Another Viewpoint: Learn from the past, don’t let it dictate how Portland is governed

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Adam O’Connor certainly did his historical homework for his op-ed “The case against the city manager” in the Aug. 5 Phoenix.

He accurately tells how the Ku Klux Klan manipulated Portland’s City Charter to weaken the political strength of ethnic groups that filled the neighborhoods on the city’s peninsula. It is a sad and shameful part of Maine’s history that the Klan numbered more than 15,000 members among Maine men in the 1920s, with the state headquarters in Portland.

O’Conner then places that history as a foundational case opposing the current charter and the position of city manager. Here, his history needs further expansion and clarification on at least two points. 

First, the city manager model of government emerged from a horrific national disaster. In September of 1900, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Galveston, Texas, killing more than 7,000 people and sending a 15-foot storm surge into the heart of the city. The city then utilized the commission form of government and it proved far too inept and outdated for the task of rebuilding the city. The city manager form of local government did much to get the city back on its feet, coordinating city services through a central administrative office.

So it was “devastation” that prompted the city manager form of government not “racism.” That racists used this system of government to oppress people of color is a blot on the history of the city manager form of government as well as a blot on the history of the state of Maine.

But that shouldn’t be a reason to discard city management in today’s world.

Secondly, O’Connor doesn’t give enough credence to the reality that the Klan was motivated not by the presence of poor working people per se, but more specifically by Catholic and Jewish poor working people as well as the community of African Americans living in Portland. It was the flood of European immigrants (mostly Catholic and Jewish) that charged the Klan to significant activity in Maine and especially Portland. 

This is important for at least one reason. O’Connor is correct that the 1920s charter was written to give more political power to neighborhoods off the peninsula where Catholic and Jewish immigrants rarely settled in the 1920s. However, following World War II, waves of these ethnic families moved off the peninsula into other neighborhoods, and this changed the balance of power without changing the charter. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, ethnic peninsula city councilors such as Harold Loring, Ralph Amergian, and Gerry Conley Sr. were eventually joined by city councilors living off the peninsula with names such as Ed Bernstein, Don McWilliams, Bill Troubh and Francis Connolly. There were previous efforts in those decades to change back to a strong mayor form of government, but those efforts had little backing in any part of the city, including the peninsula.

O’Connor argues that “a racist form of government that becomes status quo does not cease to be racist simply because those who use it are not racist.” He also suggests a city manager could stay in power by favoring districts of councilors favorable to keeping the manager in office. Could not a mayor favor certain neighborhoods securing reelection? And hopefully, O’Connor is not arguing that a strong mayor form of government won’t produce racist mayors. The history of our nation certainly indicates otherwise.

O’Connor promotes a system utilized in Portland in 1820. Does he argue that Portland was less racist in 1820 than 1920? If not, then his argument would also preclude the 1820 model.

I am not about to argue that the city manager form of government deserves to continue as the proper model for Portland in the 2020s. I have lived too many years outside Portland and unaware of local situations and competing visions. What I do suggest is that the people of my beloved city make the decision based on what is best for the city today and not on the intentions of racists a century ago. There are many models to consider, including the current city manager form and O’Connor’s 1820 model. Both need to be considered along with others. 

But choose the model that will push the city forward and bring all its residents forward together. Base the decision on what will be best for today and the future. We certainly have to learn from the past. But don’t let the past control the best way to move on the path ahead.

Michael Seavey is a Roman Catholic priest with a master’s degree in public policy. His uncle, the late John Menario, was a Portland city manager. Seavey was born and raised in Portland and now lives in Biddeford.