Vote, then look to bigger change


Today's election will help decide who leads the city of Portland for the next few years. But no matter which candidates ultimately are elected commissioner, we don't expect city government's performance to improve all that much.

Switching leaders within Portland's commissioner form of government is like a movie director trying to overcome a lousy script by changing actors Ñ no one is addressing the underlying problem. The fundamental flaw in Portland is a form of government that was adopted nearly 100 years ago and continues today despite years of accumulated evidence that there are better ways to run a major metropolitan city.

Politicians make poor administrators

That's why a group that's reviewing the city's charter is correct once again to consider recommending that Portland change its form of government to allow for centralized professional management.

Currently, elected city commissioners and the mayor are expected to oversee complex city bureaus and departments, as well as set city policy. Rarely, if ever, do these politicians come to office having run significant, comparably sized organizations. Yet they are placed in charge of entire bureaus Ñ a system that not only breeds errors but also fractures city operations.

Thus we see government boondoggles Ñ multimillion-dollar billing mistakes and tram-cost overruns. Because of such high-profile mistakes in Portland lately, we believe citizens might be willing to reconsider the issue of government structure Ñ a change they overwhelmingly rejected in 2002.

Even city Commissioner Sam Adams recently has said privately that he would support a strong-mayor form of government, with a professional city manager and a City Council that focuses on setting policy.

The obvious strength of such a system Ñ which is one variation of the structure in place in most American cities Ñ is that it allows the city commissioners and mayor to focus on setting policy and achieving a vision for Portland.

Previous attempt was flawed

Four years ago, Portland voters crushed a proposal to ditch the commissioner system. However, that measure had serious drawbacks: It was written by one person with little public input. It would have created a strong-mayor form of government without provisions for a professional manager. It gave the mayor veto power over the council, and it would have expanded the number of council seats to nine.

The current Charter Review Commission can craft a better ballot proposal by following more successful and more modern models found in other major U.S. cities. According to a City Club analysis, Portland is the only U.S. city with a population greater than 125,000 that has a commissioner form of government. That ought to tell us something. It's time to rewrite the script.

There's still time to vote

There's no time left to mail your ballot, but today's primary election has issues compelling enough to warrant a special trip and a bit of extra effort to visit a ballot drop site by 8 p.m. today.

Voters have the opportunity to send Multnomah County a message by replacing county Chairwoman Diane Linn with businessman Ted Wheeler. At the same time, Republicans and Democrats are choosing candidates for governor.

As of Monday morning, only 21.35 percent of local voters had returned ballots. That's a poor reflection on a city that's supposed to be politically engaged. Ballots can be taken to any public library or the county elections office.