Portland Charter Commission hires outside help for governance debate

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After not voting on the question last week, the Portland Charter Commission will continue to discuss the mayor-manager system with guidance from hired facilitators.

The full commission will meet March 16, when there will also be the first reading of a City Council redistricting proposal and a breakdown of what the commission has spent.

Michael Kebede
Portland Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede

Before and during the early stages of its work, there was some debate over how the commission would be funded. That was ultimately resolved, and it was determined it had a budget of $75,000 to use at commissioners’ discretion.  

Wednesday’s meeting is classified only as a deliberation, without a public hearing or vote. 

While the commission met on March 9 with a potential vote on the mayor-manager system scheduled, Chairman Michael Kebede said he didn’t plan or expect the group to be ready to vote. He said the idea behind scheduling a vote was to “give every charter commissioner a sense of urgency around decision making” and get them closer to their recommendation.

On Monday, Kebede said two facilitators have been hired: Samaa Abdurraqib, who facilitated the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee, and Hilary North-Ellasante, a consultant from Lewiston. Kebede said both will attend Wednesday’s workshop. 

The commission continues to debate ways to revamp the balance of power in City Hall – one proposed by three members of the governance committee, one from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, and a third from Commissioner Marpheen Chann that he previously introduced as a compromise between the other two proposals.

Commissioner Robert O’Brien, a member of the Governance Committee with Sheikh-Yousef, introduced yet a fourth option that is similar to Chann’s compromise but differs on the role of the mayor. He said it would formally appear as a series of amendments to Chann’s proposal.

In Chann’s proposal, similar to the one by Sheikh-Yousef, the mayor would be the city’s executive officer, separate from the City Council, while the council would be the legislative body and elect its own president. O’Brien’s March 9 proposal would maintain the mayor as the leader and a voting member of the council.

Additionally, O’Brien’s proposed amendments would separate responsibilities for information and oversight that were in Chann’s compromise.

While Chann proposed an ombudsman who would fulfill information requests and act to check and balance the council, O’Brien recommended separating those into an office of information and an oversight commission. He said the commission would be similar to the police citizen oversight board the Charter Commission is already working on but would determine conflicts of interest and receive complaints involving malfeasance and whistleblowing.

In addition to the governance model discussion, the Charter Commission voted 10-2, with Commissioners Dory Waxman and Peter Eglinton opposed, to send a proposal on universal resident voting to its attorney to craft as charter language. Commissioners will have to vote on the proposal again as a final recommendation, although Kebede said that would hopefully just be a formality since the commission has already had a public hearing and substantive discussion on the issue.

Commissioners initially seemed torn. Their attorney advised that the legality of the proposal is unclear under the Maine Constitution. But Kebede said the commission and the city should not let the fear of a lawsuit stop them from making a recommendation.

The commission also had its first tie vote, on a proposal to increase the pay of city councilors and School Board members. The proposal called for increasing the pay from around $6,800 currently to approximately $17,900. The final vote on the measure was 6-6, so the motion failed.

Commissioners expressed reservations about the increase, with several saying the charter is not the place to dictate those stipends. City councilors have the authority to set their pay, Chann pointed out, so if that is something councilors are interested in pursuing they should be the ones to take action.

Kebede, however, said it is unlikely the City Council will pursue that, even if it is something councilors support.

“Money and pay is an extremely controversial issue,” Kebede said. “If I were in public office, I would never vote to give myself a raise. It looks like corruption, it looks unseemly.”

O’Brien attempted to introduce an amendment to mirror the way Salem, Massachusetts, compensates city councilors. His amendment, which failed, would have tied the floor of councilor pay to 10 percent of the mayor’s salary.

Mayor Kate Snyder’s current salary is just over $92,500, so under O’Brien’s proposed amendment, the floor would have been just over $9,200 for a councilor. He said the Salem model justifies this as either covering a councilor’s property taxes for the year or addressing the cost of rent.