Portland City Manager Jon Jennings has been picked to become manager in Clearwater, Florida.
If Jennings accepts the offer it would bring what was expected to be his final year in Maine to an early close and add a level of uncertainty to efforts to replace him.
Jennings, 58, has been Portland’s manager since 2015; his annual salary is $179,790. He is scheduled to step down when his current contract expires in July 2022, but is only expected to give the city a 90-day notice if he decides to leave early.
The City Council recently discussed its options for replacing Jennings, which are already complicated by the work of the Charter Commission, which is in the process of considering reforms to city government. Many of the commissioners campaigned on the desire to either dramatically reduce the scope of the city manager’s power or the elimination of the position.
If Jennings leaves, councilors will have to decide if they want to appoint an interim manager or try to fast-track the search for a long-term replacement. Councilors were split on the best approach, with some advocating beginning the search for a long-term replacement immediately, while others advocated finding an interim manager to hold the course so the city can take its time, and while the Charter Commission does its work.
The Charter Commission will likely make its recommendations next summer, and those recommendations would likely go to voters in November 2022. Some councilors expressed concerns about the quality of candidates the city could attract because of the possibility the manager’s job may dramatically change next fall.
Jennings was one of four finalists for the Clearwater position and was in Florida Sept. 1-2 to interview for the post. If he takes the position, he will manage a city of more than 115,000 people northwest of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
While his tenure has been marked by budget stability and significant development throughout the city, Jennings has recently been a lightning rod for critics.
He publicly clashed with former Mayor Ethan Strimling over their respective powers, which helped pave the way for the conversations the Charter Commission is now having.
Last summer there were calls for Jennings’ resignation after the protests that followed the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police. Critics claimed Jennings hasn’t done enough to root out systemic racism in the city or to address major societal concerns like homelessness.
The Portland City Council, however, supported Jennings and extended his contract by one-year after he turned down a more customary three-year extension.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Clearwater city councilors were impressed with Jennings’ entrepreneurial experience and noted his “bulldog” demeanor in getting things done, which separated him from other candidates.
The paper reported that councilors grilled Jennings about the calls from Portland activists for him to resign. Jennings defended himself, saying as manager he was turned into a “scapegoat” for activists’ concerns that the city government was shaped decades ago in a deal between the Ku Klux Klan and the chamber of commerce.
“It is frankly an outrageous, hateful statement that was made,” he told the Clearwater City Council, about a Portland activist’s claim that Jennings is a “white supremacist.”
Jennings, who was unanimously selected to become Clearwater’s next manager, must still negotiate the terms of his employment. If an agreement is reached he would replace Bill Horne, who held the Clearwater job for 20 years before he died of a suspected heart attack on Aug. 14, according to the Tampa Bay Times.