Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Only Voter's Guide You'll Need, Possibly

If you live in Portland, and don't live under a rock, you already know there's a special election coming up. You've read the election coverage in the local papers. You've gotten fliers in the mail. You might've gotten a recorded call or two at home. Chances are you're wondering what all the big fuss is about. We've got four really geeky city charter amendments on the table, plus a handful of school district and other elections to decide on. Everyone else has tried to tell you how to vote, so now it's my turn, I suppose.

To begin with, I've never been a big fan of deciding substantive issues through special elections. Special elections should be reserved for emergencies: Filling vacancies in office, short term stopgap funding measures, that sort of thing. Voter turnout is always vastly lower than in a normal primary or general election, and everyone knows it. So when measures that would make significant changes to the law appear at a special election, it creates an impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that someone's trying to sneak something past the voters. Even if it's done with the purest and noblest of motives, submitting something to a vote when you can be fairly certain less than a quarter of voters will participate is simply undemocratic. A few years ago the state adopted the so-called "double majority" rule, so that tax measures need a majority of votes and at least 50% voter turnout to pass. I realize not everyone likes the double majority rule, but I'm starting to think we ought to do the same for all ballot measures. That would discourage situations like the present one, where major changes to how the city functions could be enacted by a tiny minority of the city's voters.

Since we don't have any sort of rule like that at present, we may as well get to the ballot measures. Let's start off with the one everyone cares about, Measure 26-91. This is the measure that would move the city from the current city commision model to a strong mayor + city council model similar to what's used in most other large cities. The actual text of it and the other proposed charter changes don't appear in the official Voter's Pamphlet -- and don't get me started about that -- but the city's website has 'em in their full glory, and 26-91 is an 80 page, 500k PDF file. But what it does is pretty simple: The mayor would be in charge of all city bureaus, and city council members would have a purely legislative role in the future.

I voted no, and you should too. The most common argument against the measure is that the mayor hasn't made a compelling case for why we ought to change things around. Perhaps if Mayor Potter had spent the last couple of years chafing at the bit, sharing his frustration about all the great things he'd love to do for the city if only he had the power, the measure might have a better chance of passing. But instead we've had a couple of years of that touchy-feely "visionPDX Process" of his, and even now I still don't understand what the heck that was all about. I can't think of a single thing he's tried and failed to do because of commission-style government. If the current governmental arrangement was obviously unwieldy and nonfunctional and everyone knew it, we'd certainly vote for change. Most likely we'd have done so years ago. But as unusual as our current arrangement is, it generally works. It works about as well as any type of city government works, anyway.

I'm actually a fan of the commission form of government. Commissioners are expected to shoulder part of the job of running the city, instead of sitting on the sidelines and carping about the mayor, like you see in most other large cities. It's the closest thing you'll see in this country to a parliamentary system (though it's not precisely the same thing). If I absolutely had to change something, I might add a few more council seats and make some elected by district instead of at-large. But that's about all I'd do.

The commission model would be an unworkable disaster in most cities, and I suspect it suits us as well as it does for local cultural reasons. It's fair to say the strong mayor + council model is adversarial by design, and we don't do adversarial very well here in the Northwest. People are too thin-skinned, and take everything personally, and you end up with political gridlock. Look at what's happened with the Multnomah County Commission in recent years, and with earlier versions of the Metro regional government. Strong executives are polarizing, and behavior that other cities would hail as signs of a take-charge leader will just get you called a bully here. For good or ill, that's just the way it is.

A disappointing thing about the debate over 26-91 is that most of the "official" reasons given both for and against the measure are just terminally silly. You're hearing them because they played well with focus groups, and they hope you'll buy 'em, not because anyone sincerely believes them. On the "con" side, a recent mailing warned of the dangers of concentrating too much power in one person, with a photo of Dubya to illustrate the point. C'mon, be serious here. Nobody seriously thinks Tom Potter is a Bush clone, do they? Nobody honestly believes that if you give him more mayoral powers, he'll start in with the wiretapping and waterboarding, right? Right? Puhleeeze. And the specter of a huge changeover cost to move to the new system... well, while I suppose that's possible, that's certainly not why the measure's opponents are against it. And on the "pro" side, they rattle off an array of bad business decisions by various city bureaus (the tram, the water billing software fiasco, etc.), but their argument that these foulups couldn't occur under the strong mayor model is unconvincing. And in truth they don't make an honest effort to connect the dots. It's just: "Remember the tram? You're still angry about the tram, right? Us too, and here's this ballot measure you can vote for." They're hoping you don't notice that the two things are unrelated, so they just do a lot of handwaving. That's most of what their campaign is, handwaving, and a flood of soothing, happy weasel words: "streamline", "efficiency", "modernize", and the like. They're not so big on talking about specifics. They're not so big on talking about anything in particular, come to think of it. But those platitudes sure are soothing. Ok, for most people they're soothing. When I hear politicians using those words, it sets off all kinds of alarm bells. Call me a cynic if you like.

