For Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, the city Charter Review Commission’s scramble to tackle a modest package of police accountability issues before its term expires next month sounds disturbingly familiar.
The commission, tasked with amending the city’s constitution, needs more time to develop three worthwhile proposals: one that would enshrine independent civilian oversight in the charter, and two that would ban cops from using chemicals and horses to bust up protests. But instead of giving the panel until, say, June to do all that work, Mayor Sam Adams now says any changes should wait until the next time the city convenes a charter commission. Whenever that might be.
“Neither the police bureau nor my office have been asked for comments, nor has the charter commission asked for basic research,” Adams complained, echoing recent comments from the Citizens Crime Commission, an arm of the Portland Business Alliance.
Handelman remembers hearing much of the same thing back in 2007, which he helpfully notes was “five years ago”: Good idea, but not yet.
“Are they afraid that if they give them time, that there may actually be a discussion of these issues?” he asks. “This seems to be the third rail for citizen commissions.”
Adams said it’s just that the commission has had plenty of time to do its work: “I’m not supportive of extending the deadline. We’ve extended it a couple of times. To deliver these things at the last minute, with what appears to be little research, I know this is well intentioned, but this is not what was envisioned.”
(Of course, Adams says he is willing to budge on a short extension, by just a few days, so the charter commission can vote on a proposal he favors: the creation of a citizen panel to set sewer and water rates.)
What he means by “envisioned” is that this has become a turf war.
Adams and his colleagues are clinging to a narrow view of the charter commission’s work: Originally, they urged the panel to handle only housekeeping changes, work that wrapped up earlier this year. And even though the charter commission is independent, city council used its soft power—the ability to withhold funding, extensions, and staff time, and not fill vacancies — to try keep the commission on task.
Then Occupy Portland happened. And then the council whiffed on a chance to tighten police oversight on its own. By then, the commission “found out that the council is really not the boss of them, and they get to look at anything they want to look at,” says Jo Ann Hardesty, the commissioner pushing the new changes.
Hardesty acknowledges the oversight proposal is likely dead; the city attorney isn’t finished parsing over potential ballot language. But she hopes the other two proposals will get 15 commission votes by March, enough to put them on the November ballot without council approval.
“If those make it to the ballot,” she says, even if voters say no, “I will consider it a success. Because that will give us the opportunity to have a dialogue on what true accountability looks like.”
And why, again, should that wait?