July 15, 2004

In Defense Of Commission Government

A Cooperative, Citywide, Generalist Approach

In the wake of the recent controversy over whether or not members of the City Council can propose legislation regarding each other's bureaus, it would seem that the leading edge of a fresh attack upon our commission form of government may be upon us.

An Oregonian editorial deemed the form "anachronistic," and a news article in the same paper gave its final word to Scott Farris, spokesman for Mayor Vera Katz: "If we go down that route, why don't we go ahead and radically alter the city charter, as the mayor herself has advocated, and get rid of the commissioner system?"

Then there's local housing gadfly Richard Ellmyer, who this week sent email to City Council members and candidates for local office in which he called for a City manager or strong Mayor system, tossing districts into the mix as well. He claimed to have "a plan for a successful campaign to change our form of City government."

It's as if there's a conspiracy to force us finally to post our thoughts about the commission form of government, as we've recently been threatening to do. But first, some important background, courtesy of the City's Elections Division.

Portland has had a commission form of government ever since voters narrowly approved it on May 3, 1913, by a vote of 17,317 to 17,025. Under this form, members of the City Council retain legislative, administrative, and quasi-judicial powers (when handling land-use and other appeals). The matter of our form of government has come before the voters seven times since then.

  • On June 14, 1917, voters rejected a measure to "abolish" the commission form of government, by a vote of 32,086 to 14,196.
  • Also on June 14, 1017, voters rejected a measure to "repeal" the commission form of government, by a vote of 32,796 to 12,647.
  • On November 2, 1926, voters rejected a measure to "simplify and retain" the commission form of government, by a vote of 29,087 to 27,388.
  • On June 28, 1927, voters rejected a measure to "simplify and retain" the commission form of government, by a vote of 38,454 to 7,459.
  • On May 16, 1958, voters rejected a measure to establish a "council-manager" form of government, by a vote of 61,821 to 55,283.
  • On May 24, 1966, voters rejected "changing" the form of government, by a vote of 68,158 to 41,848.
  • And on May 22, 2002, voters rejected the so-called "Good Government" measure, by a vote of 94,179 to 29,730.

According to the Elections Division, we have the last remaining commission form of government among large cities in the United States. While this does indicate that the term "anachronistic" is technically correct, in and of itself it doesn't demonstrate that Portland somehow is mistaken in retaining the form.

We first started thinking seriously about the question of commission government during Council debate on the Clean Money campaign reform proposal of City Auditor Gary Blackmer and Commissioner Erik Sten. During that debate, Commissioner Randy Leonard agreed with Robert Ball, the sponsor of 2002's "Good Government" initiative which was resoundingly defeated by Portland voters, that the City needed to adopt a system of by-district elections for commissioners.

In fact, it was Leonard's support for districts which prompted us down the road towards our own perspective on the matter, because we began to see a link between his support for districts and the management style he brings to the City Council. What this led us to consider was a way to describe the differences between the commission form of government and a form consisting of a City manager or strong Mayor combined with commissioners elected by district.

The commission form, it seemed to us, could be described as one revolving around cooperative competition, in which technically the various bureaus (and hence the various members of the City Council) are competing for resources, but at the same time must attempt to work together, in no small part due to the fact that they are elected citywide rather than by district. Commission government prefers that elected officials be generalists in approach, both because of those citywide elections and because they don't know in advance which bureaus will be placed in their portfolios. Such generalism tends towards thinking about the City as a whole.

The manager/district form, on the other hand, could be described as one revolving around adversarial competition. We use "adversarial" rather than "confrontational" because the former is not meant to convey a negative. For example, our legal system takes an adversarial form, because we deem that to be the best way for that system to function. In this form, members of the City Council would be elected by district, and so in a very real and substantive way would be elected to serve and represent the people in their respective districts rather than the City as a whole. More direct conflict arguably is a given under such a system, in part because conflict is practically built into it.

Readers likely can see why it was Leonard's support for districts which spurred us to consider the question of government form in this manner. In a very real sense, Leonard is an official inclined to the adversarial competition approach trapped in a cooperative competiton system.

We don't argue that the adversarial competition approach is inherently wrong (as we said, we use it in our legal system with very good reason) -- but we do argue that the commission form of government is better suited to Portland. Certainly, the two forms are reasonably incompatable, which helps explain some of the tension and controversy that has erupted during Leonard's tenure on the Council.

The matter that has so often been put before the voters of Portland, then, perhaps can be accurately described as a determination of which form of government best suits the City's values.

As much as we of course are confronted with tensions and controversies, Portlanders on the whole do not often tend to be overtly confrontational. And as much as we truly are a City of neighborhoods, we also, in the main, tend towards thinking about the City as a whole. These are values, and they are reflected in the form of government which we have repeatedly defended since its inception in 1913.

None of this means that we always manage to attain the ideal execution of the strengths of the commission form of government. But in our view, most of this is caused not by our form of government, but by how well we execute it. And thought it all, we do retain the desire to not abandon the values which have created this City as it's known today, and so many of the things for which Portlanders are justifiably proud. For our part, we do not believe that an adversarial form of government would ever have achieved these things.

With the recent dust-up over the ability, or lack thereof, of commissioners to "meddle" in each other's bureaus (a problem, not at all incidentally, which will be solved by a simple change of City Code rather than the wholesale transformation of our form of government), warning shot emails from local activists, and forthcoming additional debate over the Clean Money proposal, we fully expect that a renewed push for a manager/council form of government is just around the corner.

Being, as the City is, in the midst of one of the most critical election campaigns since we moved here seven years ago, Portlanders already should be taking the time necessary to consider our values as Portlanders and our vision for Portland. As we all do so, we should also reflect on how those values, and that vision, are inextricably intertwined with our form of government.

We are a cooperative people, and we are a citywide people. And we deserve a form of government which reflects these things.

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Comments (3)

  1. Andy on 18 Jul 2004

    I like this piece quite a bit, B!x. I feel the same way about this city's spirit of cooperation.

    While reading your analysis of Leonard's style, I realised that the break in geneality between Leonard Portland Communique was inevitable: Leonard's style will not admit to forgiving those who disagree with him. He cannot 'respectfully disagree.' Too bad, but I am more pleased with the addition of his dynamic to the council than some of the others.

  2. Andy on 18 Jul 2004

    Editorial (b!X: please delete this when you have read it -Andy):

    wrong year in the description of the second vote (to "repeal") the commision in "[1017] [em]1917[/em]",

    wrong word in paragraph 15 "And [thought] [em]through[/em] it all",

    double negative in paragraph 15 "[we do retain the desire to not abandon] [em]we cherish[/em] the values which have created this City"

  3. Andy on 18 Jul 2004

    b!X - delete this with the editorial post -Andy