Mayor Wheeler: "We shouldn't wait until 2025 to implement the new form of government."
Portland's mayor on why he's considering taking control of all city bureaus next year.
Once a critic of Portland’s government reform measure, Mayor Wheeler now finds himself its unlikely frontman.
While Wheeler still has reservations about the overhaul, he’s become a fierce advocate for an early rollout of the new system to ensure a smooth transition of power.
Rose City Reform sat down with the mayor to learn about his plan to get a head start on a government where commissioners no longer manage city bureaus.
In November 2022, when Portlanders voted to overhaul city government, Mayor Wheeler released a press statement with a concise response: “Message received.”
However, the exact interpretation of that message has recently sparked debate at City Hall. Wheeler believes it means Portlanders want change – and they want it yesterday.
“Voters made it clear that they didn’t want this form of government anymore, and they ended our terms. I take that to mean that they want this monumental change completed by January 1, 2025, when the new government takes office,” says the mayor, who’s not seeking re-election.
Wheeler’s colleagues on the council, who stand to lose control of city bureaus under the new centralized government, see it differently. Tensions rose last month when the mayor proposed that Portland's chief administrative officer, Michael Jordan, should run all bureaus for the latter half of 2024.
Ultimately, the council okayed Wheeler’s organizational chart, paving the way for a system where a professional administrator, overseen by the mayor, will manage city affairs. The catch? Commissioners voted to maintain their individual power over bureaus until their last day on the job.
“I didn't get my way, and that's democracy,” says Wheeler, a seasoned politician who has also served as chair of the Multnomah County Commission and state treasurer.
But the mayor still has a card left to play.
Portland’s outgoing city charter has a quirky provision that allows him to decide which council members control which bureaus. In an interview with Rose City Reform, Mayor Wheeler said he’s considering assigning all bureaus to himself this summer. This move would allow him to delegate day-to-day city management to Michael Jordan until the newly elected council has confirmed a permanent city administrator.
Here’s what the mayor had to say about it.
What are you trying to achieve by test-running the new management structure prior to the transition of power?
My objective is to honor the will of the voters and make sure that when our doors open on January 1, 2025, the new centralized form of government is up and running. I don't want to leave it to a newly elected government to completely reinvent government infrastructure while they’re still trying to figure out where the bathroom is. We also need to recruit a CEO-level city administrator, and they won’t come on board unless we have the structure already in place.
In broad strokes, what’s your proposed action plan?
I want to assign our current chief administrative officer, Michael Jordan, as interim city manager. Michael would have several deputy city administrators reporting to him – likely existing bureau heads – who would manage different government service areas. Existing city commissioners would have legislative authority to guide the entire organization toward a consolidated professional management structure. That’s my vision.
My colleagues approved a different plan that I still don’t fully understand. On the one hand, we have Michael, who’s responsible for implementing reform. On the other hand, commissioners still run the government. And it’s not clear what the deputy city administrators’ role is anymore because it appears they now report to the commissioners and not to the city administrator.
Your colleagues have argued that they should retain their powers granted by the current charter until the new charter takes effect. Do they have a point?
Yes, I understand their perspective. Change management is hard when you’re the subject of change. But to implement this form of government on January 1, 2025, we can't just flip a switch. There are structures that need to be put into place, and they take months to get operational. So, while my colleagues are correct that the current charter is still in effect, I’m asking them – no, I’m imploring them – to cede some of their authority to the centralized management infrastructure so we can have a smooth transition.
Now that the dust has settled, how are you planning to move forward?
That vote we had was a little tense, but our conversations since have been pretty productive. Under the current charter, I have the authority to assign bureaus. And I think my colleagues are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that I will take back all bureaus on July 1 and delegate them to Michael.
Could you elaborate on what “increasingly comfortable” means?
My authority to assign bureaus supersedes any code we pass or any resolution. At the beginning of my administration, I took control of all the bureaus for six months to understand them, budget appropriately, and get off to a good start. I can do that again. But look, I'm not a jerk. I want to work with my colleagues. I'm going to need their support, and I think I’ll have it based on the conversations I've had since that vote.
