Thursday, March 29, 2007

Vote to revise Portland's charter revision

Thomas Hobson, who ran a Cambridge, England, horse rental agency around the turn of the 17th Century, offered his clients the choice of riding only the horse presented to them or walking away on foot.

And so "Hobson's Choice" came to mean an offer of one option or nothing.

Any business offering a take-it-or-leave-it choice needs to track the results. Presumably if too many of Hobson's potential clients "left it," Hobson might reconsider his way of doing business.

Tom Hobson and his choice come to mind as we weigh another Tom-inspired choice: Mayor Tom Potter's Measure 26-91 charter revision on the May 15 ballot.

It offers a choice between keeping the our outdated "commission" form of government or instituting a "strong mayor"/city manager form as found in most American cities.

Under our current system, each of the five City Council members (including the mayor) administers separate governmental bureaus. Some call the commissioners' portfolios "fiefdoms;" others refer to them as "silos." I just call the whole concept "bad."

Note, by the way, that the five council members run for office, not by district, but city-wide.

Under the revision proposal, offered by the Mayor's charter revision commission, Portland's mayor would run the entire civic show acting through a city manager. The council, still five members elected city-wide, would decide policy questions and preside over the budget. The council also would have the final say over the hiring, and firing of the city manager and other bureau chiefs.

For reasons I'll get to in a moment, the proposal is utterly uninspired and unworthy of a city otherwise known for innovation and creativity.

In short, the ballot gives us a Hobson's choice between the present nag and the proposed one.

We should simply not vote at all on Measure 26-91.

But would City Hall actually get the message of our discontent with both forms of government?

As a matter of fact it would.

The first sign would be the obvious "undercount," or entire lack of votes, on the measure.

The more important and constructive signal would be a big "yes" vote for a nearby measure, Measure 26-89.

In essence, Measure 26-89 is the "back to the drawing board" option. It calls for a new charter review commission to convene at least once every 10 years. That seems like a long time until you realize that the measure also requires a charter commission to convene within the next two years to deal with the old, or new, deficiencies created by the lame Measure 26-91 outcome.

So what should a new charter revision commission do once it gathers around the drawing board?

First, the commission itself should include numerous representatives from the neighborhoods, where the civic heart beats strongest. The charter commission that put forward this May's revision had a sole neighborhood-affiliated member. It produced a predictable result: its proposed council, like the present one, utterly fails to recognize neighborhoods as civic institutions or to give them any voice or power.

Any new charter should have a council big enough (think 15 to 25 members, versus the current and proposed five) to guarantee representation by neighborhood, or at least by regional neighborhood coalition. The majority of the council (Two-thirds? Three-fourths?) ought to be elected by and in neighborhood-defined districts small enough that neighbors can get up-close and personal with their elected representatives.

But all of this is for the drawing board. First we must refuse to ride the Measure 26-91 Hobson's-Choice horse and stride away from the voting stable having voted resoundingly for Measure 26-89 and a fresh start start for reform.

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