Think Local Government Is Gridlocked in Portland? Try Living in San Francisco

“How should the Portland metro area govern itself?”

That’s the question that reader John Sieling sent me before my trip to the San Francisco Bay Area — and it’s one many Portlanders have been asking lately.

In February, City Club released a 35-page report about Portland’s unusual form of government and proposed a series of reforms designed to make it more efficient and equitable.  

If you think that sounds familiar, you’re right.

Since 1913, eight separate ballot initiatives have tried to overhaul Portland’s commission system, which distributes executive power among five city commissioners instead of centralizing it with an elected mayor or appointed city manager.

All eight reform efforts have failed at the ballot box, including the most recent one in 2007. But the City Club report has helped renew attention on the current system’s flaws and revive debate about where to go next.

With that in mind, I looked into how the Bay Area’s system of local government works, and whether or not the grass really is greener down in the Golden State.

Here’s what I learned:

Local control is messy (aka why everyone loves Metro)

Here in Portland, Metro is such an unknown commodity that I once wrote a story for Bridgeliner’s voter guide titled “WTF is Metro?

But to bureaucrats in California, our elected regional government is the source of a lot of envy, because the Bay Area doesn’t have one.

Instead, its nine counties and 101 cities set their own policies on everything from housing density to land use, and that can get messy real quick.

Take housing: Almost everyone agrees that the Bay Area needs more housing units, but as Laura Foote from YIMBY Action explained to me, most cities and counties don’t want those units built in their backyards.

“For each city, it makes more sense to build revenue-generating things like offices, hotels, and retail,” she said. “The people are always supposed to live in the mythical ‘somewhere else.’”

The Portland region isn’t immune to these tensions, of course. Neighborhood associations have used “historic district” designations to protect existing homes and prevent denser development, and cities have set different rules for tiny-home villages and ADUs.

But thanks to Metro, some regional coordination does exist here. It’s why we can pass an affordable housing bond that makes investments across the whole region, and why we’re able to talk about improving transportation corridors, even when those corridors cross city or county lines.

California is trying to fix its gridlock problem by setting more policy at the state level – but even that has been a struggle. In Oregon, a bill that capped annual rent increases cruised through the legislature and became law this year.

Meanwhile, a similar proposal in California is still waiting to get a vote.

On the bright side…

One recommendation that City Club made in its recent report is that Portland’s commissioners (aka the people who serve on City Council) should be elected by geographic district, instead of “at-large” for the entire city.

The switch to district elections has already happened across most of the Bay Area, including in Menlo Park, the home of Facebook.

Until 2018, Menlo Park hadn’t elected a councilor from the city’s low-income neighborhood of Belle Haven in decades. The switch to district elections last year changed that, and Menlo Park elected an African American woman to city council for the first time ever.

It’s a similar story in the (much bigger) city of San Francisco, which adopted district-based elections in 2001.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has become more ethnically and geographically diverse since the change, and the average cost of running a winning campaign has fallen more than 50 percent.

But district-based elections bring their own challenges. In San Francisco, critics say that commissioners often put their district’s needs ahead of the city’s needs, because only the voters in their district can hold them accountable at the ballot box.

That “fiefdom” dynamic is why Portland couldn’t adopt district-based voting without also changing its current commission system, which gives individual commissioners oversight of citywide departments. 

The commission system already creates conflict-of-interest concerns, but that would be magnified if, say, the commissioner in charge of the Housing Bureau was only directly accountable to Northwest Portland.

That’s why City Club and other reform advocates are calling for more sweeping changes to our local government, including the creation of a “city manager” role that would bring supervision of the city bureaucracy all under roof.

Like most major cities around the world, San Francisco already has a city manager, so maybe that’s one idea worth stealing.

Check out the full City Club report for a deep dive into Portland’s government reform debate, and subscribe to our newsletter to continue following this series.