From The Editor

The struggle to reform Portlandís odd form of government

Last month, the two stories on the front page of THE BEE were both about trees. They were there because each seemed to us to merit being highlighted as one the most important stories of the month. One story was about the well-loved local nonprofit organization “Friends of Trees”, which happened to do its first major planting after its beginning on Woodstock Boulevard in 1989. The trees lining the business district of that street today are the result.

The story told how Friends of Trees would not have its contract with the City of Portland renewed – apparently because the City Council thought its own Bureaus could do a better job of planting and maintaining trees in Portland than this vigorous volunteer-driven nonprofit. One of the two Bureaus tasked with replacing the city-supported work of Friends of Trees in Portland is to be Portland Parks and Recreation. (The other seems to be the Bureau of Environmental Services.)

Coincidentally, the second article on the front page last month provided a wry commentary on that plan. A large tree in Creston Park had fallen on a number of vehicles in the park’s parking lot, some occupied, flattening them. Miraculously, nobody were injured. But BEE correspondent David F. Ashton reported, “Although Creston-Kenilworth neighbors, and users of Creston City Park – just south of S.E. Powell Boulevard – have said they’ve complained about the condition of trees there before, their concerns apparently did not reach Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R).

“If heard, their concerns about trees and limbs falling had not resulted in any action taken by PP&R. That is, until Monday evening, July 11, just after the Creston Outdoor Pool and closed, when people were heading back to their vehicles in the parking lot. That warm and windy evening was when a huge tree snapped just above the ground, crashing down onto several parked cars, crushing them on the park’s west side.”

If that is the sort of maintenance of trees we can expect under the new regime following the end of the Friends of Trees contract, it does not bode well for either tree maintenance or the planting of trees in the future. We are glad Friends of Trees remains a busy nonprofit outside of the city contract, and one which might in the future be invited back in to help grow a vibrant Rose City tree canopy.

As for the real reason for this peculiar pivot from Friends of Trees to the “City That Doesn’t Always Work”, we quoted the conclusion of Pamplin Media news partner OPB, which had been reviewing emails and conducting interviews on the subject:

“Critics of the Commission system [of Portland’s city government] say it discourages collaboration, and encourages Commissioners to prioritize their [own] Bureaus over broader city needs. The fight over trees offers a case study, in which two Portland Bureaus – the Bureau of Environmental Services, and the Bureau of Parks & Recreation – are competing for the power that comes with managing trees. The end result appears to be fewer trees being planted and cared for in the coming years, even as temperatures continue to rise.”

That brings us to the choice facing Portland’s voters this November. The City Charter Commission has come up with a proposal to reform our peculiar and sophomoric form of city government by replacing it with a plan much closer what has proven to work well at other large cities in this country.

We have previously endorsed approving the measure, and indeed there seems such broad support among voters for some change – ANY change – for this largely ineffective city government of ours that those who oppose change have resorted to nitpicking some parts of the proposal in hopes of getting voters to stick with what we have.

Among the proposals for change are these:

  • A City Council that focuses on setting policy, and a Mayor elected citywide to run the city’s day-to-day operations, with the help of a professional City Administrator 
  • Four new geographic districts, each with three Council members elected to represent each district, expanding the City Council to a total of 12 members
  • Ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to rank candidates in the order of their preference for each of them

That first proposal is fundamentally what the Charter change is. We haven’t heard much quibbling about this proposal, which is just what the public increasingly has been calling for in the last few years.

No, the nitpicking centers on the two other proposals, which are part of the Charter Plan on the ballot.

As for that second proposal, we ourselves would like to see just one representative from each district and, instead, having more districts – after all, the city is formally divided into six different districts, not four: North, Northeast, Southeast, South, Southwest, Northwest. And one could add Downtown to that. If the second proposal does not work as intended, it can be changed later, but the point is this: Having four districts is far better than having NO districts, as we do now. (The result has been a City Council heavily drawn just from Downtown Portland and its near suburbs). 

And presumably the multiple representatives proposed for each of the four districts helps to overcome some objections to the ranked-choice voting idea.

Possibly the most controversial idea is the ranked-choice voting. This is not a new invention, although you may not have heard much about it; it has been adopted in other areas of the country, and apparently without disastrous consequences. But we admit it is not an idea we ourselves care for very much, since it results in a situation in which everybody’s third or fourth choice could be the winner! That’s why, we suppose, that the idea of electing three candidates from each of the four districts was added to the plan.

However, don’t overlook that you wouldn’t HAVE to vote for more than one candidate in a category, and we ourselves probably won’t, if we have a strong preference in our own district. So that is not a deal-breaker for us either.

The bottom line is this: If the Charter Amendment is defeated in November, we will be stuck for some time to come with exactly the city government we have now. And (as the tree dispute is only the latest indication) this antiquated form of city government just doesn’t work as intended, and hasn’t for more than a century (it was already under reconsideration as early as the first five years after it was instituted over a hundred years ago).

Somehow, in many subsequent elections, opponents nitpicking the details have undermined the public desire to make a change. THE BEE fervently hopes that this will not happen again this time.

We all deserve and need a much better city government than we have now. Now is the time to pass this well-vetted Charter Proposal, to start getting Portland finally on track towards a better future.

Letters to the Editor

City’s contract with Friends of Trees


I saw on the front page of the August BEE that Portland did not renew its contract with Friends of Trees – and that, instead, two City Bureaus claim they will work together to accomplish the same thing “more effectively”. Well for sure, it will be more costly. Instead of working to support the nonprofit responsible for planning 40,000 trees in Oregon and 870,000 trees and shrubs all over Oregon and in Vancouver, we will be paying city workers (along with their PERS and benefits) to try to attend the canopy as well as Friends of Trees did with volunteers. . . Well, my neighbor needs to take out a parking strip tree that is dying, but the city can’t get out to issue a permit for it until at least late September.

