Why Transportation Activists Should Pay Attention to Portland’s Form of Government

Last week, Portland City Council, upon the recommendation of a Charter Review Commission, forwarded four Charter amendments to the May 15 ballot.

What does this have to do with transportation?

Well, one of these amendments would change Portland’s form of government from our current Commission form to a Mayor-Chief Administrative Officer-Council form. So executive authority – including management of transportation – would move from an elected Commissioner to the CAO and the Mayor.

Given that much of our success in transportation can be attributed to three strong Commissioners-in-charge: Earl Blumenaur, Charlie Hales and now Sam Adams, transportation activists should pay attention to this one.

Since 1913, voters have turned down 6 attempts to eliminate the Commission form. If you’d like to help stop the 7th attempt, you can sign up at http://accountableportland.com.

[Full disclosure: I am co-chairing the Committee for Accountable City Goverment with former Mayor Bud Clark, opposing the form of government change.]

21 responses to “Why Transportation Activists Should Pay Attention to Portland’s Form of Government”

  1. the folks who want to make this change really haven’t justified it to me in any way that makes sense. we have one of the best city governments in america! why mess with it?

  2. Seems to me that our city government works pretty well as is. Personally, I like the fact that I get to vote on all five seats and that every one of them is accountable to all voters.

    From where I sit, it ain’t broke, so why should we try to fix it?

  3. Well as with Goverment things, if it aint broke, fix it anyway.

    But I digress and agree with djk. I’m a business person, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Maybe make it better, but make sure you can do that if you try.

    In Portland’s case, don’t mess with what is the envy of the vast majority of cities across America. Even San Francisco and Seattle envy Portland. The later more rightfully so than San Francisco. But with those cities, which are nice in their own right, envy Portland the way they do, we obviously need ot tread very lightly on changing things as suggested.

    Other cities that make objective note of envying Portland; Jacksonville (they want a Streetcar and BRT/LRT), New Orleans (they want LRT to add to the Streetcars), San Diego (they want closer density to create a more connected environment, Houston (they want to connect all the disparate miles of city they have), Dallas & Ft Worth (Adding more dozens of miles of LRT, Commuter Rail, and other services as fast as they can, even after adding hundreds of lane miles worth of interstate), Austin is pondering more transit, Albequrque (Probably will add Streetcars and Light Rail to compliment their Commuter Rail Service), Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte, St Paul/Minn, Denver, and more.

    Portland doesn’t need to change much, they just need to reign in the prices and be careful what money gets dumped into.

  4. It occured to me today that what we have here in Portland is really 4 little mayors and one bigger one, sort of a “5 mayor” form of government. Which can be OK, but does, I think, inhibit things…for better or worse.
    Would Sam be more effective as a commissioner who chairs the Transportation subcommittee of Council? In that role, he could develop policy, challenge the bureau, set budgets, and so on, where now as manager of that bureau he spends a lot of time and energy managing it, defending it, protecting its budget, etc.
    Most projects involve more than one bureau…even a simple trail on Swan Island has PDOT, BES, Planning and Parks involved (that’s two mini-mayors and one big mayor). Could we expect better coordination and intra-city partnership if one elected person, mayor, is directing the show?

  5. “our success in transportation”..

    are you kidding?

    No major road projects in at least 20 years? Bankrupting the city by building subsidized condo farms everywhere? Using transit as a reason to give developer “friends” outrageous real estate deals and tax breaks? Even the feds think our transportation planning is whack.

    Time for a change at city hall (and oust the rest of the Goldshmidt mafia while we are at it)

  6. One of the issues with the Portland form of government is that our council members aren’t necessarily elected on the basis of their ability to run any particular bureau – I’d rather have a dedicated civil servant in charge of an organization with council oversight.

    Another issue I have is that I’d like to see some sort of neighborhood representation in the higher levels of city government. I feel that North Portland has gotten the short stick when it comes to transportation and development investment, school investment, and so on – a voice to represent that neighborhood (and other neighborhoods) I feel would help rectify that system.

