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GTAC co-chair Destiny Magaña-Pablo visited the Urban League of Portland to give an educational presentation about changes to city government.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 02 May 2024

In the city’s history, only three commissioners have lived east of 82nd Avenue. 

The region that houses nearly a third of the city’s population is increasingly home to Portlanders displaced by gentrification and soaring housing costs. With a new, voter-approved change to city charter that will take effect next year, East Portland will be known as District 1 – and it will be guaranteed three representatives on city council.

GTAC co-chair Destiny Magaña Pablo (Courtesy City of Portland)"zach kearlGTAC co-chair Zach Kearl (Courtesy City of Portland)What that means in a government space with budgeting, with services, with just dialogue and discourse, is going to be monumental,” Destiny Magaña-Pablo, co-chair of the city’s Government Transition Advisory Committee, told The Skanner. “Not just in terms of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, but values and priorities.”

Magaña-Pablo and co-chair Zach Kearl call the transition “a learning curve that everyone has to be intentional about.” Currently, Portland has the dubious distinction of being the last large American city to run on a commission form of local government, where city commissioners and the mayor share both legislative and administrative duties. The four city commissioners also represent the city as a whole, making the campaigning process more broad and expensive. 

Next year, the mayor will take on executive duties with a new city administrator, who will take over bureau management. The mayor will not have veto power over city council decisions, but would cast tie-breaking votes as needed. 

Currently, each council member is assigned to oversee city bureaus. 

“There are added efficiencies in removing the political nature of commissioners overseeing certain bureaus,” Kearl, who holds a master of public administration from the University of Washington, told The Skanner. “When you need a lot of collaboration, it would require this kind of political dialogue that from my personal experience in city hall can really be challenging. You need to create alignment and create policies that we know from evidence-based practices are best suited for solving the problem in the city.”

Still, Kearl urges patience.

“I want to caveat everything: It’s not going to be different Jan. 1, 2025,” he said.

“That’s part of our community education effort: Yes, you voted in a brand new council, but that new council in large part will have to learn new roles and responsibilities, they may be first-time electeds, and there’s growing management. The city is having to reconfigure how it works in this new form…

But from a decision-making (stance), and how policy is developed and budgets are approved, we’re going to anticipate that shift in the next calendar year. So there’s going to be some learning. I think we need to give this process some grace in knowing that two years of a transition is remarkably fast to enact something so transformational.”

Studying The Landscape

The 15-member Government Transition Advisory Committee (GTAC) is one of three volunteer bodies helping implement the change to government that voters approved in November 2022. The Independent District Commission submitted its proposed map of four distinct city districts last August, and the Salary Commission looked to market rates to determine what are considered "public sector thriving wage" rates for the mayor ($175,463), the city auditor ($168,758) and each council member ($133,207).

With additional representatives, the city council will need to adjust how it operates. 

“In our recommendations, we’re identifying committees,” Kearl said.

“So rather than having all 12 members on the dais discussing every single nook and cranny of policy across the city, we’re recommending certain policy areas in which a smaller group of councilors can get together, hear public comment and deliberate on policy they can then elevate to the full group for the authorization of future policy – similar to how state legislation works (at the state level).”

GTAC looked to similarly-sized cities with comparable budgets and similar structures, like Minneapolis and San Antonio, as case studies.

“Every city has treated districts and representing themselves within the districts differently,” Kearl said. 

With three representatives to a district, Magaña-Pablo said voters and non-voting constituents will likely see their priorities better reflected on the city council. 

“Some of us haven’t seen commissioners and mayors outside of central downtown,” she said.

“The diversity of needs and wants in the community are going to show up a lot more, then also with (more diverse) religious, racial, ethnic backgrounds, also income backgrounds, the multiple beliefs that the city needs to acknowledge will most likely be able to actually shine in the city. And I think that’s actually going to also increase community engagement.”

She added, “Also I think the priorities as a city will hopefully become more unified.”

Voters will cast their ballots for district representatives in November, but already, Kearl said he’s seen many more candidates declaring their intent to run than in races past. 

“It’s taxing our small grants program in a very great way – we’re getting a lot of new candidates,” he said. He seconded the notion that district-specific campaigning should speak more directly to constituents’ needs.

changes to city government medGTAC member Jose Gamero-Georgeson meets with the Multnomah Youth Commission to give an educational presentation about changes to city government. (Courtesy City of Portland)
“We do youth presentations, and they’re very much like, ‘I don’t see a future forward,’” Magaña-Pablo said. “Or, ‘I don’t see the things I care about being talked about.’...So when you have civic leaders finally having the opportunity to be civic leaders, I think it encourages the community that they have behind them, it encourages neighbors behind them.”

Community Presence

Being district-specific will also give city commissioners the opportunity to be more physically present in their community.  

“Some cities might have in-district offices that are really a jumping-off point for in-district events,” Kearl said. “Some might be more of a community space that has city services. And so we took all that information in, knowing to a certain extent it really is dependent upon what the city and Portlanders want.”

GTAC asked the city’s facilities services to identify potential low-cost venues for offices in each district, although not every district had what the city was looking for, Magaña-Pablo. 

“I think it’s something that might look different in every district – some might not need it, some might,” she added. “So I think that just needs more community and councilor engagement.”

Excitement In The Air?

While some – including, perhaps, the nearly 42% of voters who did not support the measure — might view the administrative change as a logistical headache, members of the GTAC team see the transition as transformative. 

“The most exciting thing for me is just a renaissance of city engagement, and an opportunity to shape what the city does,” Kearl said.

“It’s been a really great experience for me. I served in the mayor’s office from 2019 to 2021, and to have a constructive, generative conversation about what government looks like is something I certainly didn’t have on the mayor’s staff; I’ve never really experienced it as a citizen or a member of a community. And so this is really a pretty cool opportunity to not just cast your vote but also get involved in actual events and raise your voice in idealizing what you want in a city.” 

One of GTAC’s focuses has been reaching out to those who have historically been marginalized by the grind of city government, including the BIPOC community.

“With voter education on charter transition, it also is a call to action,” Magaña-Pablo said. “Like, you’ve given us your feedback, you know our names, we’re creating this community that’s happening at this real time – hold us accountable at the end of it.”

For more information about the city’s transition to a new form of government, including district maps and timelines, visit portland.gov/transition

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