowered segments of society.

    The last time this came up--during charter reform in 2007--the powers that be lined up against the changes and in favor of the status quo. It essentially became an argument about whether or not you like Mayor Tom Potter.

    I hope we can have a different conversation this time, and I hope there is finally a recognition that we are not a small little town any more, but are a large, diverse, and heterogeneous city, and these diverse interests should be fairly and equitably represented on the Council.

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    While, as you note, your post isn't about the mayoral race, those who are interested in this issue could factor it into who they choose to vote for for mayor.

    There's little doubt in my mind that Jefferson is more connected to the challenges faced in East Portland. He owns his house there, lives there, and has worked to represent the district in the legislature for the past four years - very effectively, I would argue.

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    Jesse is right to point out that the commission system has to go along with the city-wide districts.

    But his argument captures the essential spirit of the no movement: all good things in Portland are attributed to the commission system. Any system with districts and downtrodden areas is ipso facto proof that districts don't improve representation.

    Let's turn Jesse's question around: why do we divvy out bureaus unrelated to campaign debates or previous expertise?

    We constantly come up with oversight problems because our council is not designed to provide oversight, it's designed to have each councilor create his or her own bureaucratic silo.

    This wasn't a problem during the good times (most of the last 19 years Jesse refers to). But now the dangers of silos have become obvious.

    Track city spending, campaign donations, and residential addresses of councillors for the last century. The city has almost always been run by the inner eastside and westside neighborhoods. There is your evidence.

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      The last 20 elections that determined a mayoral or council seat (counting the general if there was a runoff and the primary if there was not) averaged 144,633 total votes cast. Assuming even distribution in five districts I'd expect future council seats would need only around 14,464 votes to win a majority, instead of the current level around 72,317. Obviously under district representation you could win election with a far smaller voter block representing a far smaller subset of the public interest.

      I think the skepticism that greets district representation isn't driven by an uncritical belief that everything in Portland is good, I think it's that a focus on the "big picture" has been integral to Portland's political culture and a lot of people like it that way. Switching to district representation, switching from candidates needing 70,000+ votes to sit on the council to needing fewer than 15,000 votes (less if you had more than five districts) risks substantially undermining that culture.

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        I share BJ's concern about fractured interests. I would hate to see the council turn into battles for money among 4 or 5 districts.

        I have always thought the commission system was dumb. The Bureaus should e run by professional managers that report to he council as a whole. And the buck always stops at the Mayor's office.

        But rather than divide up the council into districts, what if we found a way to give more influence to neighborhoods? That's direct on a even smaller scale, and would give neighborhoods some power over city investment and resources within their boundaries. I think parks, streets, and policing would all benefit from that.

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    Well said, Nels. There are many factors to consider, but I've been saying this privately for some time.

    Our at-large system is ridiculous. But it seems there are several big hurdles.

    Can we jump them? Excellent question. History would not make one optimistic, but one also has to try.

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    A key question: If we do go to districts, how many should there be? Given an at-large mayor, would we be talking about four council districts? Six? Eight?

    For that matter, should the mayor remain a voting member of the council - or become a pure executive? If that's the case, we'd be talking about five, seven, nine or more (odd-numbered) council districts.


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      Bigger cities tend to have more council seats.

      7-10 would allow each distinct region in the city to have direct representation. With a population of approximately 600k, a 7 person council would equal about 85k per seat.

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        Nels, once you pass 100K, I don't think it's accurate that larger cities tend to have larger city councils.

        Portland is uniquely small, even compared to cities like Boise, Bellevue, Eugene, Spokane... But even beyond that, the largest cities in the west don't necessarily have the largest city councils, and there is certainly not a proportional relationship (LA has 15 for 3M+ people).

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        I think we would be better served if we had a more council seats, but this could be a case of the grass is greener on the other side.

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      As I note below, the size of our district is more of an anomaly than the way we elect them. But, you don't hear many arguing for an expansion of the size of council.

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      Six councilors elected by district, one mayor who is a voting member of the council.

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      There are 95 officially recognized Portland, Oregon neighborhoods. How. About a "congress" of 95 members? Then keep the council as at-large elected executive body?

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    I fully agree with Jesse on this. Every city has it's issues, but we do pretty well for ourselves.

