Portland Charter Commission poised for decisions on mayor’s role

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With two meetings left until their preliminary report is due, the Charter Commission seems to have reached consensus on the authority it wants the mayor to have, including the ability to introduce legislation.

An April 6 meeting was the final meeting the group had with a facilitator to help guide them through a governance proposal discussion – the most substantial thing the group aimed to accomplish, which also proved to be the most troublesome and time consuming.

Shay Stewart-Bouley
Portland Charter Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley: “This process went off the rails months ago.”

While the meeting continued the use of unofficial straw votes, commissioners have also sent a list of approved powers to their attorneys to be written into charter language. They have a first reading scheduled on this proposal at their April 13 meeting.

Since they don’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order, it is technically possible commissioners could also vote that night, although they have said they want to have a public hearing before voting.

Some commissioners still expressed displeasure with the piecemeal process they have taken, and said they may not support the final, full proposal when it returns for a vote.

Commission Vice Chair Shay Stewart-Bouley said the process to reach agreements on the power structure was not what was originally sought by the governance committee, on which she served. She said the committee came up with a proposal and forwarded that to the commission, but the process became complicated when Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef introduced a competing proposal.

Now, Stewart-Bouley said, this “convoluted” process “feels geared towards a conclusion I don’t necessarily support.”

“This process went off the rails months ago,” Stewart-Bouley said, echoing Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who during the previous full meeting of the commission said he had “lost faith” in the process.

Chann and Commissioner Peter Eglinton on April 6 also said they were unsure if they would support the final governance proposal.

Despite that uncertainty, the commissioners in several informal straw polls reached consensus on the authority they want the mayor to have.

The panel found majority support for allowing the mayor to introduce legislation to the City Council. It had previously agreed to remove the mayor as a voting member of the council, with the biggest policy implication being in crafting the budget.

Commissioner Robert O’Brien also proposed a mechanism for the mayor to introduce policy proposals in a public format, saying he didn’t want the mayor to be subjected to “backroom deals” or lobbying efforts.

“I want policy to be created in the light of the day,” O’Brien said, “the same way the Council creates policies on subcommittees.”

As a result, the commission supported a proposal that the mayor would create policies either by calling for a task force that can be comprised of experts who are not city councilors or through an executive committee made up of councilors. Commissioners largely agreed the mayor should not have the authority to veto legislation that comes from the council. 

The proposed executive committee is one of the newer and murkier proposals to come from the commission, and its ultimate purpose remains unclear since commissioners also proposed it be involved in nominating department heads and other city officials.

O’Brien compared it to the leadership group in the Charter Commission – Chairman Michael Kebede, and Commissioners Peter Eglinton and Stewart-Bouley – who build the commission’s weekly agendas. 

The executive committee was another initiative commissioners supported last week, to give the mayor a simplified route to introducing policy. The executive committee would be made up of two councilors and the mayor and would appoint councilors to subcommittees, set the council’s agenda, and perform other duties as assigned by the council.

There was unanimous support from those present on April 6 that the mayor should not have the authority to unilaterally hire and fire city staff, including the chief operating officer, the city clerk, and the city attorney. Additionally, there was consensus support for the newly approved executive committee to vet and then nominate candidates for those constitutional officers and department heads, with confirmation by the council.

When it came to being able to remove the chief operating officer – formerly known as the city manager – the group agreed any councilor or member of the executive committee can file a complaint about the COO, clerk, and corporation counsel. A review committee, chaired by the mayor, would do a performance review and decide whether to bring forward a removal request to the council. The Council would then only need a simple majority – seven of the 12 councilors – to then remove the person from their position.

When it comes to removing department heads, the group decided an existing, nonunion staff review committee would be used to evaluate job performance if a complaint is filed, with the COO as an adviser. Once a review or investigation is completed, it would make a recommendation.

When the discussion turned to removing the mayor, the group unanimously agreed a complaint could be made to a proposed ethics committee. If it is determined the mayor has engaged in official misconduct or has neglected their duties, the City Council by a three-quarter majority vote could schedule a recall election. If the mayor is convicted of a felony, they may be removed by a supermajority of the council without a recall vote.

Commissioners postponed a handful of other items on April 6 to their April 13 meeting, including public hearings and votes on a code of ethics proposal, revamping the school budget validation process to remove the City Council’s required approval, and including the superintendent of schools in Capital Improvement Plan discussions with the city manager. They will also have a public hearing and vote on the process used to fill School Board vacancies.

The commission, which began meeting last June, must submit its preliminary report to the City Council by May 9, with a final report due in mid-July. Its recommendations for revising the City Charter must ultimately be approved by voters in a November referendum.