Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling speaks to a reporter after voting at the Exposition Building on Nov. 5. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Since Portland voters adopted City Charter changes in 2011 for a full-time, popularly elected mayor serving a four-year term, there have been three elections – and three different winners. The normally formidable value of incumbency hasn’t applied.

After two veteran legislators were elected – Mike Brennan in 2011 and Ethan Strimling in 2015 – there were immediate signs the new system wasn’t working smoothly. Infighting among city councilors, the mayor and city manager became intense, and although there have been periods of truce, few issues that led to the conflicts were resolved. Even today, there’s no consensus about how Maine’s most powerful elected municipal post is supposed to work.

Incoming Mayor Kate Snyder will take office with the rest of the council in December, and has pledged to work cooperatively with councilors and the city manager. Her lack of involvement in the council’s struggles – her previous elected position was on the School Board – may have increased her appeal for voters, who chose her decisively over Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and Strimling, who finished third.

The long-running rivalry of Brennan and Strimling is an important subplot. They first faced each other in the 2008 Democratic primary in the 1st Congressional District, won by Chellie Pingree, then ran in the inaugural mayor’s race in 2011, with Brennan edging Strimling; Strimling then ousted Brennan in 2015. Brennan has since returned to the Legislature, winning a House seat in 2018; after losing last week, Strimling is mulling his political future.

From the start, there were predictions of discord. The 2010 referendum that returned the mayor to a popularly elected position for the first time since 1923, rather than by vote of the City Council, grafted the position onto the City Charter. Portland uses the “strong city manager” system common to most Maine cities. The city manager serves as administrative head of government; the council has legislative authority, and the ability to hire and fire the manager.

Without changing those arrangements, the revised charter attempted to define duties for a full-time mayor who remains a council member, but is paid far more and has the only four-year term; councilors serve three years. It was an attempt, essentially, to square the circle.

In language that recalls the majestic vagueness of the U.S. Constitution and landmark Supreme Court decisions – “due process of law,” “all deliberate speed” – the charter says the mayor “shall be the official head of the city,” with the power “to articulate the city’s vision and goals.” A primary vehicle was to be a “state of the city address,” which the mayor “shall give … during a special meeting of the City Council called for that purpose.”

What this means, in practice, is far from clear. When Brennan took office, some councilors contested his role in setting the council agenda, despite the charter’s direction that the mayor “shall direct the city manager in the preparation of council meeting agendas.” They insisted they should be able to add their own items.

By the time Strimling succeeded Brennan, the council, had, a few months earlier, appointed Jon Jennings as city manager, and the mayor-manager relationship became even more contentious. Jennings informed the mayor that any discussion with city staff would have to be cleared through him, making the manager the communications gateway, and sharply limiting the mayor’s ability to “articulate the city’s vision and goals.”

Simply put, some councilors still see the mayor as “first among equals,” who should operate almost solely as council chair. Since the council oversees the manager, most conflicts originate there, even as the Jennings-Strimling clash became especially intense. The manager eventually declared he would be unable to work with the mayor should he be re-elected – an extraordinary intrusion by an appointed official into the electoral realm.

Snyder won’t be weighed down by some of the baggage that burdened her predecessors, yet, all the same, it’s hard to predict smooth sailing.

Ironically, voters may soon get a chance to weigh in again on the appropriate division of powers among mayor, council and manager. The city attorney ruled that a referendum petition to add Clean Election provisions could not be considered as an amendment, but would require a new Charter Commission. Alhough the council was responding primarily to the campaign finance issue in authorizing a June 2020 vote, a commission wouldn’t be limited to that subject and could reopen the mayoral question.

After a decade of contention, it may be time to sort out these ambiguities and answer the question: “Who runs the city?” Although there’s some support for abolishing the elected mayor, it’s doubtful voters, after giving themselves a larger role, would readily give it up.

As we’ve recently become all too aware, democracy is never entirely stable, and is always a work in progress. Without distinct lines of authority, it’s doubtful city government will ever be able to work to anyone’s satisfaction.

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as an editorial writer, columnist, and editor of Maine Times.