Mayors to provide their perspectives to Portland Charter Commission panel

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Portland’s three most recently elected mayors this week will share their perspectives on the power dynamic at City Hall with a Charter Commission committee.

Mayor Kate Snyder and former Mayors Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan will meet with the commission’s governance committee at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13. The commissioners on this committee – Chair Robert O’Brien, Ryan Lizanecz, and Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef – will also interview former City Councilors James Cohen, Jill Duson, and Karen Geraghty, who served as mayor and chair of the City Council before the post became a full-time, popularly elected at-large position.

Although the meeting will be conducted remotely via Zoom, this is believed to be one of the first times the city’s first three popularly elected mayors in decades will be appearing together.

Brennan was the city’s first popularly elected mayor after the previous Charter Commission created the position, and was elected in 2011. He was defeated by Strimling in his reelection bid in 2015. After a tenure that often saw him at odds with the council and City Manager Jon Jennings, Strimling was defeated by Snyder in 2019.

The ripples of Strimling’s administration and Snyder’s election are still felt today. One of Strimling’s major disagreements with Jennings was over the balance of power between the mayor and manager, which one of the issues – if not the major issue – today’s Charter Commission is considering. Most commissioners campaigned on a desire to significantly reduce the power of the manager position and shift policy-making power to the mayor.

O’Brien said Wednesday’s meeting would be a preliminary step, and the governance committee “isn’t committed to any potential model” of government to recommend to the full Charter Commission until at least December.

“This is a way to go deep on the logistics on how the mayoral position has gone,” O’Brien said, without dwelling on the “politics, history, votes or personalities” of the individuals.

Following the mayoral panel, O’Brien said the committee intends to have a similar panel of interviews with city managers and experts on municipal governments.

Mayor Kate Snyder
Portland Mayor Kate Snyder: “I’m a big believer in representative government. If only one person sets the agenda, that would be concerning to me.”

‘One vote’

Snyder said the most important thing she’s hoping to address with the committee is the question of “is the mayoral position what you thought it would be?”

“People will always say to me ‘you didn’t sign up for this’ and ‘what a job,’” Snyder said. “… But I knew exactly what I signed up for because it’s spelled out in the charter. So I wasn’t surprised by the confines of the role.”

Snyder said in any position some things come up that you don’t expect: she had no idea the coronavirus pandemic was just around the corner after she took office. But for the most part, she has gotten what she expected as mayor. 

“Our charter states this mayor position, as written, is just one vote out of nine,” she said. “It’s not a job where I have an individual mandate or can push an agenda. As one vote you’re part of a team, and I’m fine with that.”

Snyder, who will be eligible for reelection in 2023, said one authority the mayor has is to create the annual work plan for the council, with input from the other eight councilors. 

“I think there’s been a bit of confusion on whether or not this position has individual authority and the ability to push an individual agenda, or whether we are working on a council-driven set of priorities that defines the scope of work,” she said. “This style, where the mayor is one vote, there’s no gray area around the fact the mayor is elected to work within the team that is the council. The one vote (aspect) gives great definition to the kind of work this position is required to do.”

Snyder acknowledged that the biggest question on peoples’ minds now is whether the mayor should have more authority. She said while she is “game for being critical of the current position description,” she is against revising the role into an executive mayor. 

“I feel if you elect someone once every four years, your opportunity to adjust course is a long wait,” she said. “I’m a big believer in representative government. If only one person sets the agenda, that would be concerning to me. Depending on access points, you may be at a loss for understanding or influencing that agenda.”

Concerning the working relationship with the city manager, Snyder said a powerful tool the council has – but did not employ for several years before her election – is the employee evaluation. She said evaluations are important “to get in there and talk with the city manager and city clerk” to make sure there’s no confusion. 

“(Evaluations) make us nimble,” she said – much more nimble than waiting every four years for a new mayor to come in with a different view on implementation.

