The Charter Commission’s governance committee Monday night heard several experts express concerns about moving to a stronger, executive mayor.
Giving more authority to the mayor and reducing the power of the city manager is something commissioners have been discussing dating back to their election campaigns.
Commissioners Robert O’Brien, Ryan Lizanecz, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, and Shay Stewart-Bouley heard from three municipal government academicians. Each warned about pitfalls that could develop from giving the mayor full executive control of the city.
The experts – former Bowdoin College professor and current University of Maryland professor Cheryl Laird; Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to the executive mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, and Jim Svara, a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – warned that if an elected mayor isn’t right for the job, there’s no real mechanism to remove them until their term expires. In Portland’s case, that’s a four-year waiting period.
Laird was also critical of the manager system, saying it was created about a century ago when city leaders – mostly white – wanted city government to function more like a business, and as such needed a chief executive at the top.
She said this style of government, which became more popular over the years, led to a situation where people of color were disadvantaged because their votes could not hold the executive accountable for inequitable policies.
“If we’re thinking of motivating communities of color in politics, some would say the manager system is limiting,” Laird said.
However, she also cautioned that strong mayor systems “have their own complexities.”
She said they may make residents feel more politically involved, but they require different checks and balances. She said a mayor may feel different levels of accountability to the City Council and various groups in the city, and could therefore be inclined to make decisions that aren’t equitable.
She used St. Louis, Missouri, as an example, where four people ran for mayor several years ago: three Blacks and one white. She said the Black candidates essentially split their support, which allowed the white candidate, who was not as experienced, to win that election. That white mayor then lost her subsequent bid for reelection.
“You have to be prepared for sometimes that can happen,” she said.
Pangallo, the chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem, said the executive mayor position has worked well in his city of 45,000 people, but said Driscoll also had requisite experience coming into the job. She was a planning director in Beverly, Massachusetts, and then chief legal counsel for Chelsea, Massachusetts, where she eventually rose to assistant city manager. She brought that experience to Salem, where she ran for City Council and then mayor.
Salem’s mayor is a full-time position paying around $150,000 he said, and city councilors’ salaries by law are 10 percent of what the mayor earns. Pangallo said the mayor creates the budget, names all department heads, and stays in tune with the needs of the community.
“There is a philosophical argument of how to approach this,” he said, noting a mayor could either adopt more of a hands-off approach and allow their department heads to work without much interference, or they can be a micromanager. “Our mayor takes a middle road.”
Pangallo also warned that voters may elect someone who isn’t right for the job. He said as government has become more complicated and there are more expectations placed on municipalities, it’s more important than ever to make sure the mayor possesses expertise and leadership.
“Some people consider elected office an extracurricular activity,” he said. “But it does have to have the full-time commitment of someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Svara, who is also a member of the American Society for Public Administration’s Ethics and Standards Implementation Committee, said the mayor-manager-city council system is still the predominant system throughout the county.
“The manager system depends on the mayor being a facilitator within the council,” he said.
Svara said he was surprised to learn about the disputes between former Mayor Ethan Strimling and former City Manager Jon Jennings, including the inability of the mayor and councilors to talk directly to city staff.
“I’ve never seen that kind of problem before,” he said.
Svara said a contributor to the problems could have been Portland’s inexperience with a popularly elected mayor (the city’s first mayoral election in decades was in 2011). He also criticized Mayor Kate Snyder’s recent comments about acknowledging the limitations of her role, saying that was “a negative way to express what is the positive potential of the office.”
The governance committee made no decisions Monday. It was scheduled to meet again Wednesday, Nov. 10, to hear from experts on the role of a city manager.