Portland Charter Commission
The Portland Charter Commission held its second workshop in a week on Feb. 14 to discuss proposals for realigning city government. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Despite two meetings on the issue in less than a week, Portland charter commissioners remained undecided about their desired form of city government.

The commission held workshops Feb. 9 and 14 on governance models, but will likely need at least one more meeting on the topic. At the heart of the discussion is an attempt to reconcile and combine two proposals from members of the commission’s governance committee, both of which would give the elected mayor more authority.

Commissioner Robert O’Brien, the author of one of the proposals, said there is common ground between the two proposals, and the chief difference is whether the mayor should have the power to hire and fire City Hall staff.

O’Brien’s proposal calls for creating a new office and redistributing some authority now granted to the city manager. This office would serve as a connection between the City Council and city staff; would prepare information at the request of the council, public, and press, and would empower the mayor to create the budget.

A separate proposal from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef would have the mayor become the chief executive of the city, be removed from the council, and have the ability to nominate department heads for City Council approval.

Some commissioners said they favor Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal for a stronger elected mayor.

“I believe the people who wield power should be responsible directly to the voters,” Commissioner Patricia Washburn said.

Others, including Commissioner Peter Eglinton, said they didn’t see the need to have two entities – the council and mayor – create policy.

Commission Chair Michael Kebede said the group would need at least one more workshop before it can vote.

A preliminary report to the City Council is due in early March, but the commission is asking the council for an extension until May, followed by a final report in July. That discussion will be on the council’s Feb. 28 agenda.

Commissioners on Feb. 14 also heard from experts on governance structures, including Anthony Crowell, dean of New York University Law School. He was also an adviser to former New York City Mayor, and short-lived presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg.

Crowell was involved with six separate New York City charter revisions. He emphasized the importance of ensuring accountability, which is something Portland commissioners have said is a key issue. Many of them campaigned on the premise that the city manager, who is not elected, is not accountable to city residents.

In New York City, Crowell said, there are elected positions like a public advocate and comptroller, with the responsibility to hold elected officials accountable.

“The effectiveness of that office is determined by the officeholder,” he said.

Another panelist, University of Oklahoma professor Andrea Benjamin, said it is unusual for a city to have both a city manager and a mayor with as high a salary as Portland provides. In Oklahoma City, she said, the mayor is only paid $24,000.

Benjamin said Portland charter commissioners shouldn’t “feel the pressure to be right,” and it is good for them to experiment and be creative with their recommendations. She said if their recommendations ultimately don’t work out, there could always be another Charter Commission to suggest changes.

“What’s right now might change,” she said. “There’s no correct answer that one system is better.”

A third academic, Jered Carr of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said neither a council-manager system nor a council-mayor setup has proved to be the clear-cut best answer because it depends on the city. Smaller cities and towns tend to have managers, he said, but as cities grow the power tends to shift to the mayoral system.

“As the city gets larger and more diverse,” he said, “people look for somebody who can drive changes and lead issues.”