Would you take back the bureaus without your colleagues’ support?
I haven’t made a final decision yet. All options are still on the table. But to deliver the new form of government on time, we have to consolidate the bureaus under professional administration. I see it as a compromise. I originally wanted Michael to take over a month from now to have a longer runway. I’m prepared to delay the consolidation, but we cannot delay it until January 1, 2025. That’s not fair to the incoming council, it’s not fair to the new mayor, and it’s not fair to the bureau directors. And last but not least, it's not fair to the public that wants us to do a good job on this transition.
You've now had some time to digest this reform package. What are your reflections on how it will change Portland?
I predict that parts of it will work well, particularly on the administrative side. The public wants to get rid of the siloes within our government. They understand that the issues we're dealing with require horizontal collaboration. Today, commissioners have a heavy incentive to become relentless cheerleaders for their bureaus at the expense of others. That's no way to run an organization.
Our system only ever worked during times of prosperity, when the city was growing, and everybody was happy. Pretty much any kind of government would have done just fine. But in times of crisis, you really see its pitfalls, and we’ve never faced as many simultaneous worst-case scenarios as we do right now.
I think the city will be better positioned for success because the bureaus will collaborate under the leadership of a city administrator. I support the professionalism of the structure. But there are other parts I still have doubts about.
I’ll be honest and say I still don't understand the math behind ranked choice voting in combination with multimember districts. Now, there are people who are smarter than me who say, “The math works just fine. Hang tight, watch it play out, and you'll be happy”. I'm very much in a “prove it to me” phase of understanding. My concern is this: At a time when there’s great cynicism and skepticism about democracy, the mechanisms of democracy should be as easily explainable as possible. When a voter asks, “How did this person get elected to council?” and the answer is, “Well, there's this national organization over here that has a great YouTube video,” that’s just not good enough. I'm hoping that, with time, that clarity evolves for me and everybody else. I'm taking a leap of faith at the moment.
Our new government separates legislative and executive power. You’ve previously raised concerns about the mayor’s lack of a veto in the new system. Do you still feel that way?
The lack of a veto is problematic, but it's not a fatal flaw. Mayors rarely use their veto power anyway. The mayor will still have a bully pulpit, and that’s very powerful because just by having the title of mayor, you’re the go-to person for the media. The mayor will also supervise the city administrator, and that’s powerful.
The mayor’s weakness is they get told what to do by the council, and they have to implement it whether they like it or not. That leaves two potential outcomes. The mayor can either slow-walk the policy, and that’s going to tick off the council. Or – worst case scenario – the policy doesn't work. And then you're gonna get a lot of fingerpointing. I predict a proposal for a mayoral veto will go to the ballot within a few years, and I think voters will pass it.
Do you have any advice for the next mayor?
My advice is this: Live in the offices of your fellow councilors. Be ever-present. Do not become isolated from the city council. Be involved in the process before others shape it from the get-go. Don't wait for stuff to land on your desk.
This is a step in the right direction, and we're not leaving it to chance. We want to implement the new system well, and I feel a strong obligation to do a good job. People are very unhappy about government right now, but I still believe in government as a potential force for great good. I’m hopeful that we’ll listen closely to what the voters are saying and do our level best to implement it faithfully. With time, we’ll probably realize that some changes need to be made, and we shouldn't be afraid to make it better.
In other news:
Thirty-four candidates have now declared their candidacies for Portland City Council. District 2 (northeast Portland) has the largest candidate pool so far, with twelve contenders.
While Steph Routh (District 1) remains the top fundraiser among council candidates with nearly $24,000 raised, Angelita Morillo (District 3) is inching closer with about $21,000 in contributions. Morillo has a popular TikTok channel where she posts about her race and civic issues.
To stay up to date on Portland’s historic 2024 election, when Portlanders will elect 14 seats to populate the new government, bookmark Rose City Reform’s candidate tracker.
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