The most significant measure gets rid of costly special council elections

Gresham voters in the May 15 election will consider five amendments to the city charter, including one that would do away with expensive and sometimes confusing special elections to fill mid-term City Council vacancies.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28, the City Council voted to put the Charter Review Committee's five recommended amendments on the ballot. At least 60 percent of voters have to approve the measures for them to take effect.

City officials say the most significant change would be specifying a November general election date to fill a council seat vacated before the end of its term, rather than using special elections.

'The cleanup of the language as to how we appoint a councilor to fill a vacancy was really needed,' said Councilor David Widmark, noting special elections for councilors Josh Fuhrer and Karylinn Echols.

Both were council-appointed to fill vacancies and then, per the charter, were elected in special elections. The Echols election cost about $6,500, said City Attorney David Ris, and Fuhrer ended up running for his seat twice in the same four-year term when a special election butted up against the Position 2 end-of-term election.

'The measure requiring an election at a November election is a simple and clear way to fill a vacated position,' Ris said.

It would also curb election costs: In odd years, the city pays to have the names on the ballots, said Eric Sample, Multnomah County Elections spokesman.

'Cities do not pay in the (May) primary or (November) general elections; their share of the cost of the election is borne by the county,' Sample said.

However, the amendment could mean appointed councilors could serve nearly two years - from one general election to the next - without being elected.

Charter changes

The proposed change is the most substantive amendment recommended by the Charter Review Committee; the other four are innocuous language clarifications, avoiding potentially contentious suggestions such as paying the mayor and councilors.

(Committee members said pay would be justified, but they didn't think it would garner the required 60 percent approval.)

Gresham has had a charter since 1948, and it's been modified many times over the years. Wholesale changes in 1978 put it in its current form, but otherwise changes have been small tweaks, Ris said.

A committee of citizens worked largely independent of council input, and, it noted, with little feedback from citizens during public meetings and open houses.

'Public input was lacking,' Widmark said. 'I take that to mean people are satisfied with their charter. If there was opposition, we'd see a large force of people coming out.'

Lone voice

Richard Strathern, a former one-term councilor, was the most consistent public presence, officials said, pushing for a reversion to district representation.

Currently, councilors are elected at-large - all voters elect each seat. Until the 1980s, when voters changed the city charter, council elections were by district, where voters in a demarcated area voted for their representative.

Strathern says district elections would hold officials more accountable to their constituents, but said the charter review committee dismissed his suggestion.

'My feeling is when you represent everyone, you represent no one. … Large parts of Gresham are not represented or are grossly underrepresented,' he said. '(The committee) basically said they didn't have time to consider it.'

Because his suggestion wasn't included in the proposed changes, Strathern is trying for a measure on November's ballot.

Widmark said the district method prevents the most qualified candidates from running, and said the recommended charter amendments represent citizens' interests.

'From over 100,000 people in the city, I heard from just one person,' he said. 'The fact is, (the charter) will be a far stronger document if the voters approve these measures.'

Proposed charter measures explained

The city of Gresham will put the following amendments to the city's charter on the May 15 election ballot. Voters will decide yes or no on each proposed amendment. At least 60 percent of voters have to approve an amendment for it to be enacted.

1. Add a requirement that City Council elections be nonpartisan. Traditionally, local elections have been nonpartisan, but this amendment would make it official.

2. Clarify, but not change, when council members are elected for their four-year terms. In a language cleanup, this amendment would specify council positions 1, 3 and 5 are elected at the November presidential election and positions 2, 4, and 6 would be elected at the November gubernatorial election.

3. Clarify, but not change, when the mayor is elected for a four-year term. Also a clarification, this amendment would specify the mayor is elected at the November gubernatorial election.

4. Require a person appointed to fill a council vacancy meet the same qualifications as a person elected to the council. The amendment would require that an appointee to council is a qualified voter and has lived in the city at least a year. Currently there is no such qualification requirement for appointees.

5. Specify a date for an election to fill an unexpired term of an elected office. Instead of holding a special election, which can cost the city several thousand dollars, the amendment would allow the City Council to appoint a person to the seat, and then the appointee would run in the next November election.

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