You Decide: Portland’s Form of Government — Innovative or Inefficient

Posted on October 28, 2013

Special ELGL contributor Josh Gregor (formerly of Josh’s Job Search) returns with a look at Portland’s 100th anniversary of its commission form of government.

1913 Charter Amendment

The City of Portland held an event Tuesday, October 22nd celebrating the 100th anniversary of its commission form of government. The event, held at City Hall, provided an opportunity for many to learn, a few to reminisce and everyone to ponder Portland’s rare but long-lasting form of government.

Just how rare is Portland’s commission style of government?

Take a look at the list below from the National League of Cities, which shows the forms of government for the thirty most populous cities in the United States.

 Rank     City Name State     Form Of Government
 1  New York  NY  Mayor-Council
 2  Los Angeles  CA  Mayor-Council
 3  Chicago  IL  Mayor-Council
 4  Houston  TX  Mayor-Council
 5  Philadelphia  PA  Mayor-Council
 6  Phoenix  AZ  Council-Manager
 7  San Antonio  TX  Council-Manager
 8  San Diego CA  Mayor-Council
 9  Dallas  TX  Council-Manager
 10  San Jose  CA  Council-Manager
 11  Indianapolis  IN  Mayor-Council
 12  Jacksonville  FL  Mayor-Council
 13  San Francisco  CA  Mayor-Council
 14  Austin  TX  Council-Manager
 15  Columbus  OH  Mayor-Council
 16  Fort Worth  TX  Council-Manager
 17  Louisville-Jefferson County  KY  Mayor-Council
 18  Charlotte  NC  Council-Manager
 19  Detroit  MI  Mayor-Council
 20  El Paso  TX  Council-Manager
 21  Memphis  TN  Mayor-Council
 22  Nashville-Davidson  TN  Mayor-Council
 23  Baltimore  MD  Mayor-Council
 24  Boston  MA  Mayor-Council
 25  Seattle  WA  Mayor-Council
 26  Washington  DC  Mayor-Council
 27  Denver  CO  Mayor-Council
 28  Milwaukee  WI  Mayor-Council
 29  Portland  OR  Commission
 30  Las Vegas  NV  Council-Manager

Portland State University Professor and published historian Carl Abbott, who lives in Portland, provided the audience a brief history of how the City adopted the structure in 1913. Abbott cited three contributing factors for why Portland modeled its structure like it is:

  • A 1912 report by the Portland Vice Commission highlighting, among other things, brothels owned by many prominent Portlanders.
  • A 1913 report on Portland City Government by the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. What it found was a city that was “lax, corrupt and inefficient in every department.”
  • The continued growth of Portland’s Eastside, where residents wanted more efficient city services.

Many cities throughout the country modeled their government formats after Galveston, Texas, which created the commission form of government in 1901 after a hurricane devastated the city, but most cities throughout the years have left it in the history books.

So why is Portland still operating on a “nearly-extinct” format of municipal government?

Dr. Abbott answered this question simply by noting “Portland hasn’t fixed commission government because the public has never decided it was broken.” Abbott was followed by a number of former and current City of Portland elected officials, who all supported and defended the commission form of government.

This idea of Portland’s commission style of government being unbroken isn’t without controversy or a lack of attempts to repeal the system. Still, people wouldn’t know just how controversial this topic is among Portlanders by attending the centennial celebration. One would have to browse the comments section of  the Oregonian article: Portland’s commission form of government turns 100: What do you think of it? on the topic or come across a citizen activist group like the Woods Park Advocates to discover the issues with continuing to operate with this form of government.

Should Commission Form of Government Live to See 101?

As a citizen, civil servant and emerging leader, I find myself firmly perched on the fence with this issue. I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about my city’s past and respect how genuine yet adaptable it has proven to be. Moving forward, there should be a change to better carry out what is best for Portland and its people.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Has the commission form of government worn out its welcome? What’s a better option? Doesn’t matter?

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