Charter Commission eyes giving Portland City Council ability to fire mayor

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After a lengthy discussion with the mayor and city administrator of Westbrook, Portland charter commissioners are considering proposing that the City Council have the ability to fire the elected mayor.

During the first of several workshops led by Commissioner Robert O’Brien, Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley described how Westbrook’s City Council has checks and balances over his executive office, including removing him from office by a super-majority vote.

Portland City Hall

As an example, he noted the council went along with him to order a state of emergency at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. But if he had become a “loose cannon,” Foley said, and started acting contrary to the city’s best interests, they could have ended the state of emergency and immediately voted to remove him from office.

In Westbrook, the council president would assume the duties of the executive mayor.

The Charter Commission’s original governance proposal would have given the Portland City Council the authority to call a recall election if the mayor engages in criminal behavior or neglects the duties of the office.

But commissioners who attended the May 19 workshop seemed to favor giving the council the additional ability to remove the mayor. Chairman Michael Kebede said he now believes this kind of check over the mayor would “legitimize” the mayor and ensure they do a good job or face removal by a three-fourths majority of the council.

Kebede said the commission’s preliminary governance proposal differs from Westbrook’s model in several ways: It would create an executive mayor who facilitates council meetings, while Westbrook’s does not, and while the Westbrook mayor has the power to hire and fire city staff, Portland’s mayor would not have that ability.

The commission proposal also calls for a new Ethics Commission to effectively have to greenlight a recall election sought by the council. But it’s unclear if that’s something that will be kept in the final recommendation; Commissioner Zack Barowitz said he never liked the Ethics Commission provision, calling it “another bureaucratic step.” He said the council should be free to act if the mayor “does something egregious” or becomes an “extreme individual.”

Commissioner Catherine Buxton said this authority may give too much political power to the council, and risks action against the mayor just because councilors disagree with the mayor’s policy proposals. She said that’s a reason to keep the Ethics Commission involved in the process.

During the discussion with Foley and Westbrook City Administrator Jerre  Bryant, Kebede said some commissioners had crafted proposals out of fear of an overly ambitious mayor who interferes with city staff and “prevents (city government) from functioning smoothly.”

Bryant said in his 19 years as the administrator in Westbrook, where he has served under five mayors, he has never seen a mayor do that – and he likely would have left his position if they tried.

“This government gives a high level of authority to them,” Bryant said, adding that both the executive mayor and a manager-council form of government can work. “I don’t think there should be fear of either.”