Snyder also said she has a clear understanding of the role of manager and mayor as written. The council creates the policy, and it’s up to the manager and staff to implement those policies. And the council has the authority to question the manager, in workshops and executive sessions, if those policies don’t get implemented. 

Michael Brennan
State Rep. and former Portland Mayor Michael Brennan: “One thing I will recommend … is that much more authority be invested in the mayor developing a budget.”

Not one or the other

Brennan, who is now a state legislator, said he hopes to speak about some of the things that worked well in Portland while he was mayor, and some things that need addressing.

He said a major component of the mayor’s position is to have a “fairly large” role in external relationships with other elected officials and government entities, particularly other mayors and state legislators.

“Oftentimes decisions made at a regional or legislative level have direct and significant impact on the city of Portland,” Brennan said. “So having someone who can talk to other elected officials is very important, and that is a role that a city manager is unable to carry out in the same way. I thought the way that was written into the charter was added value to the city of Portland.”

At the same time, Brennan said there are pitfalls to the current system. He said there are expectations that the mayor has more power than he or she has, and it can be difficult for the council and members of the public to fully understand those limits.

“If someone said to me ‘hey, I have a pothole near my house in North Deering that needs to be fixed,’ I wasn’t able to immediately call someone to fix it,” Brennan said. “You have to work with the city manager and city staff to have something like that end up happening. There was a public expectation that the mayor had the authority to pull the lever. And that’s obviously not true.”

Brennan said the city cannot be run without professional staff. Regardless of whether there should be a manager or a stronger, executive mayor, he said he believes a city needs  “professional management.”

“One thing I will recommend (to the committee) is that much more authority be invested in the mayor developing a budget,” Brennan said. “It’s one of the most important documents we produce as a city. When I was mayor I had very little (input). It was after the manager had gone through the budgeting process that I was brought in.”

Brennan said he gave the same pitch to the Charter Commission’s education committee: that the mayor should have the authority to present a unified budget – the city’s operational side and the School Department’s side – to the council.

“That way you simultaneously invest greater authority in the mayor to shape and develop policies but maintain the professional function you need in the city,” he said.

Brennan said the previous Charter Commission tried to “strike this balance between the positive aspects of an elected mayor and also try to retain the positive aspects of a city manager,” which he anticipates will continue to be a source of discussion.

“I hope that the Charter Commission doesn’t pose the question of keeping one and getting rid of another,” he said. “Both functions could be very important to the city of Portland.” 

Ethan Strimling
Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling: “The current charter doesn’t work. … The last Charter Commission tried to cut the baby in half.”

Untangle the web

Strimling, who before being elected mayor served in the state Senate and was the chief executive of Learning Works, said his message to the governance committee will be the one he’s been advocating for a while: creating a stronger executive mayor.

“It’s no secret I’m a believer in creating a much more democratically elected government in the city of Portland,” Strimling said. “That means an executive, elected mayor with the ability to implement the budget, passed by the City Council.”

Strimling said that would give the mayor and council more authority to be “a truly legislative body” capable of enacting progressive policies like clean elections, immigrant voting, increased police oversight, and other things he advocated for last spring ahead of the Charter Commission election.

Strimling said the previous Charter Commission ultimately created a power dynamic that has failed the city.

“The current charter doesn’t work,” Strimling said. “They need to step back, we need to step back, and do it right. The last Charter Commission tried to cut the baby in half.”

Strimling said the last commission “created this tangled web we have” with a manager who has too much power, “with zero accountability,” and where residents inaccurately believe they have a strong mayor.

“That is a recipe for disaster, as we’ve seen,” Strimling said. “And a recipe for policies that are not reflective. We’ve seen pretty clearly in the city that people want us to be much more aggressive about the policies we implemented.”

Strimling said various issues promoted by People First Portland last fall – when four of five progressive policies passed via referendum – were issues he proposed as mayor, only to be rejected by the council.

“It was a very stark moment, and I think what would be good is to create a charter that reflects the will of the people better,” Strimling said, “and give us a government that reflects the needs of the people better.”