Portland Charter Commission nears proposal to empower elected mayor

advertisementSmiley face

The Portland Charter Commission, which received a deadline extension Monday for its preliminary report to the City Council, is moving closer to recommending an overhaul of the way power is shared in city government.

Commissioners last week showed interest in having an elected mayor with more executive authority but struggled with whether they would want to remove the mayor from the City Council. No decisions were made since this was the second workshop on this issue.

But there was discussion on the merits of separating the mayor from the City Council, which effectively would create two branches of government: the mayor as the executive branch, and the council as the legislative branch.

Dory Waxman
Charter Commissioner Dory Waxman: “I don’t believe the City Council should have any discretion over firing or hiring department heads.”

There was also disagreement on a specific set of powers that would be given to the mayor, including the ability to hire and fire city department heads, such as the city manager.

Some commissioners wanted that ability to be shared by the executive mayor and the council, with the mayor nominating department heads and a city manager to be confirmed by the council. There was also debate over who would have the ability to fire those department heads: Should it be the mayor unilaterally, or require council approval.

Commissioner Dory Waxman, a former city councilor, said she is uncomfortable giving the City Council the responsibility of hiring and firing department heads, especially if the decision to override a firing is done in a public setting, as proposed by Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef.

Waxman said she is concerned about the rights of employee unions, and said the current system of employees being hired by the city manager isn’t faulty.

Currently, department heads are hired by the manager, though the City Council is asked to accept those nominations.

“I don’t believe the City Council should have any discretion over firing or hiring department heads,” she said.

Although the terms “hiring” and “firing” were used, commissioners said the process would only apply to department heads and would not be used for lower-level employees. Commission Chairman Michael Kebede compared the process to state and federal government, where the chief executive names a nominee for a post, and the legislature either confirms or denies the appointment.

Commissioner Zach Barowitz had proposed a third branch of city government, which would serve an oversight function and contain a public advocate or ombudsman position, but there seemed to be little enthusiasm for his proposal.

Kebede summed up the discussion as a movement toward a consensus or at least a majority agreement on governance style.

Little time was spent discussing two different proposals on the powers of the mayor – one from three members of the governance committee and a separate one from Sheikh-Yousef. But Kebede said it will be easy to apply the powers they want the officeholder to have once they have agreed on the branches of government.

Commissioners also unanimously supported a proposal calling on the City Council to adopt proportional ranked-choice voting for multi-seat elections. They significantly pared down language that had been proposed by Commissioner Marpheen Chann, taking out a mathematical equation around the proportional threshold and leaving that to the City Council if the proposal is approved by voters.

The group once again tabled a vote on an overhauled version of a police oversight board to allow its attorney to polish the language.

And the commission held first readings of two new proposals: One for universal resident voting, and a second to raise the pay of city councilors. Both came from Commissioner Patricia Washburn.

The payment proposal would raise the pay of councilors to $17.34 per hour, or 1.34 times the state’s minimum wage. Initially, she had proposed 1.4 times, but that ended up being higher than she had initially targeted, which was a $17 per hour rate at 20 hours per week. Although the $17.34 figure is also higher, Washburn said it “wasn’t outrageously so.”

She said the goal of this is to make public service a more viable option for all people in Portland, and the proposed pay rate is equivalent to what someone working in a restaurant in the city might make.

Smiley face