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Charter commission folds up in frustration

Attendance, lack of council support cited as city group quits

After 14 frustrating months, the Charter Review Commission has collapsed in a cloud of accusation and finger pointing.

The commission called it quits Monday, one week short of its planned final meeting. Although the commission had been studying a number of issues, it did not refer any significant measures to the ballot or make any recommendations to the City Council.

Potential measures that died when the commission broke up include one to create an Independent Utility Commission to help set water and sewer rates, a number of police accountability proposals, and a creation of a human rights commission and instant runoff voting. It previously referred nine major 'housekeeping' measures to the ballot.

During the meeting, several members accused the council of undermining the commission's work by not providing it with an adequate budget or filling vacancies.

'I want them to know that they set us up for failure,' said Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime activist and former state lawmaker.

Mayor Sam Adams disagrees. On Wednesday, Adams told the Portland Tribune that the council continuously extended its support as the commission took up new issues. He said the commission's inability to complete its work in a timely manner undermined its credibility in the community.

'People eventually just stopped coming,' said Adams.

Attendance problems reached the breaking point for the commission at Monday's meeting. Only 11 members showed up for the meeting, a time when some hoped they would refer the Independent Utility Commission measure to a ballot. However, 15 votes of the 20-member panel were required to send measures to voters. Eleven votes were required to make simple recommendations for charter changes to the council, though there's no assurance the council would heed those suggestions.

Two of the 20 members had resigned and the council declined to replace them. Other members have not been attending meetings, making it difficult to gain the votes needed to make any decisions.

'Some folks I haven't seen since August, when I joined,' Hardesty said at the meeting. It's not clear if they resigned without telling anyone, got hit by a bus or were abducted by extraterrestrials, she added.

Other members agreed, accusing the council of not providing adequate funding and arbitrarily limiting the terms of members, causing high turnover and a shrunken panel. Some said it was clear the council only wanted the panel to approve a series of housekeeping amendments.

Regardless of the reasons, Justin Delaney, a vice president at The Standard insurance company, said, 'This group has unfortunately lost its legitimacy. I think we're spinning our wheels and wasting the public's time.'

The commission had agreed to finish its work on March 5. The council had scheduled a Wednesday vote on extending the terms of eight members until then to allow the final meeting to take place. The measure was removed from the agenda after Monday's meeting.

Unfair to members

The commission will not issue a final report. Instead, the panel's two co-chairs agreed to make a presentation to the council.

Bob Ball, a local developer and longtime commission supporter, agrees the council set up the commission to fail.

Ball served on the Charter Review Commission appointed by former Mayor Tom Potter that placed four measures on the May 2007 ballot. Three of them passed, including one that required the council to appoint another commission in January 2011.

Although the commission was authorized to consider any issue, the council tried to limit its focus to housekeeping measures. It was assigned to Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who appeared at the first meeting and suggested that more substantive matters should be considered by another commission to be appointed after the council finishes work on the Portland Plan, the long-range planning document scheduled for a vote in April.

'I feel badly for the commission members who took their responsibilities seriously,' Ball said. 'What happened was very unfair to them.'

As Ball sees it, the council made several mistakes when it created the most recent commission. Unlike the commission appointed by Potter, the council did not solicit applications from the general public. The council also appointed the co-chairs instead of allowing the commission to pick them, and initially presumed it would finish its work in six months

'The council should have sought out people who were willing to put in the long hours required to do the work,' said Ball.

The charter amendment that created the commission requires that new ones be appointed no later than every 10 years. Before the Monday meeting, Fritz said she still supports having the council appoint another one after it completes work on the Portland Plan. She did not respond to requests for comment after the meeting.