So why the big furor about the measure? It's a measure only a PoliSci geek could love, and reasonable people can disagree on its merits. Let's be honest here, it's what it always is: There's money, power, and influence to be gained by some, and lost by others, and the battle lines are drawn accordingly.

Oh, and if the mayor really truly wants all city bureaus under his control, he can already do that. Let's not forget that part. One of the perks of being mayor in Portland is that you get to dole out, or snatch away, city bureaus as you please. If you don't like the job Commissioner X is doing with the Parks bureau, you just take it away and give it to someone else, or keep it for yourself if you want to. Mayor Potter actually did that for several months after he was elected, before finally doling them out to the rest of the city council. If he wanted them back, he could take them all back at any time, with no ballot measure required.

Measure 26-89 is probably going to pass regardless of anything I say, but hear me out. The measure requires the city to set up a charter review committee at least once every ten years, and this citizen committee would have the power to refer proposed charter changes directly to the voters. This would encourage unnecessary tinkering for the sake of tinkering, and tinkering by an unelected body, no less. If the seats are filled the same way we fill other unelected committee jobs, say, the PDC, the Port of Portland, TriMet, and so forth, this "citizen" committee will inevitably be stocked with political cronies and well-connected insiders, people with ulterior motives. Some of the same people who really want 26-91 to pass would likely end up on the committee, so we'll be voting on a slightly tweaked and test-marketed version two years from now, and when that fails, it'll come back again a few more years down the road. If something is genuinely broken in the city charter, we already have multiple ways to fix it. The commissioners can refer changes to the voters themselves, as they did with this measure, or it can be done by initiative petition. And if a proposed charter amendment can't attract enough signatures, or command a majority of the council, if the only way it can make the ballot is via the proposed charter review committee, it probably doesn't belong on the ballot at all. Vote no.

Measure 26-90 is billed as a housekeeping measure to modernize and streamline the city's employment policies, uncontroversial stuff nobody could possibly disagree with, or so they say. Right now the city charter goes into mind-numbing detail about the city's civil service procedures, and the measure would move the details into a regular city ordinance instead. Sounds nice, right? And once you realize that the measure weakens current civil service protections, it still sounds nice, right? Everyone's heard about those lazy do-nothing government employees who are impossible to fire because of those damn civil service laws. And I'll grant you there can be a grain of truth to that. I've been to the DMV and the post office recently. But let's not forget, the reason this civil service stuff was invented in the first place was to cut down on patronage and cronyism. If you look at US politics in the 19th century, say, the Grant administration, you'll see just how bad things were back before government employees had a layer of insulation between themselves and whatever politicians were in power at the moment. Or you could look at, oh, the last seven years or so. The absence of civil service protections doesn't get you efficient services at a reasonable price, it gets you Brownie doing a heckuva job. We've already seen how bad that can be, and 26-90 goes in the wrong direction. Probably not in quite so dramatic a fashion, I mean, the world's not going to end if 26-90 passes, but it's still the wrong measure at the wrong time. So vote no.

You might imagine that I'm voting a straight 'No' ticket on all the charter measures, but you'd be wrong. Measure 26-92 reins in the Portland Development Commission somewhat, and since it's hard to get more unpopular than the PDC in this town, the measure's bound to pass. I'm voting yes, just like everyone else is. This is the only measure of the four that actualy fixes something that's universally seen as Broken. So let's skip past the merits of the measure, and go straight to managing expectations. The thing not to expect from the measure is an end to the cozy relationship between the city and well-connected developers. The precise cast of characters doing lunch at Bluehour will change a bit, but that's about all. But at least some of 'em will be people you can vote against, unlike the present state of affairs.

My ballot also has a couple of Portland Public Schools races, and a couple of Multnomah ESD races. But I'm not going to make any endorsements of my own on these races; I don't have kids, I don't really like kids very much, and quite honestly I just don't pay that close attention to the issues. Yes, I realize it's important, and I realize children are our future, the little bastards. But seriously, I'm anything but a primary education wonk and it would be irresponsible for me to try to tell you how to vote. Pick your favorite newspaper and vote how it tells you to vote, or read the Voter's Pamphlet and make up your own mind, or flip a coin if all else fails. One thing to bear in mind here is that the PPS races were supposed to be a referendum on the controversial new superintendent, and the media endorsements reflect that. But she just quit to go work for Bill Gates instead. So instead you'll probably want to vote for whoever you think will be good at hiring a new superintendent. Who that might be is anyone's guess.

So there you have it. I've never been very good at predicting what the voters will do, but I'd guess that 26-91 will fail, and the others will pass, giving my "endorsements" a 50% success rate. That would be a lot better than I usually manage, for whatever that's worth. So we'll see how this all turns out.

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