Power of the mayor likely to test Portland Charter Commission

Here's how the strong-mayor system has fared in nearby Westbrook and not-far-away Burlington, Vermont

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As Portland voters choose nine Charter Commission members on June 8 – a decade after electing the first full-time mayor in nearly nine decades – there’s a sense of unfinished business.

Predictions by supporters and opponents about the 2008 commission that produced the full-time mayor have missed the mark.

When the charter revisions were approved in 2010, a supportive member, James Gooch, wrote “Many Portlanders feel that in recent years, city government has lacked transparency. It has lacked leadership and vision.”

Agreeing that the new position fell short of the “strong mayor” some commission members wanted, Gooch said, “Our challenge has been to create a position that provides a platform for vision and leadership, yet guards against the pitfalls of unfettered power.” He acknowledged the proposal “leaves in place a strong manager and council,” but said “a steady hand over a four-year term” could compensate.

Critics emphasized the same points; Thomas Valleau, another commission member, said the elected mayor wasn’t worth it. His claim the position might cost “$87,000 to $400,000 annually” was exaggerated, but he added, perhaps presciently, “Oddly, the elected mayor’s job would remain basically ceremonial.”

Neither of Portland’s first two four-year mayors, Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling, won reelection despite seeking it; the third, Kate Snyder, will serve through 2023.

Now, many of those seeking Charter Commission seats support the strong mayor, or executive mayor, as it’s also known, leaving voters to wonder how such a system would work if it were to replace the council-manager form adopted in 1923.

Westbrook

For comparison, one needs to look no further than neighboring Westbrook. While smaller than Portland, it is Maine’s 12th largest municipality and has transitioned from dependence on the former S.D. Warren paper mill (now Sappi), with Idexx Labratories now the largest employer.

Portland’s estimated 2019 population is about 66,600; Westbrook has 19,000 residents.

Westbrook has had the strong-mayor system for decades, and while its origins are unclear, S.D. Warren was likely a primary reason. The mill and the city were closely linked, and “Mother Warren” workers often served on the City Council and in the Legislature, as did mill managers.

Jerre Bryant has been the hired professional administrator in Westbrook for almost 20 years.

Today, the mayor’s office includes a professional city administrator, who since 2002 has been Jerre Bryant. Michael Foley, the mayor, was elected to his first term in 2019.

In interviews, Bryant described the relationship as harmonious, and in the functioning of city government, not greatly different than South Portland – a council-manager system where he was assistant manager, then city manager, for 15 years.

Bryant said he took “a diversion” into the private sector as manager of the Maine Mall, then returned to municipal government in Westbrook.

He has served with five mayors, who had “very different approaches, styles, and personalities,” he said. He characterized three as fitting the “strong mayor” mold, while the two others deferred to the council, often referring to him as “city manager.”

Bryant sympathized with Portland’s mayors and city managers during the stormy decade since the full-time mayor position was created. “It was a compromise, and didn’t change the underlying council-manager system,” he said.

Bryant thinks Brennan did a creditable job, considering that “he was a first-time mayor, a very challenging position.” The system also reflected “the vagaries that are inherent in any major legislation” that must be worked out in practice, he said.

The experience of the second mayor, Ethan Strimling, alongside City Manager Jon Jennings, was less fortunate: “You had an activist mayor matched with a very capable administrator who guarded his prerogatives,” Bryant said. “It led to a great deal of conflict.”

Not that conflict is absent in Westbrook. Bryant has witnessed sparring between the mayor and council, including the firings of three department heads by former Mayor Colleen Hilton in 2009.

The secret to longevity as an administrator, he said, is “You can’t have an ego that makes you have to be in control.”

Michael Foley is serving his first term as the elected mayor of Westbrook.

As mayor, Foley is Bryant’s supervisor and, in theory, could dismiss him or any other city employee. Hilton’s actions caused controversy because the charter at the time only said department heads served one-year terms, which weren’t renewed. Newer language makes the mayor’s powers explicit.

Department changes may be the last thing on Foley’s mind. Since the pandemic began, he said, he has worked 50-hour weeks and is thankful his wife has a good job that supports their family.

