Public hearing leaves Portland Charter Commission with ‘incomplete picture’

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The public had its first chance to sound off to the new Portland Charter Commission last week and now commissioners are preparing to shape those messages into their work for the coming year.

Although the July 28 meeting was the only public hearing legally required of the commission, several commissioners have indicated they would like to hold more such sessions. The remote hearing at times drew close to 150 attendees, and one commissioner estimated about 50 people spoke.

But while many who spoke repeated themes that were discussed often throughout the commission election campaign – including the elimination of the city manager position – commissioners said they heard a well-rounded, but incomplete, discussion.

Michael Kebede

Michael Kebede, the commission chair, said there were a handful of common refrains, particularly the desire to change the power of the mayor and the relationship between the mayor and the City Council.

He said some people want the commissioners to do more to have the charter address issues such as homelessness and affordable housing, while others expressed confusion about the purpose of the charter, and suggested the commissioners do significant research.

“I think that a very diverse ideological range was represented among the commenters,” Kebede said. “I do think that the totality of political opinions and Charter Commission opinions was not represented in the public hearing. Some residents of Portland who have ideas didn’t, for whatever reason, speak up.”

He said commissioners expressed a desire for a wider range of feedback, and while this was the only required public hearing, they will “almost certainly” have more.

Commissioner Patricia Washburn said it’s no secret that “people in Portland have lots of opinions.” And she said those opinions are important since any recommendations the commission makes will need approval from city voters.

“There are pros and cons to anything we take up,” Washburn said. “Nothing we do will be universally popular. But this has given us a sense of the scope of what we’re taking on. And the next priority is to manage that down to something we can actually accomplish and get before the voters. It will be a challenge.”

Washburn, an at-large commissioner who won thanks to the city’s ranked-choice voting system, acknowledged the voting procedure was something that attracted criticism during the public hearing. Some of those who spoke encouraged the commission to recommend a system better suited for elections like the at-large commission races, where voters elected candidates to several seats.

“Certainly, some of the people were very thoughtful, and I want to hear from more people I disagree with, they are the people I need to hear from,” Washburn said. “You can agree with me all day, and that’s wonderful, that’s great. But different perspectives are the ones I need to hear and understand. You’re not going to change my core values I went into this job with, like anti-racism, but you may change my mind on some specific measures.”

Washburn said while there weren’t any huge surprises from people who addressed the commission, it was important to work to listen.

The District 5 commissioner, Ryan Lizanecz, agreed that there weren’t many surprising comments and that many of the themes that came up were raised throughout the campaign. Lizanecz said it sounded like a balanced discussion, without an overwhelming number of people speaking in support of any single proposal.

Lizanecz said the issues around the roles of the city manager and mayor had come up frequently and will be important for shaping the panel’s work. He said the commission’s first two meetings have been more about setting procedures, and now the group can begin to shift its focus to policy.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We’re going to set out some policy goals and thoughts at our next meeting and get into the actual work.”

At-large Commissioner Marpheen Chann said the public hearing was a good start, although it didn’t present the commission with a clear picture of where to focus its energy.

“Obviously in terms of the work, this entire process is going to be very public,” Chann said. “And I think that outreach should be done to reach as many Portland residents as possible to get as many as possible involved. I think it was definitely a start. It gives us (the ability) to gauge the temperature of what Portland folks are thinking. But I also want to see what folks who didn’t vote in the June election (think).”

Chann said the public hearing provided “an incomplete picture” of what the work will be, and commissioners need to hear from more people before they can really shape their agenda.

“I think 120 people at a public hearing isn’t quite enough to draw conclusions on what the entire city wants out of this process,” he said.

Washburn and Chann said the commission should seek the guidance of experts in various fields, such as different forms of city government, to see what can be best applied to Portland.

“We’ll have to bring in experts and stakeholders and folks who have experience working within city government, whether in Maine or across the country,” Chann said. “We’re looking to hear from our current mayor and former mayors, we’re looking to hear from city staff. This is the beginning of a year-long process. We have to see it through.”

Chann also noted that speakers urged the commission to consider establishing clean elections, the issue that led to the creation of the commission in the first place; revamping the roles and duties of the mayor and city manager, and changing the size and structure of the City Council.

Regarding requests to modify the RCV system, Chann said “I think that is definitely a worthy cause to take up. We saw how confusing it was for both the candidates, the press, and the public. I’m glad to see that there’s agreement from all sides on that.”

Speaking more generally about the Charter Commission, Kebede said he thought things were going “extremely well.” 

“It’s very collegial, there’s a tremendous amount of affection and trust in the group,” he said. 

Kebede said he knows the panel will eventually get to a point where commissioners disagree with each other but expects those will be “respectful and collegial.”

“I do think our ideological diversity is a strength,” Kebede said. “I think the other Charter Commissioners believe that too.” 

The commission has 12 members, which at times can prove challenging.

At their previous meeting, a discussion on the commission’s ability to hire its own independent attorney instead of using city-provided legal representation led some commissioners to express frustration at getting bogged down in issues that eat up their time and prevent them from getting to the bigger topics.

The now-disbanded Racial Equity Steering Committee, a group of comparable size, had similar problems until it hired a facilitator to maintain better organization

Kebede said the commission’s next meeting on Aug. 11 will see the group “ironing out a process for the substantive issues.”

“We’ll decide what issues we’re going to consider, (and) how we consider them,” he said. “… The commissioners generally share the desire to get to substantive issues as soon as possible.”