Portland Charter Commission OKs executive mayor proposal

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After 10 months of meetings and debate, the Portland Charter Commission approved the contents of its preliminary report, which will be delivered to the City Council by May 9.

Chief among the contents of the report is the group’s proposal to overhaul the division of power in City Hall by creating an executive mayor who will draft the city budget, have more authority over staff, and will become the non-voting presiding member of the City Council.

Portland City Hall

The group voted 8-4 on April 28 to include the proposal in the preliminary report and recommend sending it to voters this November. Those in opposition were Commissioners Marpheen Chann, Dory Waxman, Shay Stewart-Bouley, and Peter Eglinton. 

The preliminary proposal also calls for the creation of a three-member council executive committee chaired by the mayor; renaming the city manager as the city’s chief operating officer; having the mayor serve four-year terms, to be elected during presidential election years, with a limit of two consecutive terms, and allowing the mayor to introduce policy proposals via a public process such as a task force. 

Chairman Michael Kebede said the commission may continue to tweak or change its proposals in their upcoming May and June meetings ahead of its final report deadline in July.

Stewart-Bouley, on the other hand, urged Kebede to impose deadlines for any amendments to items approved by the commission. “At a certain point, instead of people coming up with stuff last minute, it seems to me we need to establish some actual deadlines,” she said.  

Some commissioners tried to change the governance proposal last week, including an attempt by Chann to essentially revert to something closer to the original suggestion in the Governance Committee. That proposal was challenged by a competing proposal from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef; the group took a series of straw polls to try to reconcile the different proposals, which ultimately led to the compromise approved Wednesday night.

As a result, some members of the Commission have said the process was flawed.

Chann’s attempted amendment would have kept the mayor as a full voting member of the council, would have given the mayor more power than currently allowed to work with the manager in crafting budgets, and would have addressed a major concern about the previous city manager, Jon Jennings, who councilors believed was preventing access to staff

Chann said his goal was to propose something the majority of the commission could support and that would likely have voter support.

His amendment initially appeared poised to pass by a 7-5 vote, with Chann joined by Commissioners Robert O’Brien, Stewart-Bouley, Waxman, Sheikh-Yousef, Ryan Lizanecz, and Eglinton. But after the motion was declared successful, Sheikh-Yousef changed her vote, which resulted in a 6-6 tie, meaning the amendment failed.

The group’s attorney, James Katsiaficas of Perkins Thompson, will compile all the proposals into the official preliminary report that will include a preface and summaries for each proposal, written by the commissioners associated with the proposals. He said his goal is to deliver the document to City Hall by May 6.

The plan for a stronger mayor ran into opposition last week from 15 former mayors who urged commissioners to reject the proposal for a stronger executive mayor.

Their statement – signed mostly by mayors who served when it was a ceremonial position elected by city councilors, plus Michael Brennan, who was the city’s first popularly elected mayor in roughly a century – said the proposal “fundamentally changes the way the City of Portland is governed, making the mayor the head of both City administration and head of the City Council. Simply put, it places too much power in one person.”

The statement went on to say the proposal would politicize management of the city “and take us back to the days of political favoritism and cronyism.”

“We believe the best way to achieve these changes is the same way we have come so far – through a balance of power between a City Council and City Manager and not by creating an all-powerful mayor,” the mayors said. “The vague perception that the city is not run well is short on factual content.”

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