Portland Charter Commission adopts limited path to alter mayoral proposal

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To limit last-minute attempts to change a controversial proposal to restructure the role of Portland’s elected mayor, the Charter Commission will only allow amendments that have been vetted in upcoming work sessions.

The remote sessions, which were proposed by Commissioner Robert O’Brien, are scheduled for May 19, 24, and 31, all from 6-8 p.m. O’Brien said there is the possibility of additional sessions, although they would have to be scheduled soon to allow adequate public notice.

Portland City Hall

These discussions will not be formal commission business meetings, so votes will not be taken. Instead, O’Brien said his goal is to allow commissioners to “whiteboard” ideas and concepts they may want to propose.

He said commissioners have had many chances to vote on proposals for their preliminary report to the City Council, but rarely had the time to explain their thought processes. O’Brien said he had hoped to have these work sessions in person to be able to use an actual whiteboard, but the city told him that isn’t possible because only the City Council is being allowed to meet in person when coronavirus transmission rates allow; all other boards, committees, and commissions are still restricted to remote meetings.

Commission Chairman Michael Kebede and others proposed that to acknowledge the limited time remaining before the group has to send its final report to the council, amendments to the governance proposal could only be discussed if they have been introduced at these workshops.

Attendance at these sessions is not required, Kebede said, so commissioners who don’t have what he called the “patience or desire” to attend will not have to do so. But if they want to attempt to amend the proposed governance structure, which overhauls the powers and duties of the mayor and city manager, they must introduce these amendments at one of the work sessions.

Kebede said this only applies to the governance proposal since it is the “most complex and controversial” of the commission’s proposals and the one that commissioners have expressed the most desire to amend.

Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who at the commission’s last meeting before the preliminary report was finalized introduced an amendment to revise the governance proposal to something closer to what was originally proposed by the Governance Committee, keeping the mayor as a voting member of the council, said he intends to bring that amendment forward again.

Beyond the governance proposal, Kebede said the best path for the remaining proposals is to go item by item to see if there are any amendments. He said there is precedence from past Charter Commissions to amend proposals between the preliminary and final report, which is due July 11.

In addition to the work sessions, the commission has three meetings left on May 25 and June 8 and 22. Two of them – May 25 and June 22 – will include public hearings.

One of the issues remaining is how commissioners will present their proposals on the November referendum ballot that will go to voters.

Kebede expressed an interest in keeping the number of referendum questions at five and said some items should be grouped. Similarly, their attorney at the May 11 meeting, Brandon Mazer of Perkins Thompson, said it is his firm’s advice that there are items that are “intimately (linked) together.” For example, he said, it would create a conundrum if the mayoral proposal doesn’t pass but a proposal to increase the size of the council does win approval.

Additionally, Mazer said some items should be on their own, due to some lingering questions about their legality. These include universal resident voting, giving the School Board autonomy over the School Department budget, and a clean elections proposal, since that was the impetus for launching the Charter Commission.

The last Charter Commission had three questions that went to voters. The current commission has 16 proposals.

Kebede said his desire to group proposals comes from wanting to simplify things as much as possible for voters, who this fall will also be voting in local, state, and midterm national elections.

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