A city works best when it listens to the people most impacted by its programs and decisions.
A more inclusive city government is possible when all communities have a voice in decisions that affect them; but where do you start? Here are some ways to stay involved and activate your voice. The content below is adapted from Civic Life's zine "This is Your Portland". This resource is is offered at no-cost to the public and can be found here.
The challenges we faced in 2020 and the uncertainty that we face in 2021 have taught us that community involvement matters more than ever. The global pandemic has highlighted serious issues in our city — lack of basic support for our unhoused neighbors, families living in precarious financial realities, and xenophobia and racism. It also highlights our best qualities as Portlanders — eagerness to offer mutual aid, solidarity in staying at home to flatten the curve, and supporting our communities during a difficult time. There is no better time than now to build a more inclusive form of government. We can do this, together.
Commissioner Form of Government
Portland’s current governmental system is called a commission form of government. The five members of City Council serve as legislators and administrators of individual government agencies (called “bureaus”). Each city commissioner is in charge of multiple bureaus. The mayor is considered the fifth city commissioner who holds two distinct powers: (1) they assign bureaus to each commissioner and can reassign them at any time; and (2) they propose the annual budget.
The auditor conducts independent and neutral reviews on City of Portland programs and policies. They serve to support an accountable government.
FACT: In 1913, eligible voters in Portland— which excluded African Americans, Native peoples, first-generation Asian immigrants, people under 21 years of age and most women—reduced the size of City Council from 11 to the model we have today. Portland is the only major city in the United States that retains its commission form of government.
Use your voice! Every Wednesday, the city holds council meetings in City Hall Chambers. These meetings are open to the public and include time for the public to share their thoughts. Read the council meeting agenda here and watch the council meetings here.
Is there something that council is discussing that impacts you, your family, and your community? Here are two ways to share your thoughts:
- Public testimony is a way to respond to an existing city issue being discussed during a council meeting. Sign up on the day of the council meeting for your two to three minutes in front of the microphone. Usually, there will be a sign-up sheet outside of council chambers. You can also email your testimony to email@example.com.
- Communications is a three-minute timeslot held at the beginning of each Wednesday’s council meeting. You can use this time to talk to your commissioners about any city topic that is near and dear to your heart. You need to sign up in advance with the council clerk, learn more about the process here.
And of course, anyone can come to the Wednesday council meeting to observe. If you can’t make it down to city hall, you can always watch it on the city’s website.
Each Friday, the council meeting agenda for the following Wednesday is posted on the city auditor’s website.
City Hall is temporarily closed to the public due to our current State of Emergency and City Council meetings are currently being held remotely via teleconference. Find out how to participate and provide public testimony during this temporary closure here.
Another way to get the ear of your elected officials is by contacting their office by phone or sending them an email. They welcome your thoughts! You can find each of their contact information on the front page of the City of Portland’s website.
Portlander-led advisory bodies
City decision-makers rely on Portlanders to inform their policymaking. One way to provide advice and input is by joining an advisory body. There are over 65 advisory bodies in the City of Portland, engaged in issues ranging from historic landmarks to public campaign finance. Boards and commissions mostly advise city bureaus and some county agencies.
Civic Life Advisory Bodies:
- The Bureau Advisory Committee was created to boost civic engagement by connecting Portlanders with the local government to inform our policies and actions, and to build neighborhoods and communities that are inclusive and safe for all.
- The New Portlanders Policy Commission works to integrate immigrant and refugee communities’ voices into the City of Portland's policies and decision-making.
- The Cannabis Policy Oversight Team provides insights and advises Civic Life on the development and adoption of policies to deliver diversity, equity, accessibility, and sustainability to the cannabis industry.
- The Multnomah Youth Commission inspires the city's next generation of leaders to get involved with their city government.
Did you know that one-third of people living in this country don’t know their neighbors? Let’s change that. When neighbors know one another, they can look out for each other, share resources, and even borrow a cup of sugar. One great way to get to know your neighbors is by throwing a block party. When we can begin physically interacting again, you can apply for a block party permit with the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Once approved, you will receive an official “Street Closed” sign to block off your street for a given day and time. BYOB (Bring Your Own Beverage), neighbors! Visit Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) website for information on block party permits
The goal of the Community Safety program is to make all Portlanders feel safe, connected, and welcomed. The program brings community members together to work toward the common good by building proactive relationships and creating equitable outcomes for all. Learn more about our Community Safety Program Neighbors Together here.
If you are 18 years or older, an Oregon resident, and a U.S. citizen, you have the right to vote in Oregon. Thanks to Oregon’s Motor Voter Act, any citizen who is issued (or renews) an ID or license through the DMV is automatically registered to vote! You can update your voter registration and learn about upcoming elections by visiting Multnomah County Elections.
There are four scheduled election dates each year in Oregon: the 2nd Tuesday in March; the 3rd Tuesday in May; the 3rd Tuesday in September; and the 1st Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Special Elections can also occur at other dates.
The City of Portland’s elected government is made up of six elected positions. These positions have four-year terms, no term limits, and are nonpartisan. To avoid the potential of city hall having all new elected officials starting at once, the elections are staggered by year — the mayor and commissioners No. 1 and No. 4 are elected, and the auditor and commissioners No. 2 and No. 3 elected two years later.
FUN FACT: If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote during a May primary, the top two vote-getters face off in a November runoff election.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau embarks on a massive civic endeavor, with the sole purpose of counting everyone in the country. Everyone must be counted so that we can properly fund schools, healthcare, and more, and make better planning decisions for the future.
Civic Life Updates
It’s the type of email that you actually want. The Office of Community & Civic Life (“Civic Life” for short) connects the people of Portland with their city government to promote the common good. Sign up for Civic Life Updates for regular emails that share ways for you to be involved in your city government.
This year we have had to rethink how we connect and become involved in our community. We won’t sugarcoat it; this has been a very challenging time. But luckily there have been silver linings behind those dark clouds: we have loved the daily 7:00pm communal banging of pots and pans to celebrate essential workers, social media emerging as a tool for providing mutual aid, and having to look into strangers’ eyes to communicate smiles hidden behind our facemasks.
We have also seen an incredible outpouring of support through government and community resources.
- The City of Portland has a new webpage that is updated daily with information on the city’s response to COVID-19 including first response, economic relief, housing, utilities, and more.
- If you are in the position to offer help, the Joint Volunteer Information Center is coordinating a regional response to COVID-19. Organizations and individuals that can offer their time and goods to help slow the spread of the virus should contact the center for more information.
- Portland neighborhood associations are providing timely support and important resources to their neighbors. Find out more about your neighborhood association and how to get involved here.
- If you are looking for ways to volunteer your time and resources, The Nonprofit Association of Oregon can help connect you to thousands of local nonprofits.
- The Oregon Health Authority has created the multilingual website Safe + Strong to provide daily updates, resources, and information about COVID-19.
- Access to nutritious food is so important for staying healthy and virus free. Oregon School Districts are offering free lunch to students in need and Portland Parks & Recreation will continue to operate its free lunch program this summer.
Promote the Common Good: Civic Life is building stronger communities by supporting and empowering Portlanders. We think, act, and partner with our communities to better understand and take care of their diverse needs. We invite you to join us in this continuous, much needed work to make our communities safer and more welcoming for all.