Minority criticism accompanies Portland Charter Commission final report

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After months of debate over proposed changes to the power structure at City Hall, the Portland Charter Commission was not in total agreement on its recommendation to alter the roles of the mayor and city manager.

Four of the 12 commissioners authored a minority report to explain why they do not support the commission’s proposals.

The minority report rebukes the majority plan for a strong executive mayor with increased powers.

Portland City Hall
Portland City Hall

“We believe the proposal goes too far, too fast, for the city of Portland, whose home rule powers over municipal affairs do not exist in a vacuum and are derived from and delegated to the city by the state of Maine,” the minority said.

Despite that statement, however, the commission unanimously approved its final report last week, including creation of a strong executive mayor. It was delivered to the City Council on July 11. 

The commission’s majority proposal is largely based on the structure in Westbrook, which inspired the most debate throughout the process. Commissioner Marpheen Chann, one of the authors of the minority report, previously said he had “lost faith” in the process the commission adopted. Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley, who also signed the minority report, previously said the process “went off the rails months ago.”

Commissioners Peter Eglinton and Dory Waxman were the two other authors of the minority report.

“We oppose the Governance Proposal given the lack of demonstrated need for an executive mayor and believe that more targeted fixes would have garnered near-unanimous support of the full Commission,” the minority report said. “We are concerned about the risks of polarization between an executive mayor and Council, and the possibility of undue political influence over the day-to-day operations of the city.”

One of the key reasons they gave for disagreeing with their colleagues was that the proposal in the final report is drastically different from what was proposed by the Governance Committee: a mayor with more authority, but who is not the city’s chief executive. They said they believe some of the Governance Committee suggestions would have received unanimous support had it not been for a competing proposal by Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef that derailed the process.

They said proponents of the executive mayor argued that the chief executive should be accountable to the voters, which “obscures the nuances of a municipal government operating under home rule in Maine, ignores the fact that the city manager is appointed by elected officials, and ignores expert testimony provided.”

Another concern in the minority report is that the final proposal gives the mayor unprecedented powers to issue executive orders, a power the group called  “untested” in Maine’s history of home rule. They also said giving the mayor this power would create confusion for city staff when the executive orders contradict ordinances established by the  City Council. They conclude setting policy should rest solely with the council.

Finally, the minority report states the commission’s final proposal will disempower the City Council, calling the council’s proposed ability to remove the mayor from office more “stylistic than substantive.”

“Ultimately, we believe the checks provided would only be utilized in extreme cases, and even in those cases would only serve to create more confusion (and) less clarity,” they wrote.

The report now goes to the City Council, which will vote to either adopt or revise the summaries for each question for the Nov. 8 ballot. If the proposals are too long to put on the ballot, the council could opt to write their own summaries of each of the eight items that will go to voters.

Commissioners authored two other minority reports, one concerning the proposal for proportional ranked-choice voting and another about the proposal to give the School Board autonomy in creating the School Department budget.

Commissioner Patricia Washburn also wrote in opposition to the commission’s decision not to recommend increasing pay for city councilors.

Commission likely to exceed budget by more than 33%

The Portland Charter Commission will probably end up spending more than $100,000 in its year of work, according to Chairman Michael Kebede.

The commission budget was $75,000. Kebede on July 6 said the city’s Finance Department has said the over-spending will be covered by city discretionary funds.

Michael Kebede
Portland Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede

Nearly $87,000 has been spent so far, Kebede said, with most of it for legal expenses.

The commission’s recommendations have to be approved by a Maine attorney. While the city assigned the group legal representation from the Perkins Thompson law firm for most of its work, the commission also relied on outside advice on two matters: a legal opinion provided to the School Board by Drummond Woodsum on a proposal to give the board autonomy over the School Department budget, and an opinion from attorney John Brautigam on a clean elections proposal.

Brautigam previously represented Fair Elections Portland, the group that initially asked for a public financing referendum for municipal election campaigns that eventually led to formation of the Charter Commission.

As of June 8, Perkins Thompson was paid $79,500. Facilitators Samaa Abdurraqib and Hilary North-Ellasante received nearly $2,500 and more than $1,700, respectively, and $1,100 was paid to a researcher. All other expenses ranged from about $100 to $600, Kebede said.

— Colin Ellis

Election 2022 logoWage hike among 5 citizen-initiated questions on tap for November

A slate of five citizen initiatives, including a proposal to increase Portland’s minimum wage to $18 per hour, will go before voters in November after the city validated the required signatures.

Four of the proposals, which came from the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, will now go to the City Council. Councilors can vote to adopt them, put them on the Nov. 8 referendum ballot, or put them on the ballot with competing referendum questions, which they did last year when a citizen initiative that would have limited shelter sizes was sent to voters

The DSA submitted more than 2,000 voter signatures for each question. A minimum of 1,500 signatures were required for each of the proposals by June 24.

In addition to raising the minimum wage to $18 per hour over three years, the first proposal would also eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and would call for an $18 per hour wage for workers who don’t earn minimum wage, such as taxi drivers.

A second question would strengthen tenants’ rights and protections. A third would limit the number of short-term rentals allowed in the city. The fourth proposal from the DSA would limit the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark on a daily basis to 1,000.

A fifth certified initiative, promoted by short-term rental landlord Scott Ferris, would prohibit corporations and non-local owners from operating short-term rentals; prohibit evictions for the purpose of immediate conversion to short-term rentals, and increase penalties for violations of existing city regulations of short-term rentals.

— Colin Ellis

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