Former Portland mayor urges Charter Commission to temper proposed governance changes

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Former Portland Mayor Michael Brennan last week told the Charter Commission he does not support its entire proposal to overhaul the division of power in City Hall.

He did, however, tell commissioners he backs some of the added authority they want to give the elected mayor.

Michael Brennan
State Rep. and former Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Brennan spoke during the commission’s penultimate workshop, where commissioners discussed the final revisions they might seek to their preliminary report. He was invited by Commissioner Robert O’Brien to provide his thoughts specifically about the mayor’s role in crafting the city budget.

O’Brien said he also invited two other people who are more conservative than Brennan, but they declined to participate. Brennan, Mayor Kate Snyder, and former Mayor Ethan Strimling also discussed their opinions with the commission’s Governance Committee last October

Brennan, now a state representative who in 2011 became the city’s first popularly elected mayor since 1923 as a result of charter revisions adopted at the recommendation of the last commission, said that panel tried to “thread the needle” by having an elected mayor and the “positive things that come with it” while also trying to retain the positive aspects of a professional city manager with expertise in municipal government. 

Brennan advocated for the mayor to be the author of the municipal budget, which is currently not the practice, and said it might also benefit the relationship between the City Council and School Board if the School Department budget were included. When he was mayor, he said, he only saw the budget one week before the manager presented it to the council.

He said having the mayor guide budget decisions would make it a more important policy document, with the mayor presenting and defending the choices.

He also said he does not support the commission’s proposal for the mayor to be the chief executive of the city, calling it “fairly bureaucratic and corporate,” and said he favors keeping the mayor a voting member of the council. 

In their current governance proposal, the commission has called for the mayor to be the city’s chief executive and to “direct” the budget. The mayor would not have a vote on the council and would have more direct involvement and supervision of department heads. 

All that could change, however, since several commissioners have indicated they may propose last-minute amendments to the commission’s report.

They include Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have reinstated a committee proposal to keep the mayor on the council.

After a dueling proposal from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef opened up a larger conversation, commissioners combined the two proposals.

Chann’s proposal will be discussed at a final workshop on May 31, meaning it could be reintroduced at a full commission meeting. 

The commission has to deliver its final report to the City Council by July 11.

Portland City Hall
Portland City Hall

Preliminary commission report gets little feedback

The Charter Commission received little public feedback on May 25 about its preliminary report, with just six people calling into the Zoom meeting – most of whom have previously spoken to the panel.

Community organizer Dana Colihan, who acknowledged she has shared the same message before, urged commissioners to “be bold” and keep all the reforms listed in their preliminary report.

She said it is especially important to keep the governance proposal, which would create an executive mayor with the power to direct the budget while restricting the city manager to an administrative role. Colihan said the city manager’s role was empowered a century ago with the support of the Ku Klux Klan.

Other speakers expressed concerns about the proposals the commission has advanced.

Western Promenade Neighborhood Association President Anne Pringle, a former city councilor and mayor, said while many commissioners cited the desire for a “visionary mayor” as the reason to give the office more authority, she said it would be better to modify the existing system rather than “drop anchors.”

“I think that calls for leadership, not new powers,” she said.

Bayside Neighborhood Association Treasurer Jim Hall, meanwhile, said many of the proposals are “overly prescriptive,” and while there are some good ideas, he wouldn’t vote to support the packages without fiscal notes attached.

“Some of these (proposals) are questionably legal, or create a costly bureaucracy without a clear value add,” he said.

Two more meetings have been added to the panel’s schedule, which now includes full commission meetings on June 8, 22, 29, and July 6.

— Colin Ellis