    I definitely do not agree that the Portland system is the best; I couldn’t say that the proposal is better, but there should be room for constructive change and improvement in our political system.

  7. Manzell:

    I agree totally.. There are many areas of Portland who are not adequately represented in the current form of government. Id like to see district based elections where a commissioner is chosen by district. The districts could be equal by area or by population.

    The people who live east of 82nd, in general, have an entirely different mindset then the Hawthorne/Pearl/New Seasons vegan crowd.

  8. ADRON says:

    “Portland doesn’t need to change much, they just need to reign in the prices and be careful what money gets dumped into.”

    man, i couldn’t agree with you more.

  9. No major road projects in at least 20 years?

    Transportation isn’t just roads.

    The people who live east of 82nd, in general, have an entirely different mindset…

    Then they should find someone who’s willing/able to take the time out of their schedule to attend city council meetings, like the rest have been able to do. Ever wonder why it seems bicycles and developers get more than the average Joe? See who attends the meetings; it will become obvious.

  10. Lenny, to the “5 Mayor” objection, I actually think this is a strength of the Commission form. You get a broader and faster moving political agenda than if all issues have to funnel through the Mayor’s office.

    It was interesting to watch Potter’s first 6 months when he had all the bureaus. Everything slowed down (although it was a useful one-time tool to get a fresh look at the budget).

  11. As someone who grew up in Seattle and left in disgust at the bungling of transportation projects there, I think I can say: don’t do it.

    Too many cooks spoils the broth. The tension between the Daley wannabe Mayor and the fractious council produce nothing but gridlock. Combine that with a non-existent regional government, but a regional AND a county transit agency, and you have no shared vision.

    With a largely unified transit agency, a strong regional government, and a single person in charge of transportation for the city, Portland has it pretty good.

    All the commenters on here complaining about the lack of highway expansion in PDX baffle me. New York City is the most successful metro area on the continent, and it hasn’t built a highway project since Bob Moses died.

  12. there is no perfect form of government, the commissioner form works well…we do need to fix the anti-business trend in this government ie Shumakers situation and many other businesses fleeing the Portland City area…also the lack of an eastside rep is appalling, all the commissioners are West siders.

  13. dick BARNARD wrote: also the lack of an eastside rep is appalling, all the commissioners are West siders.

    Randy Leonard lives on the east side with his family.

    – Bob R.

  14. The Mayor also lives on the east side in the Woodstock neighborhood. Sam lives in Kenton.

    I’m not certain where Erik Sten lives, but I suspect it’s also on the east side.

    I think the west side is dangerously underrepresented!

  15. The timing to send a measure of this type to voters is completely wrong. I am not sure if this is an issue that can get voters fired up enough to go to the polls in a May election. Just like tax measures, I believe that a change this drastic is one that should require at least 50% of the registered voters to cast a ballot if such a change is to pass. If less than 50% go to the polls and vote, I do not see how the vote could be considered a mandate of change.

    To educate and inform the public, I believe the City Council should authorize community outreach meetings that are completely neutral in nature, where the public can ask questions and receive detailed information on the proposed changes. With a May ballot, the time to do that and inform the public is very short, if not too short.

    Furthermore, since this change, if adopted, will place all City bureaus under the Mayor, establish a new position of City Administrator, and reduce the responsibilities of City Commissioners, there also should be corresponding salary adjustments that go along with the loss of commissioner responsibility so this change is revenue neutral. One example might look like this: Salaries of the four City Commissioners would be reduced with the total combined reduction of the four making up the salary of the new City Administrator.
    From my own prospective, I have concerns about giving one individual, in this case the Mayor who ever it is, too much dictatorial power. I do not see enough checks and balances coming from the City Council. One person with this much power also could be too easily influenced by big money politics and heavy handed lobbying groups, thereby leaving the general public out from having a place at the table. This is already happening. Potter as a candidate kept promising “we can make Portland what ever we want it to be”, but gave no specifics. Now some after time in office he is talking more like former Mayor Katz and prioritizing downtown special interests over the rest of the city neighborhoods. I believe a strong mayor form of government is in fact a special interest of downtown business owners so downtown can receive yet more taxpayer subsidies.

