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Little Beirut’s Peculiar Structure of Government and The Troubles

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We’ve seen an appropriate focus on the role of federal police from the Interior Ministry (and it’s not just me using that term, the Atlantic has obviously followed suit) in US cities and states.  Federal courts announced two somewhat conflicting verdicts.  First, a district court judge (whose court is in the very building that federal agents are assigned to protect) issued a temporary restraining order on federal police use of force and threats to arrest people they should “reasonably know” are journalists.  Given the number of journalists on scene, this is an order that affects a healthy portion of the population.  Federal police promptly violated this order.  Second, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s motion to extend the ruling to affect other protesters in addition to journalist was just denied.

In addition to the light that this incident is shedding on the relationship between the federal government, states, and localities; there is a peculiar power struggle existing within the city of Portland itself that is in no small part due to is unique/antique form of government.  For the unfamiliar, Portland is the “last commission form of government among large cities in the United States.”  The Mayor and four City Commissioners make up the city council.  The Mayor and City Commissioners are all elected at large with positions on the commission occurring in staggered elections. Thus, the “executive” and the “legislature” have identical at-large constituencies which creates immediate council rivalries as well as incredible electoral challenges for candidates of color in an overwhelmingly white city. 

Each of the commissioners is in charge of a city bureau at the Mayor’s discretion.  So, in other words, the Mayor appoints agency heads from members of the Council and can remove them as he sees fit.  One can see very quickly that it makes sense for Mayors to strategically place rivals in charge of troubled bureaus and allies in charge of better bureaus.

People who are scholars of urban political history and/or big fans of the board game “Tammany Hall” will recognize this form of government as produces several particular political pathologies. 

Tammany Hall rules. I apologize for the image; I’m new to smart phones.

The Mayor typically reserves the police bureau for himself.  Thus it is in Portland that the Mayor is also the Police Commissioner and one of the reasons why the current Mayor, Ted Wheeler, has received pressure to reform the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).  He’s not only the Mayor, but, he’s the bureau chief.  Much of that pressure of late has come from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland’s first African-American woman to serve on the city council (elected in 2018).  Hardesty has called upon Mayor Wheeler to give her the Police Bureau which likely sounds like a strange demand for you non-commission city dwellers until you realize that is something that Wheeler could literally do at any moment. 

On Wednesday, July 22, Hardesty issued a strong statement blaming the Portland Police Bureau for the violent federal response and specifically alleging that it was police who “are sending saboteurs and provocateurs into peaceful crowds so that they can justify their inhumane treatment of people who are standing up for their rights.”  The statement was given as further evidence that Hardesty needed to be in charge of the PPB.  Hardesty is the current Fire Commissioner, appointed by Mayor Wheeler.  Much of the violence leveled upon Portland demonstrators has been justified by demonstrators setting fires.  Consequently Wheeler responded that, as Fire Commissioner, Hardesty was now obligated to open an investigation of arson.  Hardesty quickly apologized, but the debate on which elected official should be in charge of the police commission still smolders.

Since 2015, Portland has had six police chiefs.  In 2017, Danielle Outlaw became the first African American woman to be chief of Portland Police (appointed by the current Police Commissioner and current Mayor Ted Wheeler).   Outlaw left the post on December 31, 2019 replaced by Jami Resch, a white woman.   Outlaw was an external hire whereas Resch was a fast appointment from within.  Resch stepped down on June 8 and was replaced by another internal hire, Chuck Lovell, and African-American man, hitherto a PPB Lieutenant.  Lovell’s pick came as a surprise to many – including Lovell.  He is working now to make sense of a police force with poor record with people of color – notably, Black Portlanders – and to respond to (among many other changes) an order to remove cops from schools even though, as a former school resource officer, he has a positive opinion of this program.  He also must negotiate with the Portland Police Association whose President, Daryl Turner (also an African-American male) met with DHS Interim Head Chad Wolf (white male) when other city officials and county law enforcement refused to do so.

There is a movement to make fundamental changes to the structure of city government, including changes to make the government more diverse.  City councils formed by district elections are generally thought to produce a more diverse body than at-large elections.  The peculiar structure of Portland’s commission system means that efforts to diversify the council are also efforts to diversify bureau leadership.

Unusually, four of the five council positions are up for reelection this year (including the Mayor).  Another peculiar feature of Portland’s city commission is how city counselors are elected.  The top two vote getters from the May primary go on to the November election.  However, if a person running for commission wins more than 50% of the vote in the May primary, then, the person automatically wins the November election, too – even though, of course, the number of people participating in May is less than the number participating in November.   This is how Wheeler was elected in 2016 and how Carmen Rubio will become the first Latinx city counselor in the city’s history come 2021.  A special election is occurring now to fill a vacancy left by the death of Nick Fish between Dan Ryan, who is white, and Loretta Smith who is African-American, female, and was Hardesty’s opponent in 2018.  Incumbent Chloe Eudaly (white woman) is in a pitched battle to retain her seat against Mingus Mapps (African-American male).  Eudaly has upset a number of the city’s Neighborhood Associations who Mapps has appealed to; Edualy, as Commissioner of Transportation, has responded in various ways this electoral cycle, including strategic placement of impromptu local-access only greenways throughout the city. Mapps received an in-kind donation of $15,000 from the Portland Police Union which I’m sure he now regrets.  Wheeler nearly won outright again, but will face a newly resurgent Sarah Iannarone (white woman).

So, it is possible that Portland’s antique governmental structure has the very real potential to produce a majority-minority, non-male city council this November.   Ironically, members of this council who might have in years past advocated for change to a district level electoral structure, may loathe to support future reform.

This may all change when Cascadia takes formal shape. 

I mean, the US has already sent agents to patrol the future border.

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