Portland Charter Commission belatedly gets its budget

Committees have 2 months for initial research and discussions

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A planned private meeting of four charter commissioners and City Manager Jon Jennings – which a freedom of information advocate said appeared to be an effort to skirt public meeting rules – was scrapped last week after commissioners received their official budget.

The 12-member commission, which was elected in June and began meeting on June 28, did not receive its official budget until Aug. 25.

The panel, which is empowered to consider potential reforms of city government, including the relationship between the city manager and elected officials, also adopted committee assignments at the Aug. 25 meeting.

Three of the commissioners, including Chairman Michael Kebede, were scheduled to meet privately with Jennings on Aug. 26 to discuss the budget.

Although that meeting technically was not required to comply with Maine Freedom of Access Act standards because it would not have included a quorum of the full commission and was not an official committee of the commission, it was seen by at least one public access advocate as having the appearance of the city trying to deliberately evade the FOAA.

Additionally, since the commission is not a legislative body, it does not have to adhere to the state’s public meeting “rule of three,” which requires sufficient notice and public access whenever three members of an elected body convene.

During last week’s regular meeting of the commission, Kebede said Jennings had emailed him prior to the 6 p.m. start of the meeting to say the commission had a budget of $75,000 to use at its discretion. Jennings said the commission will “need to strictly follow the city procurement policy and other rules governing the expenditure of public funds.”

Jennings also said it was initially expected most of these funds would go towards legal services, currently being provided by attorney James Katsiaficas of Perkins Thompson.

“However, after careful consideration and discussion with the appropriate parties, the commission is free to use these public funds for other services, as you see fit, as long as you keep a record of all expenditures as required by Maine law and abide by the standards outlined in the City’s purchasing policy,” the city manager said. 

The city requires that any purchase of $25,000 or more go through a formal competitive bid process. Expenditures of $5,000 or more, but less than $25,000, do not require bids, but the commission must obtain at least three quotes. 

The city’s last Charter Commission, in 2010, had a budget of $50,000.

There was confusion leading up to the Jennings message, because the commission had been told it only had a budget of $1,000 with an additional $74,000 set aside for legal services, but commissioners were not told whether they had the ability to access those funds.

Committee assignments

In addition to the budget information, the committee last week filled out the five committees that will take up substantive issues, such as the role and power dynamic of the mayor and city manager, and structure of City Council districts. Commissioners also set their upcoming meeting schedules.

As a result, the full commission won’t meet again until Oct. 27 to allow those five committees enough time to begin their work.

The governance committee – which will look at topics like the role of the mayor and manager – will meet on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. This committee will include Commissioners Robert O’Brien, Shay Stewart-Bouley, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Ryan Lizanecz. O’Brien is the suggested chair by the commission’s leadership, although each committee will elect its own chair.

The elections committee – which will look at issues like term limits and clean elections – will meet on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. This committee will have Commissioners Catherine Buxton, Marpheen Chann and Patricia Washburn. Buxton is the suggested chair.

The education committee – which will take on issues such as the relationship between the Council and the School Board – will meet on the first and third Wednesday of the month. Members are Commissioners Marcques Houston, Peter Eglinton, and Chann. Houston is the suggested chair.

The procedures committee – which will look at issues like compensation for elected officials – will meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Commissioners Zach Barowitz, Dory Waxman, Kebede, and Washburn are its members, and Washburn is the suggested chair.

And the departments committee – which will look at issues like creating a labor department for the city – will meet on the first and third Monday of the month. It was not clear if it will meet on Sept. 6, which is Labor Day. Houston, Lizanecz and Barowitz are the members, and Lizanecz is the suggested chair.

Portland Charter Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz

Emails reveal commissioner’s anger over city ‘stonewalling’ on budget

Portland City Hall’s lack of urgency in providing a budget for the Charter Commission was not taken lightly by some commissioners.

In emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, District 5 Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz was particularly incensed by the city’s lack of response to repeated requests for budget information.

“The budget request specifically is a very easy, simple question that allows us to plan ahead for policy and consider public comments effectively,” Lizanecz said in a July 23 email to commission Chair Michael Kebede. “The fact that we are getting ignored after several weeks of requests (over a month now for the attorney requests) and multiple weeks for the budget requests, is absurd.”

The Commission began work in June and is considering revisions to the city’s charter, especially the duties of the manager, mayor, and city councilors.

Kebede had been trying through various avenues to get a sense of the commission budget, and what it had the authority to spend. That included reaching out to City Manager Jon Jennings, city attorney Danielle West, City Clerk Kathy Jones, and Finance Director Brendan O’Connell.

Lizanecz went on in the email thread to tell Kebede the city was “ignoring me, you and the rest of us on purpose at this juncture.” He said the commission was “stonewalled” by the city.

He also expressed some reservations about keeping a city-appointed attorney, but had a primary concern regarding the budget, which was not released to the commission until more than a month later on Aug. 25.

“If they don’t answer our requests by the public hearing, I would like to make a public statement on the city’s stonewalling,” Lizanecz told Kebede. “The reality is, we’re probably going to be stuck with the city-appointed counsel (that I can deal with). However, it is very unprofessional and honestly pretty damn unethical for them to refuse to give us any documents we have requested regarding his appointment AND our budget.”

Lizanecz said while he wanted the Charter Commission to have a working relationship with the city, “optics are important for us to keep the commission legitimate.”

“But we can’t let them walk over us either,” he said.

In summarizing an email exchange in July between himself and O’Connell, Kebede told commissioners one reason to request an Aug. 26 meeting with Jennings was it “appears that the $74,000 earmarked for our legal expenses is inflexible, that we may not spend it as we see fit.”

— Colin Ellis

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