The Portland Phoenix

Precedent exists for Portland Charter Commission to get extra time

Despite indications the Portland Charter Commission will need an extension to complete its work, the 12-member panel is moving slowly on its first round of reform proposals.

Three votes were expected at the commission’s Jan. 26 meeting and none of them happened.

One proposal, to give the City Council more direct access to City Hall staff, was tabled to see if other proposals would overlap with it.

Shay Stewart-Bouley
Portland Charter Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley: “I don’t honestly think it is realistic to think we will have anything resembling a report by March 8.”

A second proposal, to create a charter preamble acknowledging that the city is on land never ceded by the Wabanaki tribes, was not voted on after commissioners realized it had never had an official first reading.

And a third proposal, to create a Civilian Police Review Board – a more authoritative police oversight board that would replace the Police Citizen Review Board – did not get an official vote because commissioners wanted it written in charter language. Instead, they sent the draft proposal to their attorney to have him rewrite it before they vote.

If it is not granted an extension by the City Council, the commission’s preliminary report is due March 8.

The city’s last Charter Commission, in 2010, also received an extension to complete its work.

Commissioner Marpheen Chann said the previous commission didn’t have to have its preliminary report to the council until May 21, with a final report by mid-July. The current commission is scheduled to present its final report by the end of June.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the 2010 commission had the same statutory deadlines as the current one, “but apparently they were extended in 2010, and the 2022 Commission is asking for a similar extension that would still allow the revision questions to be on the ballot this November.”

Commission attorney James Katsiaficas indicated it would be possible to request a delay for just the preliminary report, without having to change the due date for the final report. 

Commissioner Shay Stewart-Bouley said the panel will almost certainly need that extension, based on the number of proposals commissioners expect to consider.

“I don’t honestly think it is realistic to think we will have anything resembling a report by March 8,” Stewart-Bouley said.

Katsiaficas said the city clerk needs the commission material by Sept. 1 to get the recommendations on the November ballot.

Before that deadline can be met, however, the final report has to be presented to the City Council with enough time to allow two readings and a council vote. A complication is that the council typically meets only once a month in the summer, not twice, although councilors can schedule additional meetings.

Missing the ballot deadlines would most likely push the charter revision referendum to June 2023. There is also a voter turnout threshold required for passage of charter revisions, and concern that pushing the referendum to a June election – when turnout is historically much lower – would derail the proposed revisions.

“I wish it were better,” Katsiaficas said, “but that’s the constraints of the time and process.”  

Committees debate constituent service models

Although they made no formal decision, two Charter Commission committees appeared to essentially agree on a proposal to create a constituent services department separate from the city manager’s office, while also creating some form of city government oversight office.

The departments and governance committees met Jan. 31 for a wide-ranging discussion that veered into whether the city clerk and city attorney should be elected instead of appointed and citizen recourse over disagreements with the City Council.

Charter Commissioner Zack Barowitz: Seeking a “just-right” solution.

The two committees had been hoping to reconcile separate proposals to create similar positions.

The Governance Committee had proposed creating a chief of staff’s office, primarily as a connection between the council and City Hall staff that would prepare data requested by councilors and receive requests from the public and press. An ombudsman position discussed by the Departments Committee would handle similar communications and constituent services.

The committees heard varying perspectives from city Communications Director Jessica Grondin, who handles these requests now; Monique Glaude, the director of community engagement and ombudsman for Topeka, Kansas, and Michael Pastor, a New York attorney and law professor on state and local government.

Grondin explained how the system currently works and said she believes the existing system is fine but lacks resources. Glaude described a scenario where she effectively acts as the point of contact for all city and constituent needs, receiving questions and complaints and creating better trust in local government. And Pastor described different approaches, including one that seemed to interest the commissioners: an independent public advocate to act as a city government watchdog.

At the heart of the discussion was a desire from both committees to remove some authority from the city manager’s office. But Commissioner Zach Barowitz described the ideas as a “Goldilocks problem:” the ombudsman position Glaude described might be too soft, while some of the things Pastor described – including a public advocate who could publicly criticize elected officials – might be too strong.

“I’m feeling we’re looking for the ‘just-right’ scenario,” Barowitz said.

There was also debate over who a public advocate would report to. Some commissioners said it should be a council-appointed position, and others said the position should be elected and accountable to voters.

The committees are expected to reconvene Feb. 7 to continue the discussion.

— Colin Ellis

Commission eyes revised school budget process

Portland charter commissioners may propose a change in the School Department budget process that would include negotiations between city councilors and School Board members before the budget is created.

Members of both elected bodies’ finance committees don’t meet now until after the superintendent of schools has presented a draft budget that has been reviewed by the School Board.

Commissioner Peter Eglinton, who presented the proposal Jan. 24 in a meeting of the commission’s education committee, suggested a joint committee of four councilors and four School Board representatives. They would present a detailed, non-binding budget resolution – essentially a suggested budget – to the school superintendent.

If the suggestion is followed by the superintendent and approved by the School Board, it could then be swiftly approved by the City Council, Eglinton said, since four councilors would already be on board and could more easily inform and sway their colleagues.

Eglinton also proposed having the superintendent of schools involved in creating the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, the five-year funding schedule for various projects around the city. That plan is now directed by the city manager.

Eglinton said the language of his proposal may need to be changed slightly if other Charter Commission committees propose restructuring City Hall’s power-sharing dynamic and the mayor is placed in charge of the CIP. His proposal would also require the CIP to be presented jointly to the council and School Board.

There was no vote, and Eglinton said his proposals must still be reviewed by the commission attorney.

— Colin Ellis

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