Charter uncertainty adds complication as Portland City Council weighs replacing Jennings

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Despite some concerns about what may be proposed by the Charter Commission, city councilors Monday generally agreed to begin the search for a new city manager as soon as possible.

Councilors in a workshop discussed what the process to replace City Manager Jon Jennings could look like. Mayor Kate Snyder said the session had already been scheduled when it was learned Jennings, who is working under a one-year contract extension that expires next July, is now a finalist for a city manager post in Florida.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings.

“We can’t make a final decision until next week or the week after,” Snyder said, adding the council needs “to be prepared (to replace Jennings before his scheduled departure).”

Jennings will be in Clearwater, Florida, this week to interview for the job. If he gets it, he is expected to give a 90-day notice to Portland.

Snyder said the Charter Commission creates an “unusual environment” for hiring a replacement because one of the issues the commission is expected to take up is the power-sharing structure of the manager and elected mayor. Many of the charter commissioners campaigned on a desire to rein in the power of the manager.

Snyder said she could see the council either conducting a search for a permanent replacement or seeking an interim. While there was some disagreement between councilors about whether to start a search right away without knowing what will come out of the Charter Commission, most supported hiring an interim while looking for a long-term replacement.

Councilor Mark Dion proposed appointing the interim from within existing City Hall staff, which seemed to have support from several other councilors. He also opposed waiting to see what the Charter Commission may recommend, which will have to be approved by city voters.

“I personally refuse to be handcuffed to what-ifs,” Dion said. “We have to deal with what is in front of us.”

He said he has confidence in the quality of city staff and the council’s ability to pick an interim manager “to sit in that chair and make the decisions.”

Other councilors, including Pious Ali and Andrew Zarro, supported hiring an interim right away and said they are concerned the city will not get a strong pool of candidates for a position that could change dramatically, depending on what the Charter Commission does.

Zarro and Ali both said there are public administrators who specialize in short-term assignments and who wouldn’t come in with a strong personality but would make sure the city continues to operate efficiently.

“The interim will be a public administrator who helps us run the city until we know what the future of the city is,” Zarro said.

Commissioners are slated to conclude their work next summer,  which means recommendations would go before voters in November 2022. But a complication of waiting for the commission, Councilor Belinda Ray noted, is they could theoretically ask for an extension.

“So it behooves us to start a city manager search now and get an interim if we need to,” she said.

Because Monday’s meeting was just a workshop, no action was taken. Councilors will likely revisit the discussion in a week or two after they know more about Jennings’ situation.