Comparable only to Gov. Janet Mills, Foley declared a state of emergency on his own, something he sees as a benefit. “A lot of cities and towns had to improvise, and pass new ordinances,” he said. In Westbrook, it was clear who had authority.

There have been few conflicts with the council over the orders, although one councilor protested mask rules. As required, the council renewed the emergency after six months, and Foley said he hopes he can order its end soon.

Foley acknowledged the low pay for the mayor, just $6,500 a year, with $3,000 annually for each of the seven councilors. That compares with Bryant’s salary of $138,000, comparable to Portland’s city manager, currently $170,000.

Foley said he is concerned some qualified candidates might not seek such a demanding job without higher pay, and said a salary of $50,000 would be reasonable. Increases can’t take place without an intervening election, however, and it hasn’t been a council priority, he said.

Burlington

When New Englanders think of powerful mayors they look to Boston, or New York, as a model. But at least one New England city – Burlington, Vermont – offers an example of how the executive mayor works in a municipality occupying a position comparable in that state to Portland’s in Maine, as the economic hub and growth center.

Peter Clavelle succeeded Bernie Sanders as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1989, was the first Progressive Party candidate elected to the office, and served for 15 of the next 17 years.

Peter Clavelle served as mayor for 15 years, from 1989-1993, and again from 1995-2006, including the first three-year term. His one electoral defeat came in 1993, when Republican Peter Brownell scored an upset, apparently over a domestic partners ordinance applying to city employees that Clavelle supported; he defeated Brownell two years later.

Clavelle, who succeeded Bernie Sanders, was the first Progressive Party candidate to become mayor, and Burlington remains the party’s nucleus. Unlike Portland’s Greens, who have faded, the Progressives have grown stronger. They hold six of 12 council seats, along with four Democrats and two independents.

Progressives have also won seven Vermont House seats and two in the Senate.

While many of his fellow Progressives today are what Clavelle characterizes as “highly ideological,” he said he sees his own tenure as “progressive, but pragmatic.” He had to make deals with Democrats, with Republicans disappearing, and sees city affairs as less divisive – most of the time.

Clavelle was succeeded by another Progressive, Bob Kiss, who served two terms but became enmeshed in a scandal involving city accounts, and retired in 2012. The current mayor, Miro Weinberger, is a Democrat who has been reelected twice, although his 2019 support was sharply reduced, which emboldened Progressives.

Two current issues, one older and one of recent origin, have dominated Burlington City Council debates. After George Floyd’s murder last year, the council, with Weinberger’s agreement, voted to reduce police staffing by 30 percent through attrition.

Democrat Miro Weinberger is the current mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

Weinberger, however, said not replacing departing officers amid the pandemic has created a staffing crisis and he is preparing new proposals to deal with it.

The older controversy involves CityPlace, a $160 million project in the heart of downtown Burlington that will replace a multi-level downtown mall that was demolished in 2018. The project has been enmeshed in lawsuits, mostly resolved, although another challenge from a neighboring building owner – a disappointed bidder for a contract that went to developer Don Sinex – is pending.

Clavelle predicts Weinberger, who’s led the city’s redevelopment efforts throughout, will be successful in getting the project on track; it includes restoring the street grid displaced by the original mall.

“It’s the most valuable piece of real estate in Vermont,” he said. “Eventually, they’ll get it done.”

Another aspect of the plan is a new effort by the City Council to counter the proliferation of parking garages – a dilemma Portland also faces. In select downtown areas, minimum parking requirements for new development have been replaced by maximums, reflecting surveys showing new downtown dwellers don’t want cars and don’t need parking spaces.

The effect on CityPlace, in development for years, is unclear, but the overall direction reinforces downtown shopping areas, including Church Street Marketplace – four blocks converted to pedestrian access that houses a thriving mix of shops and restaurants. 

Clavelle sees complex development projects as one area where a strong mayor can be useful. Having an elected official, with authority, at the table, can make all the difference, he said.

Whatever form of local government Portland chooses, Westbrook administrator Bryant said, “the key is the quality of the people you elect.” Either a council-manager or strong-mayor system can work, he said, but only if those elected or appointed have clear authority.

“The format is not the deciding factor,” he said. “It’s who you put in the position. If you don’t have a strong, assertive leader, you’ll struggle. … You can find strong mayors who haven’t worked out, but then there are those who make a big splash.”