So when has the city ever demonstrated it can do something better than a committed and well-established nonprofit? Is anybody watching these people, and their lame and untimely decisions?


Anna Donovan

Herbicides have their uses


Having worked on protecting, restoring, and managing urban greenspaces for fifty years, I feel compelled to respond to the “zero tolerance” for use of herbicides that has dominated articles and editorials for the past few weeks. Conservation advocates have rightfully decried the abuse and misuse related to herbicides.

However, large scale restoration efforts would be impossible without judicious, targeted use of herbicides. The 160-acre Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, where I first entered the urban greenspace arena in the early 1970s, has benefited tremendously by the combined physical (hard labor) and chemical treatment of Himalayan blackberry and English Ivy. Use of volunteers alone isn’t a viable alternative on such a large and precarious landscape. I helped lead efforts to rid the Bottoms of invasive species in the early 1980s. We did not dent the tsunami of blackberry that had obliterated the loop trail.

It was the city’s “revegetation” program at BES and Park’s restoration ecologists, using professional crews with chain saws and other equipment, combined with selective use of herbicides, that all but eliminated the walls of blackberry and carpets of English Ivy.

Long-term management will require the same treatment to prevent recolonization of invasive species.

Mike Houck,
Urban Naturalist
via email

“Dangerous location is dangerous once again”


THE BEE ran a story about the homeless camp on S.E. 26th and Raymond a while back. It was of particular interest to me, not only since I’ve been a longtime Southeast resident who only lives a few blocks away, but also because the building it butts up against is [a regularly-used music] practice space . . .  After you ran the story, authorities actually swept the camp, and temporarily resolved the issue. Even installed 50 gallon water drums to prevent street parking temporarily. . .  I’m still confident the only reason any action was taken by authorities (or hopefully conscientious street teams) was because of the “bad press” you boldly presented. 

I am NOT a heartless person and truly sympathize with many people who are “houseless” right now, but this camp is NOT just poor people down on their luck. The open-air car chop shop is back, they have outdoor bonfires right next to private businesses, and the drug dealers cruise through in fancy cars in broad daylight without a care in the world. The orange syringe caps are still everywhere, and the only thing missing this time around is the pink wigged prostitute who was hanging out for a while. 

The side of that adjacent building is now stacked waist high with trash, bike and car tires, and other highly-flammable items, and it’s gotten completely out of hand again. . .  I know there are pockets like this all over Portland, but this one has gotten especially bad again. I moved here over 20 years ago after living in some of the worst pockets in L.A., and I haven’t seen anything this bad in what used to be “suburban Portland” until now.

One of the reasons I moved here was to get away from that, especially now that I have a young child to take care of. I still love Portland and what’s left of my neighborhood, but the City really needs to up their game again. 

via email

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer, whose full name is known to us, asked us to withhold his last name in the interests of his family’s safety. City Hall does receive THE BEE, and we hope someone there will return to look into this again, and perhaps bring about a more permanent remediation of a hazardous situation in Inner Southeast.


“Set limits on cost increases”


With the ever-increasing costs of groceries, fuel, construction materials, and all other goods, we need to urge the Governor and City Council to enact annual limits that costs can increase. They have the power to hold down these spiraling increases, exactly as they did several years ago with landlords and increasing rents – they called it “rent control”. 

Or would these electeds not find it politically palatable to require only fair and moderate annual increases from grocers, say 7% and CPI? Or is it possible that Kroger, Safeway, etc. have the power to close their doors if such a demand went forward, but mom and pop landlords do not have such an option? With the spiraling costs of goods, and no efforts from Salem or City Council to hold down costs, it now has become clear that landlords’ retirements have been sacrificed for mere political gains – not for the benefit of all in our community.

Steve Schmunk
Brooklyn neighborhood


Opposes Charter Reform measure


When it comes to the proposed City Charter (the political framework for City governance) that will be on the ballot in November, the Charter Commission intensions may be good but the resulting proposed Charter is resoundingly misguided.  

Proposed City Charter Amendments were developed over the past year based on the conclusion that the Commission form of government has become dysfunctional. Elected Commissioners are largely unqualified and unaccountable as managers of urban services that they are charged to steward.  Spiking crime, ad hoc campsites, trash in the streets, a zoning free for all, a defaced central city, non-response to citizen complaints, lack of coordination among bureaus, lost tree canopy, wasted tax dollars, city workers who say they will quit before coming into the office for work, and so on. Something must change . . . but let’s consider the devils in the charter details.

Increased Taxpayer Burden: The Charter Commission failed to weigh or analyze the funding impacts. Unaccountable Representation: The Charter Commission voted to create four large geographic districts based on equal population distribution subject to continuous change. Map boundaries for the districts are left for a future boundary committee to determine! Reduced Equity and Diversity: The Charter Commission recommended 3 city councilors per district . . . informed (without evidence) that the formula would insure that representatives from “minority” groups would be elected. Weaker Mayor: Accountability and authority of the Mayor would continue to be weak. A Complex Experiment in Voting:  Special interests convinced the Charter Commission that this was the best way to vote even though few cities use this approach, and none combine it with multiple representatives per district.

There is urgency for action to fix the Portland Charter. But the 2022 City Charter proposal is fatally flawed as a formula for improved governance. There is an alliance of citizen committees and possibly our City Council who are committed to Charter reform following a defeat of the proposed charter in November: the Partnership for Common Sense and the Ulysses PAC. Patience is needed to get this right.

Rod Merrick

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All letters to the editor are subject to editing for clarity and available space, and all letters become property of THE BEE.


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