Portland Oregon City Charter and Government


In 1851 a Charter was granted to the city of Portland by the Legislature of Oregon. By this instrument corporate powers were lodged in the “People of the city of Portland,” constituting them “a body politic and corporate in fact and law” with all necessary legal privileges. The city limits were to be fixed by a line beginning at the northwest corner of the donation claim of Finice Caruthers, running thence easterly by the north line of that claim to the river bank, and by a projection of the same to the middle of the Willamette; thence northerly by the middle of the river to the projection of the north line of Couch’s claim; thence west seventy chains and south to the place of beginning.

There was little that was peculiar about the charter. It provided that the officers should be mayor, recorder, treasurer, marshal and assessor. There should be a common council of nine members. All of the above offices were to be filled by election of the voters of the city. By appointment of the city council there were to be city attorney, street commissioner, city surveyor and city collector. Election day was fixed on the first Monday in April, yearly.

Elections were to be by ballot and a residence in the town of thirty days in addition to the qualifications of voters in the then territory, was required. No election was to be held in a saloon, or any place where ardent spirits were sold. Proper provisions for appointment in case of absences were also made.

The common council was invested with the usual powers, being authorized to pass ordinances not in conflict with the constitution of the State or the United States; to collect taxes, provide water, and guard against fires, diseases, nuisances, and disorders; to license taverns, and all other forms of business or trade usually put under some sort of restriction; and to suppress gambling houses and other immoral things. Property outside of the city limits for such necessary purposes as pest house, water works, etc., might be purchased and owned. Duties of officers were carefully specified.

Among provisions likely to be amended was that forbidding the mayor and members of the common council to receive pay for their services; to allow a protest of the owners of one-third of the property on a street to stop improvements ordered thereupon, while two-thirds of the expense of all improvements of streets was to be borne by the property adjacent; and the provision that land within the city limits not laid out in blocks and lots should not be taxed by the city.

Among miscellaneous provisions were that fixing the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1st; that giving the decision of a tie vote at any election to the common council; that no officer in the city government should have any interest in city contracts; that an oath of office must be taken and that any ordinance calling for an expenditure of above one hundred dollars must lie ten days before passage.

In 1858 certain amendments were made, by which the city was to be divided into three wards, each electing three members to the council; to allow collection of port dues on ships and steamers; and to pay the councilmen three dollars per day for actual service. In 1860 this provision for paying councilmen was repealed. In 1862 an amendment was added, relating principally to street improvements, providing that half the expense of such improvements should be borne by the owners of adjacent property, and that a protest of the owners of two-thirds of the property must be obtained to arrest any street work ordered by the council.

In 1864 the entire instrument was revised and written in a more perspicuous style. The limits of the corporation were extended so as to include the Caruthers Claim. The mayor was to serve two years; the election was to be on the third Monday in June. The fiscal year was to begin with January, the city was not to incur an indebtedness of above fifty thousand dollars; a dredger might be owned and operated by the city on the lower Willamette. The mayor and the councilmen should receive no compensation. In 1865 an amendment was made in regard to laying out new streets; and constructing sewers and drains.

In 1872 a new charter was granted, which was quite a voluminous document, and introduced many changes. The limits of the city were extended so as to include the whole of the Caruthers and Couch claims, and a space seventy chains and over still to the west. The city was divided into three wards, the first including all that portion north of Washington street; the second, that between Washington and Main streets, and the third, all south of Main street. Each ward was to elect three members to the common council for three years each. The mayor was to be elected for two years, and was invested with the veto power, requiring a two-thirds vote to pass an ordinance without his approval. The treasurer and assessor were to be chosen by the common council, and the attorney, street commissioner and surveyor were to be appointed by the mayor, with the consent of the council. The office of. recorder was abolished and a police judge was instated to succeed him. This officer was to serve for two years, holding regular court, and came to his position by appointment of the mayor. The office of marshal was also abolished, and the police department was placed under the supervision of three police commissioners appointed by the governor. The mayor and council-men were forbidden to receive a salary, or other compensation; the rewards of the other officers were definitely fixed, that of police commissioner being three dollars per day for actual service. Special policemen were allowed, but they were not to receive pay from the city-being left, it would seem, to obtain their wages from private persons asking their services. It has recently been earnestly recommended to abolish the “specials.”

The street commissioner was invested with large powers. Street improvements were to be paid by tax on property adjacent and could be discontinued upon the remonstrance of two-thirds of the property holders interested, Changes of grade were to be paid for out of the general fund. Taxes, except for the dredging of the river, were not to exceed one and one-half per centum of the assessed value of city property per annum. The indebtedness of the city was not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars. The financial needs of the Police Department were to be determined by the police commissioners, and the sum requisite was to be provided by the common council by tax.

The details of the instrument. are very minute, and some features, as the last mentioned, were likely to produce friction in working.

By the charter of 1882, which, with various amendments, is still in force, the boundaries of the city were so extended as to embrace the Blackistone place on the north, and some additions on the south and west, while the middle of the Willamette was still left as the limit on the east. City authority is vested in mayor, common council and board of. police commissioners. The three wards are continued with substantially the same boundaries as before, each of which is entitled to three members in the common council. Councilmen, mayor and treasurer come to their office by vote of the electors of the city. The auditor is elected by the common council, holding his term at their pleasure. The attorney, street superintendent and surveyor are appointed by the mayor, with the consent of the council, and are removable for cause. Election is the third Monday in June. A residence of six months in the city and of ten days in the ward, in addition to qualifications as elector of the State, is required of the voter. Careful rules of election and regulations as to vacancies and absences are provided.

