Mayor’s role, other proposals still in play for Portland Charter Commission

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With its preliminary report submitted, the Portland Charter Commission has just four meetings left before concluding its work.

The 103-page report outlines proposals the 12-member group has agreed on so far, including reshaping the division of power between the mayor and city manager, who would be known moving forward as the city’s chief operating officer.

But there is still the potential for changes or revisions in the commission’s final report, which is due July 11.

Portland City Hall

The four meetings remaining are May 11 and 25, and June 8 and 22. Final proposals will go to a voter referendum in November.

Commission Chair Michael Kebede said in the remaining meetings the panel will decide how it wants to group questions on the referendum ballot, make any necessary amendments to the existing proposals, perhaps expand the explanations of the proposals, and review and append legal opinions for each reform.

The two issues with the greatest likelihood of being changed in the final report are the governance structure proposal and a proposal to give the School Board autonomy for the School Department budget, although it remains unclear whether the school budget proposal is even allowed under state law.

Governance structure has been the panel’s most divisive and time-consuming issue, specifically around the powers of the proposed executive mayor. Under the proposal in the preliminary report, the mayor would no longer be a voting member of the City Council, would prepare the municipal budget, chair a newly formed Executive Committee, and directly supervise the chief operating officer.

At their meeting before the preliminary report was finalized, Commissioner Marpheen Chann introduced an amendment that would have drastically changed the governance structure proposal by making it closer to the original proposal that came from the Governance Committee and keeping the mayor as a voting member of the council.

That proposal received a 6-6 vote, meaning it failed – an interesting outcome since the Commission also approved increasing the size of the council from nine members to 12, an even number that could result in ties without the mayor’s vote. 

Chann said he is “holding out hope” that the amendment can be adopted in “some form or fashion,” and indicated they would know more by the time the commission meets on May 11.

Commissioner Robert O’Brien said there is still work to be done regarding the governance proposal, with unresolved issues like how much direction the mayor can give to city staff regarding day-to-day operations.

“This is a hard line for me personally,” he said.

O’Brien said he is trying to schedule work sessions with commissioners “for us to have fluid conversations about this and other topics,” including the mayor’s role in drafting the budget, and to discuss Chann’s proposed amendment.

He said this would be an opportunity for commissioners to discuss the ideas freely without a vote, “and so there won’t be any surprises if it does come up as an alternative measure in a couple weeks.”

Regarding Chann’s amendment, O’Brien said he’s heard from other commissioners there might be renewed support for the idea now that people have had time to digest the amendment.

“I voted for it and would again if the executive mayor proposal doesn’t distinguish a bright line between policy direction and operations,” he said.