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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Portland has five mayors

Needed: a legitimate form of government
How many mayors are enough? Voters to decide May 15.

Portland's Five-Mayor form of government is a municipal curiosity, worthy of a sideshow. Stuff it and put it in a museum, by all means. But this is no way to run a big city.

A group of citizens who studied our peculiar system concluded we really need only one mayor. The group recommended a package of reforms on the May 15 ballot that would create a City Council, giving the four city commissioners a legislative and ombudsman role.

You may think they have this already, but when you're one of five mayors, you have government unions to mollify. So instead, they each focus, narrowly, on labor's election campaign politics, while completely looking the other way at what's wrong with each other's bureaus.

When Commissioner Randy Leonard dug deeply into the park bureau's budget, for instance, both he and Commissioner Dan Saltzman were sharply criticized for breaking the unwritten rule at City Hall: "Mind Your Own Business." Leonard had dared to question another commissioner's department, and that commissioner, Saltzman, had failed to rise in defense of "his" bureau.

This is nutty, and routine. It works to stifle scrutiny of our $2.1 billion city government. Under the new form of government, voters would replace MYOB with new marching orders for the city commissioners: Mind Our City.

A chief administrative officer, reporting to one mayor, would run the city bureaus. The mayor would be stronger, too. OK, so Grampy isn't that strong of a personality. But theoretically, the mayor but wouldn't have veto power and would still need the council's consent for key appointments.

This change is so logical that many voters will wonder why it didn't happen decades ago. Every other big city in America, after all, has dropped the Multi-Mayor form of government.

But here, our city commissioners love mixing executive and legislative functions. For them, being a politician unlimited by the separation of powers doctrine is a blast - an instant power base, laboratory, playground and stage. Imagine if other cities, states and even the nation followed Portland's lead and dispensed with one of the most important legal underpinnings in our libertarian-leaning Constitutions - horrors!

Just consider the near-quadrupling in price of the aerial tram - although we still don't know the actual final cost. So-called 'management responsibility' for the tram was deliberately dispersed among bureaus. As a result, no one in the city was dogging it to ensure construction contracts were written to yield the best deal for the city. So they were written in favor of the labor trade unions, and taxpayers got another raw deal.

Putting a chief administrative officer in charge of all bureaus wouldn't guarantee success, but it would minimize blind spots, blunders and financial failures. The change would adjust the bureaus' default position from "do-your-politics-thing and let the taxpayer beware" to "let's work on this government union problem and save money."

There'd still be plenty of thrills under the Portland bigtop. But if voters approve the new government structure, Portland would no longer be run like a circus. For a change, our city would actually be run like a city that works.

But don't count on it. City voters are almost totally checked-out ... blissin' in the first 100 days of the new collectivism after the 2006 elections. The government unions are the only ones stepping up to the plate. Clearly, they have enough organized political power and campaign cash to preserve the Five-Mayor form of government and defeat the other reform measures on the May ballot.

The Oregonian, Apr. 15, OPINION By THE EDITORS

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