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Portland’s new system of representation might create some civic happiness

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Portland’s new system of representation might create some civic happiness

Sep 19, 2023 | 8:30 am ET
By Randy Stapilus
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Portland’s new system of representation might create some civic happiness
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Portland's city government is changing, with representatives elected in districts. (Getty Images)

An upcoming government change could make Portlanders feel more connected to City Hall.

A Portland commission just adopted a map specifying council wards, something new for the city where council members in the past have been elected at large. The new system tracks the change in role for council members, since they will no longer oversee specific city agencies but rather will have a more legislative role. All of that is just part of the overhaul of Portland city government approved by voters last year. 

In Portland, as in many cities, economic and social networks, often located in a few areas in town, and often representing a wealthy establishment, have tended to dominate council membership. The requirement for broader distribution of council membership may bring more city attention to large stretches of the city long overlooked by City Hall. It also may affect who runs for the council and who can be elected.

And it might make some Portlanders a little happier with their city. 

In a 2003 study of city wards in Oregon, John Rehfuss, a former professor of public management, found at least 22 cities with ward systems. (Those were all the cases Rehfss said he could find.) A respondent from one of those cities, Salem, said, “We believe the ward system, in combination with our neighborhood associations, allows for more responsiveness to the concerns of a smaller area and population. Salem is too large and diverse to be knowledgeable about every local concern.” 

In some places, wards that are supposed to be nonpartisan – like cities in Oregon – can still be partisan.

A good example is in Boise, Idaho, which overall is a blue city in a statewide sea of red. State legislators taking aim at Boise in 2020 required that cities with 100,000 people or more would henceforth be required to elect council members by district, or wards, as they often are called at the municipal level. Although in Idaho, as in Oregon, city officials all are officially nonpartisan, also as in Oregon their personal leanings are seldom a secret. The Boise council consisted entirely of Democratic leaners in the at-large years. A new district system brought one Republican into the mix. 

You can find a similar trend in many of the Oregon cities which have council districts, and a surprising number of them do. 

Oregon’s second and third largest cities, Eugene and Salem, each have eight council districts. Both cities have clear internal partisan geographic splits, and those are reflected in the districts. Council members running, for example, near Eugene’s university area and downtown are more likely to be liberal and Democratic than those running toward the north and western sides of the city. 

Others among Oregon’s largest cities have council wards too: Hillsboro (three wards), Medford (four wards), Springfield (six wards) and Corvallis (nine wards). There’s a long list of smaller Oregon ward cities, too, including Grants Pass, Albany, McMinnville, Klamath Falls, Lebanon, Astoria, Lincoln City, Central Point and Cottage Grove. One small town respondent to the 2003 survey said, “In smaller towns, it can be difficult to find individuals willing and qualified to fill positions.”

Portland’s council is unlikely to see much serious ideological or partisan divide. Almost every precinct in Portland voted 75% or more for Democrat Joe Biden for president; there are really no significant purple patches, much less red spots, in the city. 

That doesn’t mean the new districts – each of which will elect three council members – won’t result in actual policy differences, at least in very broad strokes. 

Number 1, to the east and across from Gresham, is a relatively working class district where residents have long complained of being ignored by City Hall. Number 2, in the northwest of the city and facing the Columbia River, has a more industrial background with a gentrifying aspect. Number 3, in the center of the city on the east side of the Willamette, is what many people think of as stereotypically Portlandia. Number 4, mostly in the downtown and leafy and hilly areas west of the Willamette, has its own perspective.

On issues like infrastructure, zoning, homelessness and law enforcement, the arrival of districts is likely to give each part of town someone to stand up for their area and fight against it becoming a service desert or a dumping ground. 

And that could make for a big difference in the governing of Portland. It might even lead to a little more civic satisfaction.