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By requesting a presentation on the Transition website, Portland State University hosted a presentation for over 70 attendees to learn about Charter reform and the coming changes to Portland’s election method and government structure.
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On Feb. 2, 2024, members of the City of Portland’s transition team, the Government Transition Advisory Committee, and Independent District Commission came together to present to an audience of more than 70 students, professors, and community members for a panel discussion on Portland’s historic charter transition hosted by the Institute of Metropolitan Studies and the Center for Urban Studies.

The session started with a quick overview of the charter changes Portland voters approved in 2022 before delving into the challenges of transitioning to a different form of government.

Portlanders are interested in learning about ranked-choice voting and will see more educational materials after the May 2024 primary

Woman holding an oversized mock ballot for ranked-choice voting.
Government Transition Advisory Committee member Leah Benson holds up a sample ranked-choice voting ballot.

Leah Benson, a panelist representing the Government Transition Advisory Committee, reminded the audience that more education on ranked-choice voting will come after the May 2024 primary election. Although ranked-choice voting has removed the need for primaries for city council contests, Portland voters still need to vote in the May primary for congressional and county representatives.

Panelists discussed how community engagement has informed every step of the process and how ranked-choice voting has led to increased representation

Dr. Melody E. Valdini, a PSU political science professor and member of the Independent District Commission, recapped the work that led to these charter amendments and how it informed the districting process.

“It was crucial to our work to hear what people wanted. Some neighborhoods did not want to be divided,” she explained, recounting the engagement done last summer. While some neighborhoods did not want to be divided, other neighborhoods, like those in north Portland and east of I-205, advocated to be in their own districts to have an opportunity to address the issues in their communities. This is one of the benefits of voting in geographic districts and using ranked-choice voting.

Community members asked about challenges, the cost of the transition, the relationship between the mayor and city administrator, and how election officials plan on relaying results

6 rows of audience members watching 3 people presenting in front of a large screen and easel to the side.

Moderator Dr. Marisa Zapata, a professor and co-director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at PSU, and community members then closed the event with some questions for panelists.

Two questions, which focused on the transition project’s challenges and cost, were answered by Tate White, a member of the transition team. She highlighted the short timeline for implementation and the number of human resources needed to make the change as some of the project’s greatest challenges. The change in organizational structure affects the City’s 7,000 employees and the transition project must set them and the new  elected officials up for success. Although the charter amendments must be in place by the end of this year, Tate pointed out, “The transition doesn’t end on Jan. 1, 2025. There’s a bit of a phased approach and we have more work ahead.”

Regarding the costs associated with the transition, she reminded audience members of how this transition enables the City to be more forward thinking. “There is a cost to governance. It’s a smaller piece of the pie, but we can’t do things well without an investment.”

Audience members were also interested in the different forms of government explored by the charter commission, which led to a question about the roles and responsibilities of the mayor and city administrator and how these two executives might work together. Dr. Richard Clucas, a political science professor at PSU, elaborated on the separation of powers between the mayor and city administrator and explained that much of the relationship between the mayor and city administrator will depend on the people in those roles. “You want a cooperative system of government, where people are working together.”

The panel ended with a question on building legitimacy in the community around election results and ranked-choice voting, especially if voters are confused on how votes are tabulated.

Grace Ramsey, co-founder of Democracy Rising, an organization supporting the City's voter education campaign, offered some lessons learned in other cities that implemented ranked-choice voting – some cities released results immediately and another city projected each round of tabulation onto city hall so community members could see how votes were distributed. "Voters can accept what they can expect,” she said before encouraging the audience to keep a record of how they voted so they could follow along with the results.

“We have to convince voters to trust us,” said Dr. Valdini. “We have a slightly different system, but it’s not wildly different.”

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