A Mayor-Council Government

Rendering of Portland’s new city council chambers. Image: Holst Architecture.

Portland is the last major city in the nation with a commission government, a rare setup where city council members serve dual roles as lawmakers and executives of city bureaus. This will change in 2025 when the city transitions to a mayor-council system.

The mayor-council model, used by roughly a third of U.S. cities, separates City Hall into a legislative branch, represented by the council, and an executive branch, led by the mayor.

Let’s take a closer look at how Portland’s new city charter distributes governmental powers.

Greetings, legislators.

Portland’s new city council has twelve members, with three representatives elected from each of the four council districts. Councilors shoulder three equally significant responsibilities: legislating, engaging with constituents, and approving the city budget. Notably, the mayor is not a member of the council, but casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie.

Under the new city charter, the council is tasked with electing a president to preside over council meetings. While the council president is expected to assume a leadership role, the precise nature of this position will develop with the newly elected council. Similarly, the charter does not outline the division of labor among councilors from the same district, leaving room for different personalities and working styles.

One of the council’s initial tasks will be to form committees. These committees must include members from all four council districts and will propose policies to the full council. Committee meetings will be open to the public and offer opportunities for public input. Consequently, a significant portion of the city’s public input process is expected to take place within committee hearings.

However, any proposal must still be approved by the full council to become law.

Hello, executive mayor.

Portland’s mayor will serve as the city’s chief executive, tasked with representing the city and overseeing its affairs.

City governments are often classified as having either “strong” or “weak” mayors. Portland’s mayor will have many “strong” features, such as the authority to propose budgets, introduce legislation, and even break ties on the council. However, unlike many other cities with mayor-council governments, Portland’s mayor will not have the power to veto the council’s decisions or its approved budget.

Even without a veto, a mayor can wield significant influence. As the face of the city, the mayor has a prominent platform to shape public opinion and challenge unwanted legislation. Furthermore, with a tiebreaking vote on the 12-member council, Portland’s mayor can advance mayor-initiated policies without the need for a council majority.

Portland’s new charter requires the mayor to appoint a professional administrator to manage and oversee city bureaus. While the city administrator will handle the hiring of most top-level staff, there are two exceptions: the city attorney and the police chief, who are directly appointed by the mayor. Importantly, while Portland’s mayor will delegate many important functions to the administrator, the mayor ultimately sets the direction and is accountable for the actions of the executive branch.

man sits typing on MacBook Air on table

Welcome, professional city administrator.

The city administrator’s job is to manage all city bureaus and implement and enforce the legislation that the council adopts.

An key responsibility will be to oversee a team of six deputy administrators responsible for service areas such as Budget & Finance, City Operations, Community & Economic Development, Public Safety, Vibrant Communities, and Public Works. For a closer look at the city’s organizational chart, click here.

The city administrator reports directly to the mayor but must also attend council meetings and keep the council informed about matters concerning the legislative branch. These duties, laid out in the city charter, underscore the administrator’s role as a bridge between the executive and legislative branches.

Similarly, while the mayor appoints the administrator, the choice is subject to confirmation by the council. The dual relationship between the administrator and both branches of government is also reflected in the rules for removing the administrator. While the mayor can dismiss the administrator at will, the council can take the same action with a two-thirds vote. Although the threshold for council action is higher, it reflects a shared responsibility between both branches to provide oversight of the way the city delivers services and interacts with constituents.