Sep 18, 2023 - News

Plan draws new lines of power in Portland's government

Photo illustration of chess pieces inside a circle with a grid and the map of Portland in the background.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A proposal to let Portland's next mayor keep direct control of programs dealing with trash, graffiti and houselessness is likely to change, despite being part of Portland's new draft management plan.

Driving the news: City officials unveiled the draft plan last week, providing the first tangible look at how bureaus may be reshuffled, who reports to whom, and what new departments or positions may be added as Portland overhauls its city government.

Why it matters: By Jan. 1, 2025, Portland is scheduled to be operating under an entirely new form of government, per changes approved by voters last year. The mayor will still be elected citywide, but will have very different powers, moving from the council, which sets policy, to head the executive branch.

Context: In the proposed new city structure, a quick-response program that Mayor Ted Wheeler created to address livability issues including trash and lighting translates to an office called "Portland Solutions."

  • Last week's draft kept that office reporting to the mayor — while all other city programs would report to a new position of chief administrator.

The intrigue: Now Portland's city attorney says mayoral control of those programs likely won't fly in the future, according to Michael Jordan, Portland's current chief administrative officer, who is heading the reorganization effort.

  • City lawyers say that "all the programmatic employees that do work for the city should report ultimately to the city administrator," Jordan told Axios.

Yes, but: Police, while reporting as a department to the city administrator, will have a back channel to the mayor.

  • That's mandated by the charter changes voters approved, which say the new mayor will appoint — and the 12-member city council will approve — Portland's chief of police.
  • "I think there was a great recognition that police particularly needs to be accountable" to an official elected citywide, Jordan told Axios.

Details: The draft management structure would put similar bureaus into similar buckets, in an attempt to improve how departments work together.

  • It also proposes a citywide equity officer as part of the top management team, along with the mayor and city administrator.

Of note: A new natural resources department is proposed in the draft, although Jordan says that is still up for debate.

  • Portland's much-criticized permitting system is set to be consolidated from seven bureaus to one, as part of the reorganization.

What's next: The city is taking written comments — including anonymous comments — until Sept. 29, and people can sign up to testify at the Oct. 19 city council meeting, when commissioners are expected to adopt a revised draft.

  • Officials overseeing the transition want to finalize new roles as soon as possible, so interim managers can be in place well before 2025.

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