Portland's commissioners and their bureaus are alive and, well, a pain

Mayor Tom Potter: "Every day I go to work, I have to figure out how to work around it."
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Portland Mayor Tom Potter at work. (City of Portland)

Mayor Tom Potter: "Every day I go to work, I have to figure out how to work around it."

Willamette Week's voter-guide (1.1 MB PDF) writers counted the votes right when they said that Portland's Ballot Measure 26-91 was "a dog that can barely whimper, let alone hunt." WWeek urged a "no" vote on the measure, which would have empowered the mayor to appoint a professional manager, transferring city agencies from City Council members' oversight. Wweek reasoned that government transparency is more likely with five officials running things instead of one mayor and one manager. Portland voters agreed, sending that dog packing with three no votes to every yes in the May 15-16 balloting. Much will be made of this trouncing of Mayor Tom Potter's pet plan, but it shouldn't be overlooked that other reforms he pushed attracted strong support. As an Oregonian account notes: Voters did give Potter three other, more incremental reforms he requested, according to unofficial totals. They agreed to update civil service laws to give the City Council more freedom to hire and fire upper management, and they approved regular reviews of the city charter, Portland's constitution. They also gave Potter and city commissioners the power to write the budget for the quasi-independent Portland Development Commission. A well-crafted and steamed response by the Oregonian editorial board tells Potter to buck up and keep fighting: So what should the mayor do, now that the vote is in, reaffirming Portland's form of government? For starters, Potter shouldn't take "no" for an answer. It's true that successful Portland mayors tend to disregard the form of government anyway, push the limits and act "as if" they are strong mayors. And, certainly, Potter should do this, too. He should do everything he can to make it work. The O editorial types see value, not folly, in Potter's battle: It was gutsy of him, though, not just to try to circumvent the question, but to call it and approach it head-on. The issue's wonkishness leaves most voters cold, and a core group of insiders boiling mad. The blowback, especially ludicrous in the case of this mayor, suggests it's all some kind of mayoral power grab. And yet there is such a natural entropy in this form of government that, no matter what the city does to compensate for its weaknesses, bureaus will keep escaping oversight, dollars will be wasted and it will keep making its own case for reform. And that means the issue isn't going to go away. Potter, quoted in the Portland Tribune on election night, sounded like a man who was already taking the "keep fighting" advice: Despite the overwhelming rejection of the strong mayor measure - 75 percent of voters rejected the measure as of late Tuesday night - Potter said the existing system still needs to be changed. "Every day I go to work, I have to figure out how to work around it," he said. Update: Willamette Week has a package of reaction stories.


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