Reform proposal revs up passions
Measure 26-30 would change mayor's duties, add commissioners
The Portland City Council doesn't look like the city of Portland.
More than half of all Portlanders are women. But Mayor Vera Katz is the only female on the council. All four commissioners are males.
Approximately 20 percent of all Portlanders are racial minorities. But the council is 100 percent white.
And Portland has large gay and lesbian communities, but no one on the council is a homosexual.
Robert Ball says this lack of minority representation is a direct result of the fact that the council is elected by the entire city.
'It costs too much for minorities to run citywide campaigns. They might have the support of their own communities, but they can't raise the money to reach everyone else,' says Ball, a redeveloper specializing in historic properties and also a Portland police reserve officer.
Ball says this lack of minority representation is the main reason he set out to change the way that most council members are elected. He is the sponsor of Measure 26-30, a City Charter reform measure that will appear on the May 21 primary election ballot.
Among other things, the measure would increase the number of commissioners from four to nine and require that a majority Ñ seven Ñ run from small geographic districts within the city.
Although the mayor and two commissioners would still be elected at large, Ball thinks that minority communities would be able to elect their own candidates, at least in some individual districts.
'More women and minorities would be elected to the council and more working people, too,' he says. 'Bringing different values to the table would give the city a chance to express its soul.'
But the measure's opponents are suspicious of Ball's populist appeals.
They say another provision of Measure 26-30 would benefit well-financed special interest groups by placing all city agencies under the mayor. These opponents believe that the rich and powerful could control city government by getting their candidate elected mayor.
'If you've got the mayor in your pocket, you can run the city,' says former Mayor Bud Clark, who's actively campaigning against the measure.
Ironically, Ball and Clark may both be right.
Measure 26-30 has been endorsed by many City Hall outsiders. They include neighborhood activists who believe that the council does not listen to them, as well as the multiracial Rainbow Coalition and Acorn, the grassroots organization that works in low-income neighborhoods.
It has been endorsed by the city's largest public employee union, Local 189 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union officials are upset with the council for refusing to give their members more than a mere 3 percent pay increase in the most recent contract.
But 26-30 also is supported by a number of wealthy developers, including Pete Mark of Melvin Mark Cos., Harold Schnitzer of Harsch Investments, Dick Singer of Singer Family Properties and Tom Moyer, owner of the Fox Tower.
Mayor Katz is also a supporter.
Mark says Portland needs a strong mayor who can take control of all city agencies, as Rudy Gulliani did in New York.
'The city has outgrown its form of government, and we were all kind of groping for some kind of solution. Then Bob came along with his proposal, and we just said, 'This sounds like a good idea,' ' Mark says of the business backers.
Ball says the unusual coalition is proof of his measure's appeal.
But Clark says it only means that people don't understand what it does.
Ball makes his case
On a recent weeknight, a dozen neighbors gather at Walter and Joanna Traugh's Southwest Portland home to meet Ball and learn more about the measure he calls the 'Good Government Initiative.'
Ball shows up promptly at 7 p.m. and lays out stacks of campaign literature on a folding table set up in the living room next to a small piano, including fact sheets, lists of endorsers and invitations to two future fund raisers.
'I've been doing two or three of these a week for months,' he says.
After sampling fresh strawberries and baked cookies, the neighbors gather in the living room to hear Ball's pitch. Like a practiced salesman, he quickly runs through what he calls the improvements that Portlanders could expect from the measure: better representation from locally elected commissioners and more professional administration of city bureaus.
'We'll have better access because the measure requires the commissioners to have offices in their districts,' he says. 'And it will make sure our city is better managed.'
Ball is careful not to criticize the existing council, saying he believes they were 'well intentioned.' At the same time, he points to the water bureau billing fiasco as proof that the commissioners could not be expected to manage complex public agencies.
As the guests ask questions, however, it quickly becomes clear that Ball faces an uphill battle.
Although no one speaks against the measure, it's clear that they do not completely grasp the perceived need for the bureaucratic overhaul at the heart of his proposal. Some acknowledge that they do not know that commissioners are elected by the entire city or how many serve on the council.
But then Glen Ross asks a question that galvanizes the crowd. He wants to how the locally elected commissioner would relate to Metro, the region's elected government that is in charge of land use planning.
The council rezoned much of Southwest Portland last year, in large part to comply with Metro's demand for increased housing density. Many residents opposed the plan because of fears that it would overcrowd the neighborhoods that still retain a suburban feel.
'Right now, the council isn't that familiar with each individual neighborhood,' Ball shoots back. 'Each one is trying to represent the entire city. A commissioner from this district would know how much new growth it could handle and would fight to make sure it isn't forced to take more than that.'
Several of the neighbors nod in response. But, as the discussion ends, Walter Traugh says he still wonders if 26-30 is a solution in search of a problem.
Critics question measure
The campaign against Measure 26-30 is led by a steering committee composed primarily of former and current City Hall insiders. In addition to Clark, the group includes Portland Development Commission member John Russell and former city Commissioners Gretchen Kafoury and Mike Lindberg, who owns a public relations firm that occasionally works for city agencies.
According to Kafoury, the opposition campaign focuses on the additional powers given to the mayor because a recent public opinion poll revealed that this issue bothers voters the most.
'The main thing troubling people is the additional power it gives the mayor, so that's what we're stressing,' Kafoury says.
Another opponent, former City Auditor Jewel Lansing, says the measure has other serious problems, too. Among other things, she fears that dividing the city into geographic districts will lead to parochialism and gridlock.
'Council members will all be fighting among themselves to get something in their geographic districts,' says Lansing, who's writing a book about the history of the city to be published by Oregon State University.
At the same time, Lansing says she knows many people who think that City Hall needs to be reformed: 'I'm surprised that so many people I know feel like something should be done, but this isn't it.'
Ironically, although the campaign against 26-30 is stressing how it could benefit well-connected special interest groups, the steering committee routinely meets in a den of the rich and powerful Ñ the swanky International Club in the black glass office building at 200 Southwest Market Street.
The meetings are held there to accommodate Russell, a downtown developer who has an office in the building. He is the treasurer and chief fund-raiser of the campaign committee opposing the measure.
Russell declines to say how much the campaign expects to raise and spend.
Down to the wire
Many political observers think Measure 26-30 was fatally wounded when City Attorney Jeff Rogers discovered that it contained a technical error with far-reaching consequences.
According to Rogers, because of an incorrect date in one section of the measure, the city could be left without a functioning government for one year while the reforms are being phased in.
Mayor Katz asked the council to submit a corrected version of the measure to the May ballot. She argued that Portlanders deserved a chance to vote on the merits of the measure, free from questions raised by the glitch.
Katz was the only member of the council to vote for the corrected version, however. The other four members voted no, arguing that they should not be responsible for fixing flawed initiative measures.
However, a majority of the council said they would give voters an opportunity to fix the problem if the measure is approved at the May election. Katz later endorsed it during her State of the City speech.
Ball now says that if Measure 26-30 passes, he would support the idea of appointing a special committee to thoroughly review the measure, identify any other technical problems and place a follow-up measure on the ballot to fix all of them at once.
'I think the city should review its charter every five or 10 years and propose reforms, if necessary,' he says. 'Things simply need to be changed every so often as the times change and the city grows.'