Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Bollard

The Commish, then the Mayor?
The odds are good that Portland voters will be asked to decide this November whether or not to elect a special commission to study changes to the City Charter, including the possibility of reinstituting the position of a directly elected mayor with expanded governing powers.

The odds of voters approving such a commission, however, are anybody's guess.

Councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue are promoting the commission after previously opposing the idea. The pair, both Green Independents who represent districts on the peninsula, tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to convince their colleagues to put a different measure on this fall's ballot.

That measure would have created a so-called "weak mayor" – one directly elected by voters, rather than appointed by councilors from amongst themselves, but with no greater authority than the post currently carries. [See "Council Greens push for elected mayor," Feb. 27, in News.] A "strong mayor" would have more authority, such as veto power or direct management of the city budget, but any change that alters the balance of power between councilors can only be made after a charter commission is elected and formed to recommend changes.

The commission's determinations are not predictable – for example, it may or may not recommend any changes, or could propose an even more radical restructuring of city government. Marshall and Donoghue opposed forming a commission partly for that reason, but they now say subsequent discussions with constituent groups have led them to believe it's the more popular, and practical, way to go.

The Council will consider whether to put the question on this November's ballot at its June 18 meeting. The order would also set this coming election day, Nov. 6, as the date voters would choose who will serve on the commission – should a majority also vote to form it that day. As proposed, there would be eight members – five elected from each of the city electoral districts, and three appointed by the Council.

Marshall and Donoghue were the only councilors to support holding a "weak mayor" vote, but it appears there's majority support for a charter commission that could lead to a "strong mayor." Councilors Jim Cloutier, Ed Suslovic and Jill Duson have all expressed general support for the idea of at least asking voters whether they wish to form a charter commission.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman is among those opposed to even putting the question before the local electorate. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Leeman said of city government. She decried "all these people with their personal agendas… special interest agendas" who support major changes in the mayorship.

Efforts to reinstitute a directly elected mayor have surfaced repeatedly over the past half-century or so, most recently 10 years ago, when voters rejected a measure to form a charter commission. Lawn signs depicting a corrupt-looking chief executive helped dissuade Portlanders from endorsing the commission, people on both sides recall.

"I will dust off my campaign signs," Leeman vowed. "No – big no."

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