Portland charter revision panel’s process dismays commissioner

Latest proposal would separate mayor from City Council

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A member of the Portland Charter Commission said he has lost confidence in the panel’s procedure as it continues to discuss the roles of the mayor and city manager.

“I have lost faith in this process and I don’t say that lightly,” Commissioner Marpheen Chann said in the group’s March 30 meeting.

The process, a series of straw poll votes that have taken several hours, most recently resulted in commissioners signaling their support for removing the mayor from the City Council.

Marpheen Chann
Portland Charter Commissioner Marpheen Chann: “I have lost faith in this process.”

Instead, the elected mayor would be effectively the chief executive officer of the city, and the city manager would be the chief operating officer, reporting to the mayor. 

The mayor would be responsible for policy creation and making sure policies passed by the City Council are implemented by city staff, and the mayor and chief operating officer would have a coordinated approach to working with department heads to see those policies put into action. 

The mayor would also direct the chief operating officer to develop a budget, and the COO would work with department heads to craft that budget. The mayor would have veto power over the budget because city councilors could theoretically add or remove various items from the budget proposed to them. Commissioner Robert O’Brien said the veto would preserve the mayor’s policy-making authority.

Several aspects of this arrangement remain unresolved, including who would appoint department heads, although commissioners agreed in a previous straw poll that the mayor should not have unilateral power to hire or fire department heads or staff.

The agenda for the commission’s April 6 meeting, with two hired facilitators present, includes a vote on the governance proposal. But another vote is expected after the commission holds a public hearing on the recommendation on a future date. 

While O’Brien said budget creation with veto power would preserve the mayor’s authority to make policy, the council could override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds majority. The commission voted informally last week to increase the size of the council to 12 members, which means eight councilors would be needed for an override.

A 12-member City Council also leaves open the possibility and likelihood of tie votes. One proposal would have kept the mayor on the council only for the purpose of tie-breaking votes. O’Brien, who made that proposal with Chann, later withdrew the proposal and said there are many other ways ties can be broken.

Chann, meanwhile, expressed his frustration with the straw poll procedure and piecemeal process the commission has taken. He said the panel could more effectively take up entire proposals rather than spending time on granular ideas that did not reflect or could negate ideas in other proposals.

The commission has used the informal votes to see which governance issues would have consensus or majority support before continuing. They eventually must come back with a proposal for a public hearing and a final vote and seem to be trying to make sure this proposal can make it into their interim report.

The commission, which began meeting last June, must submit the preliminary report to the City Council by May 21, with a final report due in mid-July. Its recommendations for revising the City Charter must ultimately be approved by voters in a November referendum.

Redefining the separation of powers in city government – and specifically limiting the power of the city manager – was something most commissioners campaigned on. Their current proposals would not materially weaken the city manager, but do provide more avenues for the mayor to conduct performance reviews and for the council to remove the COO from office.

Additionally, while many Charter Commission candidates campaigned on the notion of a stronger executive mayor, many of the adjustments they are considering now are intended to corral mayoral authority.

Commission Chairman Michael Kebede, for example, said he thought having a mayor who would implement the council’s policies would be too much if that person was also a voting member of the council and acted as its president.