With less than two months left before the November election, sides are being drawn over the Charter Commission proposals facing voters.
On one side, a majority of the 12-person commission backs its proposals, the most significant of which would revamp the division of power at City Hall by creating an executive mayor while relegating the city manager to an administrative role.
On the other side is a group of former mayors and city councilors, and four Charter Commissioners who are urging voters to defeat two of the commission’s eight ballot questions: the governance proposal and another that would give the School Board autonomy over the School Department budget.
The opposition group is led by former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, who served on the City Council, was mayor when the position was ceremonial and elected annually by councilors, and served on an earlier Charter Commission, is called Protect Portland’s Future. The 14-member group kicked off its campaign against Questions 2 and 5 last week.
Allen, speaking to a crowd of about 75 people in Payson Park on Sept. 7, said the nonpartisan volunteer group has the support of current Mayor Kate Snyder and former Mayor Michael Brennan, who now serves in the Maine House of Representatives. Allen said the commission proposals would “take us back 100 years” and give too much power to the mayor, especially in developing the city’s annual budget.
Allen warned against the expanded authority the mayor might have, including negotiating economic development deals and vetoing ordinances approved by the City Council. He also mocked the commission majority’s suggestion that with more power to remove the mayor from office, the council would have an improved watchdog role.
“In their dreams,” Allen said. “Not going to happen.”
He said giving executive power to the mayor would also limit the city’s ability to attract and hire talent to work for the city because potential candidates would be scared away by the potential of a new administration coming in every four years and making wholesale changes.
“It’s a recipe for disaster for Portland,” he said, “and that’s why we’re opposing it.”
Former City Councilor Jill Duson, another member of Protect Portland’s Future and a candidate in state Senate District 27, said the proposals from the Charter Commission put the city “at high risk for unintended shenanigans” and “in a position of wasteful, inefficient government.”
Protect Portland’s Future is not the only group actively opposing referendum questions voters will see in the fall. A group called Enough is Enough, which includes former City Councilor Nick Mavodones, opposes all 13 questions on the ballot: the eight Charter Commission proposals and five citizen initiatives, which include a proposal to increase the minimum wage in the city to $18 per hour.
Four charter commissioners opposed the governance proposal: Peter Eglinton, Dory Waxman, Marpheen Chann, and Shay Stewart-Bouley. Eglinton said they do not believe the commission demonstrated a need for the executive mayor that would be created by passage of Question 2.
“It goes too far, too fast,” he said.
Eglinton said an earlier governance proposal would have been something he and others, and probably voters, would have supported. That proposal would have kept the mayor on the City Council and given the position more power, but would not have made the mayor the city’s chief executive.
The final governance proposal, with a mayor modeled in part on the Westbrook system, was approved after a competing proposal from another commissioner led to months of debate and a contested approval process.
“We are concerned about the risk of polarization,” Eglinton said.
In response to the opposition groups, those in support of the proposals said the proposed changes are a step in the right direction.
Michael Kebede, who chaired the Charter Commission, said the existing system is “fundamentally undemocratic” and sets mayors up to fail. He said the mayor is mostly the council chair, while the power in the city rests with the unelected city manager.
He said the manager can keep councilors in the dark, and referenced two recent decisions that did not go before the council: the relocation of Eastern Promenade food trucks and where to house refugees.
“Our system would strengthen the council and empower the voters, and would reduce the power of the city manager, the city’s most powerful person,” Kebede said.
Kebede also defended Question 5, which would remove the City Council from the school budget process. He said the current system takes too much time and ultimately requires school officials to spend “hundreds of hours” working with the city and City Council to send a budget to voters.
“If this passes, this office will spend more of its time running those schools rather than going before the council,” Kebede said.
Kebede also noted both of the contested proposals were passed by a super-majority of the Charter Commission.
“If you get votes like this in the Legislature,” he said, “you can override a governor’s veto.”