The 12 members of Portland's Charter Commission were sworn in Monday night, June 29, in a remote meeting and elected Michael Kebede as chair, Shamika Stewart-Bouley as vice chair, and Peter Eglinton as secretary. The commission will meet again on July 15 to discuss and adopt rules, and will hold its first public hearing on July 28. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Portland’s new Charter Commission on Monday chose Michael Kebede and Shamika Stewart-Bouley as chair and vice chair, respectively, and Peter Eglinton as secretary, in a series of divided votes.

The 12-member commission also scheduled its second meeting for 6 p.m. on July 15, where it will discuss and adopt rules and procedures, and its first public hearing, to be held remotely at 6 p.m. on July 28.

The commission members who were elected June 8 are Stewart-Bouley (District 1); Robert O’Brien (District 2); Zachary Barowitz (District 3); Marcques Houston (District 4); Ryan Lizanecz (District 5); and Marpheen Chann, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Catherine Buxton and Patricia Washburn (at-large).

Michael Kebede

Commissioners Dory Waxman, Kebede, and Eglinton were previously appointed by the City Council.

Kebede, who is a policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, defeated Eglinton 9-3 to become chair. He said he envisions the Charter Commission’s leadership roles to be more “democratic and horizontal” than they are currently defined in state law, and said he would like to see the commission elect new leadership regularly.

In his pitch to be elected chair, Kebede said one of his most relevant skills is his experience steering a bill through the Legislatiure to ban facial recognition technology. He said he knew state police agencies strongly opposed it, and knew he would need them in order to gain passage. So he facilitated meetings and eventually earned their support of the bill, which is now on the governor’s desk.

Kebede said he can be both “dispassionate and passionate” as the group’s chair, noting his experience as a lawyer, where he has represented people whose views he did not share, while he protected their right to speak.

“I have a spiritual obligation to hear people out and recognize our interconnectedness,” Kebede said. “I’ve met you all … and my love for you is deeper than the political disagreements I know we’ll have.” 

Kebede also pointed to his work to ban police officers from schools as an example of his leadership. Where he grew up in Ethiopia, he said, there were no police in schools, so he was “horrified” to discover it was the norm in the United States. His position initially received pushback from the School Board, but after the events of last summer, the board eventually voted to remove school resource officers from Portland’s high schools.

“I hesitate to call myself a leader,” Kebede said. “I was part of a coalition, but at first I did feel like a voice howling in the wilderness.”

Shay Stewart-Bouley

Stewart-Bouley also defeated Eglinton 9-3 to become vice chair, and she pointed to her work as an executive director of two nonprofit organizations, as well as her experience as a community organizer and in social justice, as strengths she would bring to the post.

“The first thing you learn (as a community organizer) is you have to work across differences,” Stewart-Bouley said.

In the votes for the chair and vice chair, Commissioners Dory Waxman and Robert O’Brien voted for Eglinton, who also voted for himself. 

“I seek to leave a situation better off than when I joined,” Eglinton said in his remarks. “I am proud to say I’ve had many good colleagues. We didn’t achieve everything we set out to, but the groups I’ve been a part of have come out stronger than when we started.”

He said a leadership position was not personal for him, but he simply believed he had a skill set that would be valuable for the commission.

Eglinton, the deputy director of Efficiency Maine and former School Board chairman and chief operating officer of Portland Public Schools, narrowly defeated Washburn for the secretary post. He and other commissioners agreed the secretary should not be the person taking meeting minutes, because that person might not be able to contribute to discussions.

Eglinton was elected 7-5, with Houston, Sheikh-Yousef, Kebede, Stewart-Bouley, and Washburn opposed. He was nominated for all three positions by Waxman; Washburn nominated herself. Lizanecz was also initially nominated, but declined the nomination.

Peter Eglinton

There was some discussion over what the role of the secretary would be, with some members wondering if this person would be the conduit to speak to the press on behalf of the commission. Washburn pointed to her past experience as a journalist as a communication strength that would benefit this position. 

“I can bring something to the table and be of use in this role,” she said. 

Eglinton said he would be fine with the secretary being a kind of spokesperson, as he performed that role previously with the School Board, but believed it should be the role of the chair to be the voice of the Charter Commission. 

“The role we have doesn’t change, we’re in this special space over the next year,” Eglinton said. “In that way we’re all spokespeople. But when people ask me, I have tried to faithfully reflect the essence of our discussions.”

The meeting also saw the commission’s legal adviser, James Katsiaficas of the law firm Perkins Thompson, explain a few ground rules, such as expectations around the Freedom of Access Act, what constitutes a public meeting, and the requirements of state law.

For example, Waxman asked if instead of a chair and vice chair, they could simply elect co-chairs. Katsiaficas said state statute is clear they had to elect a chair and vice chair, but once elected, those individuals can divide power as they chose.

While they haven’t set a schedule of meetings yet beyond the next two, commissioners discussed the need to meet regularly and also try to keep the meetings to just a few hours.

Waxman posited that, aside from public hearings, they should aim to have their meetings be no more than two hours, with a break in the middle. Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who served on the previous Charter Commission, noted that panel met every two weeks for three hours each meeting.

At their next meeting, commissioners will go over the rules used by the previous commission to see what they might apply. They have also asked city staff to tell them what budget the last commission had to work with, since they may seek to hire staff for administrative purposes, including keeping meeting minutes.

The commission must produce an interim report by March 8, 2022, and send a final report to the City Council by June 8, 2022. Its recommended charter revisions, if any, must be approved by voters in a referendum to be held in November 2022.

Public comments for the Portland Charter Commission’s initial public hearing on July 28 may be submitted in writing to [email protected].