    First, it's worth noting that two successful cities with significant similarity to Portland also have at-large city councils: Seattle and Austin. Second, having worked or lived in several cities with district representation, my sense is that the negatives of that approach far outweigh the benefits. Frankly, you'd need to show examples of district/ward cities achieving "true equity" to bolster that somewhat exaggerated claim. But the downsides are easily observable. District representation frequently results in increased factionalization and actions based on our differences, rather than our similarities. I was consistently amazed in Philadelphia of the ways council members would take actions ostensibly on behalf of their districts that were obviously counter to the interests of the city and their districts, but they were rewarded by their ability to create an us vs. them narrative.

    Finally, I think that in order to effectively consider the changes we'd need to accept in order to shift to a district/ward based system, you have to acknowledge the connection to our commission system (as Jesse notes) and the fact that cities with those systems tend to have at least 9-10 members of council (Denver and Minneapolis each have 13). If we did make a change, I think the one proposed by Matt Singer would be best (district-based candidates elected at-large), keeping all else the same.

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      Nolan, neither of those cities combines at large representation with our commission based system of governance.

      I simply don't agree that there is a "big picture" in Portland that cannot be reached by constructive debate and compromise among the different parts of the city, along with a city-wide elected Mayor and an appointive City Manager.

      Right now, our system papers over those differences and pretends they don't exist. The result has been a highly skewed representation system that underrepresents the northern and eastern portions of the city.

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    Nolan hits it on the head. My experience watching DC and Richmond VA councils is that districting leads to parochialism and compartmentalism. Being elected citywide but representative of a certain area still creates a situation where the rep is going to try and maximize their votes "at home".

    Our system may need reform, but changing the way we're represented is no panacea.

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    While changing the At-Large voting might require changing the City Commission system, we should be careful in thinking about how much.

    Usually (as in 2007) proposals to end the Commission system also have been proposals to replace it with either a "strong mayor" or a "city administrator" system. There is no inherent reason why that should be the case, but it has been. If we raised the representativeness of the Council while severely curtailing its powers, the value of the representation would decline. If the mayor remains at large in a strong mayor system, what is gained? TriMet management's awful behavior toward low income people and their needs is an argument against city manager to me.

    Anyone who wants my support for either kind of reform needs to separate the issues.

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      Electing a council by district means electing people focused on district interests, as opposed to city-wide interests. It would be natural for the mayor to be 'strong' under that system as it would be the only office with a city-wide mandate.

      Just think about the electoral mechanics. Drawing 70,000 votes + from the city requires a different kind of horsepower than getting 10-15,000 votes out of a district.

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    Some of my earliest political thinking was shaped by the horrible school politics of Boston in the 1960s. The famous struggles over desegregation and busing in the early 1970s were set up by a longstanding pattern in which an all white at-large elected school board systematically closed schools that were becoming "naturally" mixed due to neighborhood changes and building new resegregated schools.

    The all white character of the school board failed to reflect the actual racial and ethnic diversity of Boston.

    In Portland this issue until relatively recently maybe has been buried by the overwhelming whiteness of the city. (Boston at the time was about 20% black population which was small by East Coast standards). While still more white than most big cities, the diversity of Portland has been growing, and the "East of 82nd" designation is a marker of both class and racial/ethnic divisions.

    Does the current system adequately allow for representation along those lines?

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    In the Outer Limits, we see attempts at making things better via PDC dollars, minimal street enhancement and a long overdue project to reduce flooding on Foster from the yearly overflow of Johnson Creek. But a comprehensive effort in which entities work with one another seems lacking. Assurity NW has a fine new building which provides retail space with great window and sidewalk depth. But the building is on a commuter thorofare with the complexity of a disapperaring bike lane and the fork where Foster and Woodstock split into one ways. I.E. a stop for coffee is a challenge.

    I have no doubt that our Commissioners care about every part of our City, but unless an area is part of your daily life, you really don't know it. Not understanding the complexities and nuances of an area can lead to well-intended "solutions" which don't address the real problems.

    The fact is we East Portlanders do not have anywhere near the consistant representation that Central Portland does. This IS a problem, and we need to solve it in a way that is best for our city, regardless of what Beantown or the Emerald City has done. We should ensure that every area of City has representation, every cycle.

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