In 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was swept away by a hurricane which has been called the deadliest natural disaster in American history. He left much of the city in ruins and desperately needs help from his local government.
In response, the city changed its form of government to the commission form, which Portland has today.
In a commission style, the work of managing the city’s operations is divided between the mayor and each of the council members. In Portland, these assignments are made by the mayor. A century ago, when the form spread rapidly throughout Texas and then to many cities nationwide, it was thought to be more effective and efficient than the more common split between an executive side (often headed by the mayor or a city manager, or both) and the legislative side (the council).
A University of Chicago professor, Charles Zueblin, once argued that the commission system was so good that not only would almost every city eventually adopt it, but that the structure of the federal government was probably intended to take this also form.
History has not been so kind.
While some small communities scattered across the country (about 1% of them) still use it, Portland is the only big city in the country which operates on a commission system.
This year, Portland Charter Review Commission has the task, once a decade, of examining how the city’s basic organizational document could be usefully modified. Any proposed changes would ultimately be submitted to city voters in November.
A central question is whether the commission system is worth keeping.
Imagine Professor Zueblin’s idea of the structure of the federal government, and the 535 members of Congress dividing up the management of the federal government.
One would often expect smaller communities, looking to larger ones, to look at them for good ideas to take away. But of all the ideas Portland has shared with other municipalities, the commission system is not one of them. It hasn’t exactly swept the state of Oregon.
The committee system blurs the usually useful separation between executive and legislative functions. As a recent report from the Portland City Club said: ‘It is inherently inequitable and has long since ceased to be the most effective form of government for Portland. In addition to producing a council that is not representative of the city as a whole, the commission form of local government is organized such that city offices are headed by commissioners with little or no regard for their management or subject matter expertise. For reasons explained in the body of this report, the commission form also makes it difficult to set and pursue long-term, city-wide priorities.
When Metro Board Chair Lynn Peterson spoke March 17 to the Portland Executives Association, she advised not only that Portland trash the commission system, but mayor Ted Wheeler not wait for an election to do so.
“What needs to happen is that the mayor needs to really consider stepping away from this form of commission of government now. He has the ability to do an emergency order, pull commission assignments, pull his own assignments and get a city manager now, and prove the concept that we can do better,” Peterson said.
That would probably be satisfying for a lot of Portlanders.
But not at all.
Portland has voted nine times on its form of government. The first vote was in 1913 when voters very closely embraced the commission form. Doubts emerged and four years later voters weighed twice on whether to get rid of the system. They decided, in overwhelming votes, to keep it.
Twice more over the next decade, Portlanders were urged to “simplify” the commission system; they refused that too. Ballots to abandon the commission system were tried in 1956, 1966, 2002, and 2007, and voters said “no” more and more emphatically. Last time, the vote was 18,880 in favor of the change and 60,606 against.
The commission system seems to have enthusiastic supporters in Portland. You can understand Wheeler’s reluctance to do what voters have firmly rejected time and time again.
Perhaps what is needed is an effort to engage with the people of Portland more broadly than usual in finding a government structure that more people will support. The alternative is to risk another defeat of a specific change plan.
What happens in Portland often spills over to the rest of the state. The commission form of government has not caught on so far, but an open discussion about how best to govern a city could have some use for communities large and small.