My View: Texas style of government is poor model
A hurricane hit Texas and, as a result, Portland has the form of government it does.
Not Harvey. This was the 1900 hurricane that smashed into the island city of Galveston, destroying most of it. In the aftermath, a hybrid form of government was created — not with elected officials on one side and bureaucrats running departments on the other side, but a blend of both.
Portland is the last major city in America to use the so-called Galveston model, or Texas model, of government. It's also known as the commission form of government. And it never would have come about had it not been for a hurricane in Texas.
Full disclosure: I worked for the mayor of Portland from 2013 to 2015 as communications director. I've been on the inside of this unusual — and sometimes comically dysfunctional — system.
Here's how it works in Portland: There are five elected officials (they're elected at-large; not by region or district). There's a mayor and four members of the City Council, who are called "commissioners."
Right now, that's Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman.
But what makes them "commissioners," rather than "councilors," is that each has portions of the city government within their portfolio, which the others don't. Wheeler, for instance, is police commissioner. Fish oversees water and sewer services. Saltzman has housing. Fritz has parks.
Most governments devolve into "silos" — a parks department, for instance, might not know what the transportation department is doing. This can lead to confusion, which must be sorted out by a city manager or "strong" mayor who oversees all the agencies. But in the Galveston model, in which there's a weak mayor and no city manager, those silos are hardened and even weaponized.
Requests for information between bureaus sometimes results in raised eyebrows. When I was with the mayor's office, if I asked about plans in a bureau, I sometimes got answers. And sometimes I got, "Why are you asking?"
I once asked a question of a communications person in a bureau and was told, "We're not allowed to answer the mayor's questions. You have to go through the commissioner's office."
I heard commissioners say such things as: My transportation clients shouldn't pay for your parks (or vice versa), without any irony, forgetting that there was only one person in that sentence; a Portlander who uses the streets and parks.
Honest to God.
To go back to the origins of this strange system, you have to understand the utter devastation of the 1900 hurricane.
Harvey has been a record-breaker in terms of water, and the loss of lives is a tragedy; news reports on Thursday put the death toll at 38.
The death toll for the 1900 hurricane is estimated at 6,000.
That's because forecasting didn't exist (at least, not as we know it today). A day before the storm surge swamped the low-lying island, people didn't know it was even coming.
Author Erik Larson wrote an excellent book about the event, "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History."
Traditionally, city government is split between elected officials, who set policy, and bureau directors, who carry out policy. But with so much of Galveston in ruins, a hybrid form of government was jury-rigged, with the City Council doing double duty (originally, they weren't elected in Galveston, but were appointed. Later, some were elected. Eventually, they all were).
The idea caught on and spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. An estimated 500 cities throughout the United State adopted the commission form of government.
But after World War I, most of them realized that the system was intrinsically clunky. The "silos" make it nigh impossible to communicate and coordinate throughout the government. The right hand not only doesn't know what the left hand is doing, the right hand resents any questions from the left hand.
As quickly as the Galveston model spread around the nation, it quickly dissipated.
Today, not a single city in Texas uses the Galveston model.
And almost no city anywhere does.
Dana Haynes serves as managing editor for The Tribune's sister publications, the Beaverton Valley Times and Tigard-Tualatin Times.