Portland Charter Commission to review 2 proposals to overhaul city leadership

The mayor's salary could more than double, to more than $200K a year, under one scenario

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A last-minute proposal to dramatically increase the power and salary of Portland’s elected mayor will not be discussed by a Charter Commission subcommittee, but will instead be considered by the full panel on Jan. 19.

It won’t be the only leadership model the commission discusses.

Chair Michael Kebede said the commission will hold a workshop Jan. 19 to give commissioners time to consider two proposals. A vote would come at a later date.

Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef
Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef is proposing significant increases in the power of Portland’s elected mayor, as well as a significant rise in the mayor’s salary.

Commission Secretary Peter Eglinton said the workshop is not intended to present the proposals as “an either-or proposition” but rather an opportunity for discussion. 

Commissioners were made aware on Jan. 1 that these items would be on their Jan. 19 workshop agenda, which will also include the first readings of several other proposals. Public comment will not be allowed.

There will be a public hearing on Jan. 26, and Eglinton said the full commission will return to meeting every two weeks after that. Commissioners are slated to schedule a vote at the Jan. 19 meeting. 

The latest proposal came from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, a member of the Governance Committee. It has not been vetted by the committee because she missed a meeting in December where the committee supported a different proposal for the city’s leadership model.

That proposal would reduce the scope of the city manager’s power, allocating some to a new position tentatively called the chief of staff.

It would reduce the city manager to more of an administrative role, give the elected mayor more responsibility than currently constituted, and add the chief of staff as a bridge between the City Council and City Hall administration, including managing access to staff and other duties previously held by the city manager. The chief of staff would report to the council.

Ahead of the governance committee meeting on Dec. 29, however, several members of the public used social media to urge the committee to back Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal.

Wes Pelletier, who is a member of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists for America, said virtually all the commissioners ran on a platform of creating a much stronger, executive mayor. He said it would be “absolutely wild” to exclude Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal because she was in the “vanguard” on overhauling the manager-mayor dynamic and received the most votes in the recent Charter Commission election.

Sheikh-Yousef is calling for the mayor to become the chief official of the city, with the power to implement policy and oversee administration. The mayor would no longer be a member of the City Council and would not have a vote, but would have the authority to propose policy for the council to consider, and could also veto council actions.

Councilors would appoint a president from their ranks to serve two-year terms as the leader of the council who meets with the mayor.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal would give the mayor authority to nominate a city administrator with responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day operations of City Hall departments.

The council president would be next in line to assume the duties of the mayor, should the mayor leave or be removed. In the event of City Council or School Board vacancies, the mayor would submit three names for consideration for an open seat.

The mayor would also nominate city department heads, such as police chief or director of public works, for council consideration and approval. All department heads or their designees would be available to the City Council for proposed policy development. The Council would be the “chief policy-making body of the city,” with the power to approve or reject the budget developed by the mayor.

The mayor would be limited to two four-year terms, and the change would take effect in 2024, so the mayoral elections would coincide with U.S. presidential elections. The council president would be limited to four consecutive terms.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal would increase councilor salaries to $17,000 annually from the current $6,800. It would also more than double the salary of the elected mayor. 

The City Charter currently calls for the mayor’s salary to be at least 1.5 times the median household income in Portland as defined by the U.S. Census. According to the most recent census data, the median income in the city is $60,467, which establishes the mayor’s baseline annual salary at just over $90,700 under the current calculation.

Under Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal, the mayor would earn “twice the average income for a family of four in Portland” based on census data.

While Sheikh-Yousef used the word “average” when discussing income to calculate the mayor’s salary, it was not clear if she meant “median,” the more customary form of income measurement tracked by census data. (The median is the middle value of a set of figures; the average is calculated by adding up all of the individual values and dividing by the total number of figures.)

The median income for a household of four in Portland is $100,900, according to the census. Doubling that would provide the mayor with an annual salary of nearly $202,000.

According to a City Hall spokesperson, Mayor Kate Snyder’s current salary is just over $92,515. In comparison, interim City Manager Danielle West earns $181,079 annually.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal also would create an elected “public advocate,” a person to serve as an independent ombudsman whose mission would be to “improve the transparency, responsiveness, and accountability of city government,” and would create an “additional set of eyes and ears on the council and mayor branches.”

There was some discussion that this provision was similar to a proposal that was coming from another committee, and could be combined or modified collaboratively.

Committee members at their Dec. 29 meeting cited shortness of time to deal with other issues as a reason to send Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal to the full commission for review.

Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley, who said she wished Sheikh-Yousef had been present at the December meeting to present her proposal, said the committee is out of time. She said it would be better to get the full commission’s input now to help guide their work.

Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz said while a committee discussion wouldn’t be out of the question, he acknowledged the panel is “very tight on time.” He also said he is concerned about creating an “us-versus-them” dynamic if they embrace one proposal over another, which he said would be “unproductive.”

Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who chairs the governance committee, said he would work with Kebede to get the proposal before the 12-person commission, but the process beyond that could be sending the proposal to a task force, or even seeing it come back to the governance committee if that is the will of the commission.

“We’ll try to make this the most productive method possible to have an intelligent debate on the best possible process,” O’Brien said.