Portland voters can improve the city's future by changing the makeup and performance of the City Council in the May 16 vote-by-mail primary election.

We feel that city Commissioner Erik Sten personifies many of City Hall's ongoing shortcomings and should be replaced by state Sen. Ginny Burdick.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman isn't perfect but has been a more reasoned presence on the council and has earned re-election.

We come to both conclusions with some reservations and also with regret that one of Sten's more interesting challengers Ñ businessman Dave Lister Ñ isn't capable of winning an election in Portland today. Lister's fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism would have been refreshing on a council already loaded with former government employees and political lifers.

This council does, however, need a new direction Ñ one that focuses on a better economic climate in the city and actually achieving desirable outcomes from the city's various and numerous initiatives. Retaining Saltzman and adding Burdick, who comes with solid private- and public-sector credentials, would be a good start toward a more common-sense municipal government. Here's how the two races stack up:

City commissioner, Position No. 2: Ginny Burdick

The issue in this race is Sten himself, who has served more than two full terms already. Even more than Mayor Tom Potter, Sten has come to define the Portland council and some of its unfortunate ventures.

Sten was in charge of the Water Bureau during the billing debacle. He was chief architect of a flawed public campaign finance system. And he embarked on a quixotic pursuit of Portland General Electric, spending the public's money in a doomed attempt to purchase the utility.

Those failures are well-documented. They reinforce Portland's image as a place that lacks business sense and an ability to successfully accomplish tasks. Sten has admirable qualities Ñ a quick mind, a commitment to affordable housing and a sense of shared values with Portland citizens. But he should have followed his own initial instincts and opted not to run for a third term.

Burdick is an attractive replacement for Sten because she embodies the same progressive values while also offering the promise of a rational approach to government. Burdick has an undeniably liberal legislative record. Yet she demonstrated an ability to work with the most conservative of Republicans Ñ most recently on the 2005 methamphetamine package.

Burdick entered this race with the support of the Portland Business Alliance and many major businesses. If she is elected city commissioner, we will require her to remember she's not only a representative of big corporations, but also of citizens and the small businesses that form Portland's economic backbone. And we will require her to be focused on the details of city department management and budgeting that in the past often have escaped city commissioners.

The other serious candidate for Position 2 is Lister, who has deeper business experience than Burdick. However, this race is more likely to be settled in a November runoff than in the May primary, and we don't believe Lister could win going head-to-head with Sten. For that reason Ñ plus her proven record of accomplishment Ñ we recommend voters cast their ballots for Burdick in the May 16 election.

City commissioner, Position No. 3: Dan Saltzman

Saltzman, who is seeking a third term, has demonstrated an independent streak on the council and a willingness to exercise leadership on issues such as reform of the fire and police disability and retirement fund.

Saltzman has made mistakes, but he is willing to learn from them. His most vigorous challenger, Amanda Fritz, is a registered nurse who has served as a member of the city Planning Commission. She is focused, smart and passionate about involving citizens upfront in their city government's decisions.

Fritz has the potential to assume a greater position of leadership in the city. But at this time, the council needs Saltzman's experience and his steady, reasonable approach to making good decisions and achieving worthy outcomes.

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