For Danielle West, one of the most pressing daily challenges is trying to find time to surf.
West, the city’s interim city manager for the last 13 months, said her love of the outdoors is something most people don’t know about her, and something that has kept her in Maine.
“Sometimes people would laugh to see my car with a surfboard on top of it,” West said. “That’s a good way to relieve some stress.”
With her role as the administrative head of Portland’s city government, it’s early mornings or bust if she wants to ride the waves. As the city manager, she often logs late nights with the Council.
West, 44, is originally from Livonia, New York, and has lived in Portland for 22 years. She graduated from the University of Maine Law School and was in private practice before taking a job with the city in 2008, eventually becoming the city’s top lawyer in 2013. She took on the interim city manager position on Nov. 1 2021, filling a position held by Jon Jennings, who departed for a manager role in Clearwater, Florida.
West inherited an uncertain position from Jennings, whose grip on policy powers and clashes with other city leaders, including former Mayor Ethan Strimling, in part led to calls around Portland for the manager position to be less powerful. In the summer of 2020, for example, demonstrators at several racial justice protests in the city called for Jennings to resign, saying his policies disenfranchised people of color as well as people experiencing homelessness.
Jennings ultimately resigned, but not before voters approved the formation of a Charter Commission and elected several candidates who advocated for reducing the powers of the manager.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Phoenix days after the election, West said that “City Hall and city government has been in a transition” over the last few years.
“I felt the shift starting around the pandemic because we had to deal with different, moving targets,” West said.
She is “actively considering” the permanent manager job. Once it’s posted by the city, expected in January or February, she will make a final decision.
“I want to understand specifically the qualifications of the person they are looking for to see if I match up,” she said. “Then I will make that determination.”
West would not have been interested in the long-term position had Question 2 passed earlier in the week. That proposal, one of eight recommendations from the Charter Commission, would have overhauled the power dynamic within City Hall, creating a more powerful executive mayor to lead the city, and reduced the powers of the city manager to be a chief administrative officer. West said she would not have applied for that position, though she would have remained on as the interim manager until the next mayor appointed the city’s first CAO.
West said her problem-solving skills have been put to the test since taking over and trying to face issues as they came up. She didn’t expand much on the differences between her approach to managing the city compared with that of Jennings, but she tried to take the same approach he had in addressing problems as they arise.
But she’s also made attempts to improve communication between her office and city staff. She has started a regular session for staff to ask her anything. Such initiatives mark a key distinction between her administration and that of Jennings, who was not known for his transparency.
West pointed to challenges she’s faced that Jennings didn’t have to — namely, a growing number of vacancies inside City Hall. As of Nov. 10, there are 255 vacant city positions, including several department heads.
West attributed many of the vacancies to normal causes. Staff members, including department heads, reached retirement age during the pandemic, which created challenges in filling vacant positions. Then there are city workers, like former Police Chief Frank Clark, who left to pursue work in the private sector.
In the end, West said there wasn’t anything peculiar about city vacancies, as other “organizations go through it” too. But it has created challenges for the remaining employees, including situations where staff may be filling the responsibilities of two positions, including department head positions.
West said she tried to “look as differently or creatively as I could to try to improve the employee morale issues I saw coming out of the pandemic and related to those vacancies.”
According to Mayor Kate Snyder, a key difference between how West and Jennings have approached the job stems from the fact that prior to being named interim manager, West already had more than a decade of experience working in Portland government. Jennings, on the other hand, came in from South Portland.
“She brings a different frame of reference with her,” Snyder said.
Snyder, who is not seeking reelection in 2023, said there is a challenge that comes with the interim label. A person brought in as a permanent manager is “hired with the belief that you’re going to be there a while, and execute the goals of the Council,” she said, while an interim appointment can struggle with how much they can push for their own vision.
“I think she’s been really effective at identifying opportunities for improvement,” Snyder said. “There are bigger changes that will require more time. Danielle is sensitive to the fact that you don’t want to push too much change if that change isn’t here to stay.”
Former City Councilor Kim Cook, who left the council in 2020, only has experience working with Jennings, with whom she had a poor relationship.
Cook worked with West in her role as corporation counsel but not city manager, and said she couldn’t comment on their differences in the role. In her view, Portland should hire a city manager that “honors and supports the role of elected leaders as they lead on policy issues,” not one “who has an agenda” of their own, like Jennings did.
City Councilor Tae Chong, who opted against seeking reelection this fall, will have worked with both West and Jennings, and said the two approached the job in different ways. To Chong, Jennings was “an entrepreneur” who was “always trying to figure out how he can grow the city and have more economic development.”
Chong, a director of strategy for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, hopes that West can hire a new economic development director after the retirement of Greg Mitchell, which he believes will “help grow the city.”
Chong sees the city manager’s role differently than Councilor Cook. He appreciated that he was able to approach Jennings about creating programs like the Office of Economic Opportunity, which helps connect immigrants in Portland with businesses looking to hire, but doesn’t think he can lobby West about creating new programs or positions.
“She will create new programs and positions if it’s the will of council or public, as we saw this past election with things like the new police review board,” Chong said. “But she’s not going to go out and create new things.”
“I hope she stays,” Chong added, “but I think she needs more help around her to make the city bigger and better.”
One area that Jennings drew fire over was the handling of a proposed redesign for Franklin Street. With broad public support, the city council unanimously approved a redesign for the major thoroughfare, also known as Franklin Arterial, in 2015, on the grounds that it was unfriendly to pedestrians and blocked off a major part of the city. That proposal was ultimately quashed by Jennings.
West didn’t share her view on the issue, but did say that the project is a “significant” one that’s had “a lot of work and planning” between the city and state. She added that the issue will likely be a focus area when the Sustainability and Transportation convenes under the new council.
The biggest policy document the manager is in charge of is the annual municipal budget. West is now entering her second budget cycle, though she’s had very few opportunities to put her fingerprints on it due to outstanding budgetary allocations like providing services to an influx of asylum seekers in recent years.
West said that she wasn’t able to “address anything additional” beyond those needs.
The city also paid roughly $17.5 million this year toward bonds issued in 2001 to pay Portland’s unfunded pension liability. Those payments are scheduled to be paid off in 2026.
West recommended the Council utilize different funds, like the city’s housing trust fund for developers and mental health services at the homeless services center, to help those who are unhoused.
One challenge she has heard from constituents and elected officials is just how slow the city and Council take in making decisions and enacting change. But West believes the slow roll isn’t always a bad thing, and most often results in residents receiving better services. She also agrees with the narrative that the city is growing more politically divided, which Mayor Kate Snyder pressed in her recent State of the City Address. While she says that councilors are generally willing to meet in the middle, it can be difficult to find ways to satisfy the varying camps.
“Hopefully they are trying to meet in the middle, and hopefully I as a staff person, who implements the policies, if I can help, I do that,” West said. “We’re trying to find the best solutions.”