Portland Charter Commission weighs 2 governance revisions

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With just five meetings left until it is scheduled to present a preliminary report to the City Council, the Charter Commission is considering yet another variation on the structure of city government.

A week after the first readings of two additional attempts to reconcile and combine various proposals, the commission on March 30 will discuss how it intends to move forward on the balance of power between the elected mayor and appointed city manager.

Portland City Hall

Commissioners Robert O’Brien and Marpheen Chann introduced a consolidated version of the governance proposals that have been discussed, with the intent to replace various other proposals.

During the March 23 meeting, Chann said this version of the compromise was an effort at “striving towards something that’s cohesive and coherent” that he thought could garner majority support.

In this iteration, the mayor would remain on the council and serve as the chair, but would only vote to break a tie. The mayor would otherwise serve as the chief executive officer of the city, with supervision over the city manager or administrator. The mayor would also oversee the implementation of council policies, and be a spokesperson for the city’s interests before the state and federal governments.

The mayor’s powers under this plan would include presenting a budget to the council, chairing a performance review of the city manager, advising on the manager’s nominations for department heads, and ultimately consenting to the nominations before they reach the council. The mayor would not have unilateral hiring and firing power.

O’Brien said this proposal would also see the mayor having a seat at the table for staff meetings with developers, possibly as part of a formal economic development task force.

Commission Chairman Michael Kebede and Commissioners Catherine Buxton, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, and Pat Washburn introduced an amendment that would separate the mayor from the council and have the mayor serve in a separate, executive branch of city government.

The mayor would not have a council vote, similar to how city governments operate in Westbrook and Burlington, Vermont, he said, but would serve as a public figurehead similar to Chann’s and O’Brien’s proposal.

Under this alternative, the mayor still could not unilaterally hire and fire city employees but would be in charge of nominating department heads and the city manager, subject to approval by the council. The department heads would report to the mayor, and the manager or administrator would assist the mayor.

Kebede said he based some of this on discussions with the chief of staff for Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Kebede said he was told much of Weinberger’s day-to-day activities include meeting with constituents, ensuring policies are implemented, proposing policies of his own, meeting with councilors to co-sponsor policies, working closely with city management and administration, and other such tasks.

“That is, in my view, the appropriate role for a mayor in a council-mayor system,” Kebede said.

Neither of these new proposals was discussed in-depth on March 23. Clarifying questions were allowed, although commissioners were told to keep philosophical or substantive questions until the March 30 meeting, when they would again have a facilitated discussion on the governance model.

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