The common council is invested with ample powers to carry on the business of the city, to secure good order, to regulate dangerous occupations, to prevent the introduction and spread of disease, and to suppress nuisances and immoral business. Authority is granted to impose a tax of three mills for general municipal purposes, and three and a half mills each for the support of the paid Fire Department and of the Police Department. Assessments of property in the city are made according to the assessment rolls of Multnomah County.

The mayor is the general head of the city government, making an annual message to the common council, in which he reports upon the state of the city and recommends such measures as he deems proper. No ordinance may become a law without his approval unless passed subsequently by a two-thirds vote of the council. The treasurer is held to keep a strict account of the funds of the city, and the auditor keeps full record of all warrants and bills, issues licenses and makes annual lists of all property subject to taxation. The city attorney attends upon all actions to which the city is a party, prosecutes for violation of city ordinances, and prepares for execution all contracts, bonds or other legal instruments for the city. The street commissioner exercises a general care over the streets, the public squares and the parks; supervises surveys, and requires improvements ordered by the council to be fully and faithfully completed.

The Police Department is under the police commissioners, who are elected by the voters of the city and serve without salary. They organize and supervise the police force. The police judge, however, who must be an attorney of the degree of an attorney of the Supreme court of the State, and whose court is of the degree of that of justice of the peace, is appointed by the mayor, with the consent of the common council. He has jurisdiction of all crimes defined by city ordinance. His salary is not to exceed $2000 per annum. All police officers are strictly forbidden to receive compensation other than that provided by ordinance, under the general regulation.

The Fire Department is under three commissioners who are appointed by the mayor with the consent of the council. Their term of office is for three years. Compensation of all officers or employees of the Fire Department is prescribed in the legislative act erecting the same.

The City Water Works are, by this charter, placed in the hands of a committee appointed by the legislature with the power to fill all vacancies occurring in their own body. They are independent of all other departments of the city government.

A fuller account of these two latter departments is given further down in this volume.

Police Department

Much care and expense have been bestowed on the police department. There is difficulty always in a city in securing enforcement of the laws against certain forms of vice and immorality. These often find refuge in the cupidity of property-owners and others and the law can seldom be enforced with vigor. But on the whole good order is maintained in Portland.

The police force of the city consisted at first simply of the marshal. As his duties became too great for his personal attention, deputies were appointed by him, or by the council.

By the Act of 1872 a regular police system was inaugurated. The office of marshal was abolished, and the management was given to a board of three police commissioners holding office three years, elected each year in order. The board was to be responsible to the people only. The office of recorder was succeeded by that of police judge, who was first appointed by the mayor. The system remains substantially as at the present time. The expenses of the department are to be determined by the commissioners and the necessary sum may be raised by the common council by tax not to exceed 3 1/2 mills.

Below are given the names of the policemen from 1872, the time of the new order. The names of marshals and judges will be found in the list of city officers.

1872. Police Commissioners-A. B. Hallock, Pres., W. P. Burke, Eugene Semple. Chief-J. H. Lappeus. Police-J. R. Wiley, first captain; A. B. Brannan, second captain; H. M. Hudson, W. M. Ward, D. Norton, D. Walton, B. P. Collins, J. W. Kelly, C. F. Schoppe, T. Burke, Thos. Gale. Specials-W. M. Hickey, B. O’Hara, J. M. McCoy, M. F. Sherwood, Paul Marten. Poundmaster—Charles Lawrence.

1873. Police Commissioners-A. B. Halleck, W. P. Burke, ,O. Risley. Police- J. H. Lappeus, chief; J. R. Wiley, A. B. Brannan, captains; Thos. Burk, J. W. Kelly, C. F. Scheppe, D. Norton, J. Corcoran, H. M. Hudson, J. K. Mercer, B. P Collins, J. D. Yates, O. D. Buck, A. J. Barlow, F. Reardon, M. T. Sheehan, B. O’Hara, J. M’Coy, J. Sloan. P. Shea, J. O’Neil, P. Martin.

1875-6. Police Commissioners-Shubrick Norris, J. R. Foster. M. S. Burrell. Police -J. H, Lappeus, chief; B. P. Collins, J. Sloan, captains; Thos. Burke, A. B. Brannan, B. T. Belcher, Chas. Gritzmacher, J. W. Kelly, J. T. Watson, J. W. Hain, H. M. Hobson, J. S. Hamilton. Specials-J. McCoy, B. O’Hara, M. T. Sheehan. Poundmaster-Charles Lawrence.

1877-8. Police Commissioners-R. R. Riley, Wm. Connell, E. W. Connell. Police-Chief, L. Besser; H. S. Allen, J. W. Kelly, captains; C. P. Elwanger, H. M. Hudson, J. W. Kelley. Specials J. McCoy, Barny O’Hara, M. F. Sheehan, C.W. Howard. Poundmaster-M. B. Wallace.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top