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter, and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit  douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail drooks@tds.net.

Westbrook City Hall, where governance is shared by a strong elected mayor, hired administrator, and elected City Council.

What is a strong mayor?

Like many aspects of American government, the strong-mayor system is often a highly localized phenomenon.

In Maine, cities basically have a choice from three forms of governance.

One is the weak-mayor system, which Portland used before its 2010 City Charter changes, where the City Council chooses the mayor from among its members, generally for a one-year term.

The second has the mayor directly elected by the voters. The mayor sometimes is a voting member of the council, and in others votes only to break ties or to veto council decisions. Augusta, Waterville, Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford, and Saco are among the cities using this system.

In both cases, much executive authority remains with the city manager, who can hire and fire department heads, and most other employees, runs the day-to-day affairs of city government, and sometimes sets policy.

Then there’s the third choice, the strong mayor, where the mayor assumes authority to hire and fire, presents the budget to the council, and sometimes can reorganize city administration. In Maine, only Westbrook retains a strong mayor, although other cities – including Portland – have used it.

And no Maine city other than Portland has a full-time mayor; in Westbrook, the position is officially part-time.

A mayor’s powers are enumerated in the City Charter, which can lead to unexpected quirks and exceptions. In some Maine cities, including Auburn and Saco, the mayor does have some appointive authority for employees, though more often mayors appoint only voluntary boards and commissions.

In Biddeford, probably uniquely, the mayor also chairs the School Board.

Even in strong-mayor cities, systems often evolve. Until 2003, Burlington, Vermont, had a curious system for choosing department heads.

Except for the city administrator, who works in the mayor’s office, Burlington had a long-standing practice of having citizen commissions not only overseeing departments but hiring and firing the department head.

A 2000 consultant’s report advised allowing the mayor to assume authority over department heads and extending the mayor’s term, which became three years in the resulting charter changes.

The consultant? It was Tim Honey, who served as Portland’s city manager in the 1980s. 

— Douglas Rooks

Colleen Hilton wasted little time using the power of her office when she was elected mayor of Westbrook.

Westbrook’s strong example

In 2009, newly elected Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton, the first woman to serve in the post, used powers that had long lain dormant. She dismissed three department heads: the fire chief, finance director, and recreation director.

At the time, Hilton said she’d been warned repeatedly “not to rock the boat,” but that’s not the course she chose. “I knew I had to move fast,” she said recently.

At the time, Westbrook had two female firefighters on paid administrative leave who’d made harassment claims and were suing the city. The Finance Department, Hilton believed, was poorly run.

Hilton made her own picks and later reorganized the Fire and Police departments into a Department of Public Safety.

Westbrook’s difficulties included a long-running dispute between Pike Industries, a major paving contractor, and the fast-growing IDEXX Laboratories, both attempting to expand in the same area.

Hilton, a Democrat, brokered a deal with the companies. Bruce Chuluda, the Republican she’d defeated in 2009 by 100 votes, criticized the IDEXX-Pike settlement and the dismissals. In a 2011 rematch, he lost by a wider margin.

Following a 2013 charter revision, Hilton went on to serve the first three-year mayoral term, then retired in 2016 after she took on a statewide role for VNA Home Health Hospice and Eastern Maine Home Care, now affiliated with Northern Light.

Westbrook’s current mayor, Michael Foley, who works at least 40 hours a week, said “I don’t know how Colleen managed to do both jobs.” While paid at a decidedly part-time salary, just $6,500, the mayor’s position can be demanding.

Looking back, Hilton said, “I tried to schedule meetings for the beginning and end of the workday. When I started traveling statewide, it was just too much.”

After seven years as the only strong mayor in Maine, Hilton said, “I do miss being involved, the process of government, and working with talented people.”

She doesn’t miss the ever-present electronic in-fighting. “The breakdown of civil discourse is a real problem,” she said. “It’s so much harder to be uncivil when meetings are face-to-face.”

Westbrook voters may have a taste for decisive leadership. When Hilton’s successor, a councilor and retired city employee, proved disappointing, Foley – who’d served on the council since 2005, when he was 18 – ousted the incumbent in 2019.

He plans to seek a second term next year.

— Douglas Rooks