Oregon Cities

Portland’s new government will include more administrators, better accountability

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Portland City Hall, September, 2022.

Portland City Hall, September, 2022.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

Portland is barreling toward a historic new chapter in city government set to begin in 2025. In the past month, the city’s finalized new district maps and people have begun announcing their candidacy for a seat on the new representative council body. Now, the city’s announced its plan to reorganize city bureaus under a new management system.

Last November, Portland voters approved a plan to broadly change the structure of its city government in hopes of producing a more equitable and streamlined system. But details of how that new government would be structured, outside of the legislative branch, weren’t included in the ballot measure. That task has fallen on city staff to iron out.

On Tuesday, the city shared its first draft of that organizational chart, which shows how duties currently held by elected officials will be transferred to a new administrative branch by January 1, 2025. The proposal keeps most city bureaus intact while creating new positions and splintering some departments. The plan comes after months of discussion and debate from current bureau leadership, city staff, and city commissioners.

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” said Michael Jordan, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer whose office is responsible for managing the transition. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with people’s openness to saying, ‘Okay, we can do this. We can do things a different way. And it’ll be for the better.’”

The voter-approved plan to change Portland’s form of government expands the City Council from five to to 12 members and divides the city into four political districts, where three council members will represent each district. The mayor will no longer sit on the city council, and instead help oversee day-to-day city operations. Council members will solely serve as legislators and will no longer be responsible for overseeing 26 city bureaus. The ballot measure directed the city to hire a city administrator to manage bureaus instead.

The mayor will appoint the city administrator, who must be confirmed by the city council. The administrator will be responsible for hiring, firing, and supervising bureau directors, aside from the city attorney and police chief, who will still report to the mayor.

Portland’s top administrator won’t be running the city alone.

Under the proposal, the city administrator will oversee five deputy city administrators — a new position — who will each be in charge of a group of bureaus. These five groups, or “service areas” are characterized by their focus: budget and finance, community and economic development, city operations, community safety, and public works. Each group contains between five to ten like-minded bureaus. Those bureaus will continue to be led by bureau directors who all report to their group’s deputy city administrator.

This is a significant shift from the current system, where bureau directors report to city commissioners, their staff and occasionally, the mayor. It’s not always clear who is in charge.

“This makes everybody more accountable,” Jordan said. “I think for the first time in this, maybe in the city’s history, you’ll be able to say, ‘Okay, why didn’t this go well?” And somebody will have to answer that. You’ll know who’s supposed to be making that decision and how it got made.”

The city administrator will also oversee the city’s equity officer — a new position meant to streamline citywide equity goals — and a community relations office, a new department that will oversee the city’s government relations office, tribal relations department, communications team, and a number of other programs that are currently housed in the Office of Community and Civic Life.

That office, which has been plagued by leadership turnover and persistent changes in mission and duties, will be dissolved in the new government. The office, which oversees neighborhood associations and community engagement, will have those programs divided across new departments come January.

For example, the mayor’s office will be responsible for overseeing the city’s neighborhood programs under a new department titled Portland Solutions. Portland Solutions is the only department that reports directly to the mayor’s office. It Includes programs focused on removing homeless encampments, operating outdoor homeless shelters, and coordinating trash and graffiti removal. Most of these programs have been established through emergency orders issued by the mayor’s office over the past several years, and are currently led by the mayor’s staff.

These programs could arguably be run out of traditional city bureaus, Jordan said. But because they’re largely complaint-driven — sparked by a report from a neighbor or business — and tied to specific geographic locations, Jordan believes it’s important they stay separate. He said the idea is for Portland Solutions to act as the first response team for specific neighborhood or district issues while allowing bureaus to focus on larger citywide projects.

“It’s about efficiency,” Jordan said. “Having every bureau respond to every district all the time is chaos. It isn’t that they don’t respond to local issues, but their real job is to keep the whole city running.”

The new structure comes with added costs like salaries to pay for the new administrative positions and staff for the expanded city council. Jordan said his office is already drafting a budget proposal to pay for those positions for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2024.

Jordan does anticipate some of the restructuring taking longer than expected, mostly due to the time it may take to update the city’s payroll and accounting systems.

While news of a massive reorganization has staff anxious about job security, Jordan said that his restructuring plan won’t be the cause of any layoffs. But Jordan does believe that the city’s own fiscal constraints, driven by years of shrinking revenue, could lead to cuts.

“Will the reorganization create layoffs? No,” he said. “But will layoffs occur simultaneously to what we’re doing? I think so.”

Labor unions that represent city employees are cautiously hopeful about the restructure. Ryan Sotomayor is the business manager for Laborers Local 483, a union representing more than 600 city workers.

“To be honest, some of us feel like any change is better than what we have right now,” said Sotomayor.

Local 483 spent several days in February on strike after contract negotiations with the city broke down over wages. Sotomayor said he believes a city administrator will be more effective at managing bureaus and labor conversations than elected officials.

“The end goal is to help the city run as well as it possibly can,” he said. “Hopefully the city can take that energy that has been combative toward labor and recognize that we’re better when we’re all working together to solve problems.”

The organizational chart will head to the City Council for final approval on October 19. But it’s far from the final step in the transition plan.

The city must fully transition to a new governance structure in January 2025, but Jordan anticipates much of the transition to take place months before. The city’s operations depend on it: While the new mayor and city council will be elected in November 2024, the city administrator can’t be hired until the City Council is in place. This means that the city could be operating without a city administrator and deputy city administrators for months

Jordan is hoping current city commissioners agree to appoint an interim city administrator and the five deputies to run the bureaus sometime in 2024.

“It really is about the leadership of the city coming to an agreement amongst themselves that we need a runway to land this plane so it isn’t just running into a brick wall on December 31,” Jordan said. “There will be a new mayor and a new council on January 1st of 2025, and they will expect to have a city that runs.”

Jordan, who has worked in administrative roles at several local and state governments, said he’s focused on setting the incoming city administrator for success. The position itself is already uniquely challenging — city administrators are frequently blamed for any major city issue and have historically short tenures. But if the city doesn’t appear ready to be managed by a new administrator, it could make the recruitment process more difficult.

“I’m always thinking about it from that poor person’s perspective,” Jordan said, referring to the future city administrator. “If we can prepare the role for them, lay the groundwork … it’ll be a great job for somebody. But it’ll be a hard one.”

Charting the city’s path to a new government structure is riddled with logistical challenges and delays, Jordan said. But that’s not what keeps Jordan up at night.

While tweaking organizational charts and job descriptions may appear to be a big lift, changing the way employees adapt to a completely new organizational system feels more difficult to Jordan.

“That takes time and it takes concerted effort. It does not happen by magic,” he said. “It’s really about changing culture and changing behaviors, and changing the way that people think about how they work with each other and how they deliver for the community.”

He said it could take years for city staff to acclimate to the new structure, but he hopes they’ll see the change as a net positive.

“[City staff] are passionate, they’re professional, they work hard,” Jordan said. “And they are doing their work in a system that is not conducive to them being excellent. We get a chance to change that now.”

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