    On the flip side, I often see commissioners as having too much influence with too many dictatorial powers over the bureaus they oversee, leaving people out of the discussions that do not share their own views. I disagree with Chris in that we have a better transportation system because of the commission form of government. We obviously have more congested roadways and a more expensive transportation system to operate due to all the taxpayer subsidies to transit and bicycle infrastructure; and there is no doubt this added taxpayer expense is due in part to Earl Blumenaur and Charlie Hales. Furthermore I do not see Sam Adams as changing any of that. For example: it will cost 5.6 million dollars a year from a yet to be determined funding source to just to operate the Eastside Streetcar. Fares at best will likely only cover 30 percent of those costs. Unless fares would cover 80 percent or more of the operating expanses, the whole notion of an Eastside Streetcar should be canned.

    All that said, I will probably vote no on the strong mayor proposal, mainly because I view the proposal as a power grab by special interests that who support a strong one person show form of government. On the other hand, I will definitely vote yes on better council oversite of the PDC budget.

  16. All the commenters on here complaining about the lack of highway expansion in PDX baffle me.

    Aren’t we just wrapping up $350 million spent on Highway 26 expansion?

  17. dick BARNARD Says:

    there is no perfect form of government, the commissioner form works well…we do need to fix the anti-business trend in this government ie Shumakers situation and many other businesses fleeing the Portland City area.

    Are you kidding me? Shumacher’s left because they’re a couple of whiny jerks who did everything wrong in engaging those who protested them. Good riddance.

    And Commissioner Adams’ office recently completed a study (link below) showing that, while not insignificant, taxes do not really cause many businesses to “flee” the city.


  18. Frank: That is $350 million on highway expansion that, according to planners, would never be necessary if a $1 billion dollar light rail line was built.

    So we spent a billion dollars on MAX and traffic actually got WORSE. Just think of how many freeways could have been expanded for that $1 billion dollars (and bus service could have been improved drastically as well).

  19. I would strongly oppose this initiative — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    Oakland, CA just recently converted to a Strong Mayor form of government, at the insistence of (former CA governor) Jerry Brown, who made it part of his reform platform when he first took office. Sure, he made some interesting changes to the city during his term (bringing more residential development downtown), but all in all, I’m not sure that the city is in much better shape than before he took office, and initiatives that did not begin with the mayor did not seem to get off the ground. Why elect a city council if all the power is just going to reside with the mayor?

    I don’t see any massive problems with Portland’s current system. In many ways, it works a lot better than other systems, simply because it forces cooperation and teamwork to get things done. To the extent that it has worked well for so long, I see no reason to mess with the formula now.

    A resounding voter defeat of this measure would be a nice, clear way to send this message unequivocally.

  20. Yes, Sten lives on the Eastside. Leonard partially ran on being from OUTER Southeast.

    And given that roughly 80% of the Portland population lives on the Eastside, it’s probably sensible for 4 of the 5 city reps be from the eastside — one N (Sam), one NE (Eric), one south SE (Tom) and one outer SE (Randy).

    Inner SE is kind of missing, but hey, with only so many people, we did pretty well.

  21. Anthony,
    You’re not really contributing to a constructive discussion in my opinion.

    First of all, you’re full on wrong about the Westside MAX and US26. They were planned together, and to say MAX causes worse traffic is just ridiculous. Really? What kind of credibility does a statement like that give someone?

    If you want to disparage the multiple levels of government that have pushed through some condo subidies to catalyze development, at least get your facts straight.

    Terms like “Goldshmidt mafia” aren’t helping you out either.

    As for the government reorganization, I’ll likely vote “no” for the same reason as Adron-if it aint broke don’t fix it.

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