Commissioners clash as Portland charter panel nears governance recommendation

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Emotions erupted during last week’s five-hour Charter Commission meeting ahead of what is likely to be a vote on the biggest issue the group faces. 

During what appeared to be a routine yes-or-no question on whether commissioners want to bring back one of their paid facilitators to help guide discussion around the distribution of power in City Hall before a probable vote on April 20, a philosophical argument took place about the process and the need for a facilitator.

Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley, who previously said the process “went off the rails months ago,” was the most vocally opposed to bringing back a facilitator.

Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef
Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef

Stewart-Bouley said it’s easy to get bogged down with a facilitator, and the group knows it has a deadline that’s less than three weeks away.

Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, on the other hand, said she supports bringing in the facilitator because the group still has a lot to discuss, and said she anticipates a lot of debate and amendments. She also said Stewart-Bouley’s call for urgency was “frustrating” and “annoying” to her.

“To have one commissioner say we need to hurry up, this is important work,” Sheikh-Yousef said.

Stewart-Bouley said a facilitator would not be useful because the commissioners know their own work and deadline.

“I appreciate folks who are process-oriented, but we don’t have time to get into the weeds anymore,” she said, adding that facilitators often lead their groups on “winding paths.”

She then accused Sheikh-Yousef of delaying the process, after there was a proposal sent to the full commission by the Governance Committee, by offering a competing proposalStewart-Bouley then asked Sheikh-Yousef to explain what amendments or other debates she was planning.

Sheikh-Yousef said that felt like a personal attack and she would not answer the question.

Other commissioners who did not want to hire the facilitator, including Marpheen Chann and Dory Waxman, echoed Stewart-Bouley’s point that the group was at the end of the process.

“Politics is messy,” Waxman said. “The rubber is hitting the road and we have to do this work and plow through it the best we can.”

Chann, who previously said he had “lost faith” in the process, also said he was opposed to bringing back a facilitator.

“Unless there are other things that are lurking in the shadows waiting to be proposed, I don’t think we need another facilitator,” Chann said. “I’m already worried about the hints about a lot of amendments.”

It took two informal votes, but the group finally decided by a 6-5 vote to bring back one of the facilitators. Commissioner Robert O’Brien abstained, and other commissioners, including Chairman Michael Kebede, expressed ambivalence.

Either Stewart-Bouley and Kebede or Stewart-Bouley and Commissioner Peter Eglinton will meet with the facilitator to lay the groundwork for the discussion, in hopes of keeping the group on a path to vote.

Kebede said the facilitator reached out to him to offer her services. He said having the facilitators helped during the governance discussions by allowing him to be a full participant in the conversations rather than trying to lead the sessions but said he was comfortable going without one if that is the will of the commission.

Beyond the unexpected debate over the process, the commission on April 13 was able to reach decisions on several items for its preliminary report to the City Council, which is due May 9:

  • Commissioners voted 11-1 on the creation of a joint City Council and School Board finance committee that would determine priorities and restraints that may frame budget talks.
  • They voted 9-3 to recommend giving the School Board the final say in the School Department budget before sending the proposal to voters, effectively taking the council out of the decision. The commission’s attorney said he does not believe this is explicitly legal under state law, although the School Department’s attorney disagreed.
  • They voted unanimously to have the superintendent of schools involved in developing the city’s annual Capital Improvement Plan, which now is created by the city manager.
  • They voted unanimously on the creation of an ethics commission to create a code of ethics.
  • They unanimously approved language for a preamble and land acknowledgment in the charter.
  • They unanimously approved a plan that would allow the School Board and City Council to fill their respective vacancies by appointment if there are six months or less remaining in a vacated term; otherwise, vacancies would be filled by special elections.

Commissioners also held first readings on their governance proposal, on adopting the Peaks Island Council into the charter, and on an office of information that would not directly report to the mayor or chief operating officer.

The commission is scheduled to meet again on April 20 and 27, but also tentatively scheduled additional meetings for April 22, 25, and May 4 if necessary.