Portland Charter Commission may propose broad City Council oversight of mayor 

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As the Charter Commission enters its final month of work, yet another version of a proposal to overhaul the separation of power in Portland’s government may come to a vote.

The commission’s final report is due July 11, and its meeting this Wednesday, June 8, could be the final discussion of potential changes to the panel’s governance proposal, which includes the powers of the mayor and city manager. 

Portland City Hall
Portland City Hall

Commissioners are slated to conclude their discussions by July 6. 

During the final workshop last week, Commissioner Robert O’Brien said he has tried to come up with a proposal that made changes to the commission’s preliminary report.

While initially more hesitant about the executive mayor proposal, O’Brien said his amended proposal keeps that model because he feels more comfortable with it after a discussion about giving the City Council authority to remove the mayor from office. He said previously councilors didn’t have a strong enough check on the mayor, but letting the council have its “finger on the eject button” is a good solution.

The biggest difference between the proposal in the preliminary report and O’Brien’s proposal involves the executive committee, the somewhat undefined group of two councilors plus the mayor whose powers have not been clearly defined.

O’Brien’s proposal removes the executive committee and instead allows the council to elect a chair and vice chair who would have some of the duties proposed for the executive committee, including creating agendas for council meetings.

It still removes the mayor’s vote from the council, despite recently hearing from former Mayor Michael Brennan, who urged the commission to retain the mayor as a voting member.

The ability to remove the mayor from office, which O’Brien called “the nuclear option,” sprang from a workshop with Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley. Westbrook also employs an executive mayor style of government, and Foley can be removed by his City Council at any point.

O’Brien said he is comfortable with this since Westbrook has never actually removed a mayor, despite some concerns from other commissioners about the possibility of a City Council turning on a mayor for purely political purposes.

O’Brien’s proposal does not preclude a mayor who is removed from office from taking out nomination papers and running for the office again.

Chairman Michael Kebede pointed out Westbrook’s charter stipulates a mayor can be removed for “official misconduct and neglect of duty,” but O’Brien had wanted to include the ability for the council to remove a mayor for “obnoxious behavior.”

“We’ve lived through politicians who are unbecoming of the office,” he said.

He said he wanted this provision in case a mayor said wildly offensive things in public. So, while not illegal, if a super-majority of the council believed such remarks didn’t reflect the values of Portland, the mayor could be removed. O’Brien compared it to an instance when former Gov. Paul LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

After other commissioners were concerned about possibly infringing on the mayor’s freedom of speech, Kebede proposed adding the ability of the council to censure a mayor for conduct unbecoming of the office, while leaving removal only for misconduct and negligence.

Ultimately under O’Brien’s amendment proposal, a councilor’s motion to remove the mayor would be taken up in an executive session where the mayor would be able to respond to criticisms. A written assessment of the complaints would be delivered to the mayor’s home.

Beyond removal from office, O’Brien’s proposal would give the mayor the ability to propose policies through executive orders delivered to the council as communication. If councilors have no objections they could simply accept the communication; if they want to have a larger discussion or debate they could vote to do so.

Because the discussion took place in a workshop, no decisions were made or votes were taken on O’Brien’s proposal, which is one of several potential amendments that would change the proposed governance model.

Commissioner Marpheen Chann may propose an amendment that retains the mayor as a voting member of the council, which was the original proposal to come from the committee level.

As included in the commission’s preliminary report, the governance proposal would give more power to the executive mayor and reduce the authority of the city manager to more of an administrator. 

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