Portland Charter Commission’s preliminary proposals taking shape

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The Portland Charter Commission next month will begin debating recommendations from its committees, which will include dramatically reducing the role of the city manager and redistributing the powers of that office, increasing the pay of city councilors, and overhauling the police review board.

The 12-person commission’s five committees – governance, elections, education, procedures, and departments – have been meeting since late October, each charged with coming up with recommendations to bring back to the full panel.

Marpheen Chann
Portland Charter Commission elections committee Chair Marpheen Chann.

Commissioner Marpheen Chann said the commission must have an interim report for the City Council by the end of March, meaning it must vote on the committee recommendations sometime in February.

That process will be two-step, he said: Probably a meeting in January where the recommendations are presented and commissioners can debate and suggest amendments, and then another meeting in February to vote on the proposals.

Chann said that doesn’t mean something that isn’t considered by February won’t make it into the commission’s final report, which has to go to the council by June. The June report will contain the “solid recommendations and concrete language we want to put on the ballot” in November 2022, he said.

“January is when the public can expect a lot more movement on the proposals from the committees to the full commission,” Chann said. “February will be, in my sense … sort of the period of time where the full commission is starting to consolidate certain things and find some ground in terms of what proposals we’re going to put into the report to send to the council at the end of March.”

Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who chairs the governance committee, said his group is about “90 percent there” on a proposal to revise the city manager’s office. O’Brien said this proposal would have the manager become a “city administrator” in charge of city services. Other duties would fall to a “chief of staff” reporting directly to the council with responsibility for “curating all of the staffing needs and data and file collections for the City Council,” he said.

Robert O'Brien
Robert O’Brien chairs the Portland Charter Commission governance committee.

O’Brien said this “chief of staff” – a placeholder title that could be changed – would take on responsibilities including constituent services, Freedom of Access Act requests, and some responsibilities that have fallen to the city clerk’s office, such as posting and noticing public meetings in a timely fashion.

He said the governance proposals will give the mayor authority to propose the city budget, which is now done by the city manager. 

The proposals also include avenues for the public to have more say in how policy is made, including allowing councilors to sponsor policy proposals from constituents, much like state legislators can introduce bills on behalf of their constituents. Councilors would also be allowed to call for committee votes that would speed policy proposals to a public hearing before the full council.

Finally, O’Brien said the governance committee will likely propose creating a panel of three appointed members of this Charter Commission to remain in office as will-call arbitrators whenever there are questions about interpreting the City Charter in the future, and they would remain in office until the next Charter Commission elected.

Chann, who chairs the elections committee, said its major proposal will be on universal resident voting, also known as non-citizen voting. He said he expects the committee to vote on that proposal after a Dec. 21 public hearing. It will also discuss clean elections reform, which he said he hopes to bring to a public hearing and vote in January.

Marcques Houston
Marcques Houston chairs the Portland Charter Commission education committee.

The elections committee got some feedback recently after Chann introduced his proposal to revamp the size and structure of the City Council, which would eliminate at-large seats and create three council districts, with three councilors from each district.

Chann’s proposal was tied to a desire to revamp the ranked-choice voting method the city uses for council elections.

Chann said he believes there is “general support” for smaller districts and more councilors, but a complicating factor is ongoing work by the city clerk’s office to redraw the precinct maps following the last census. He said he is working on revising his proposal, which may include keeping some at-large districts or having some districts represent larger areas.

“We’re trying to focus on getting clean elections through to the full commission,” Chann said, “and that will take more discussion.”

Commissioner Marcques Houston, who chairs the education committee, said his committee is still in a “preliminary idea stage,” although the members have shared ideas for some proposals. Houston said many of those ideas have centered around revamping the way the School Board creates its budget, including improving the way the board and City Council interact during that process.

Patricia Washburn
Patricia Washburn is the procedures committee chair for the Portland Charter Commission.

He said one suggestion is creation of a joint finance committee, with four representatives each from the School Board and council, that would meet over a longer period of time to work on the School Department budget. 

Commissioner Patricia Washburn, who chairs the procedures committee, said the first thing her committee has decided on is adding a preamble to the City Charter to acknowledge Portland is on Wabanaki land. Beyond that, the most significant proposal the committee is discussing is a “significant pay raise for city councilors,” Washburn said.

She said the proposal would give councilors and School Board members stipends of approximately $17,000 a year, compared with the existing $6,800, for what is viewed as a 20-hour-per-week job.

Washburn said the intent of that proposal, which has not been voted on by the committee, is to make the elected offices more attractive to a more diverse slate of candidates.

“I don’t think we should have elections that are unopposed or where the only candidates are white male lawyers,” she said. “I want this to be a job that’s accessible to somebody who is raising a family, I want this to be a job that’s accessible to someone who is working in one of the tourism industries or who is a school teacher, who is one of the people who make the city go. Lawyers do not make the city go.”

Ryan Lizanecz
Portland Charter Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz chairs the panel’s departments committee.

Washburn said the committee is also working toward a proposal that would make city staff more accessible to the City Council – a response to the procedure established by former City Manager Jon Jennings, who required all requests for access to staff to go through his office.

Departments committee Chairman Ryan Lizanecz said his committee unanimously endorsed a proposal to overhaul the city’s Police Citizen Review Subcommittee. He said the panel hopes to get feedback from the full commission on Dec. 22 and then finalize the proposal in January and February.

Lizanecz said the heart of the proposal would be an entirely new board that would receive complaints against the Police Department and refer them to internal investigations. Then the board would review the investigations for thoroughness, fairness, timeliness, and objectivity.

Lizancecz said all the committees are feeling crunched as 2022 approaches because the process has been “complicated” and has required time to meet with experts, hear from city residents, do additional research, and conduct workshops.

“When we look ahead at the calendar,” he said, “we only have a handful of meetings left before we have to have serious final products done.”