Portland’s newly elected Charter Commission will hold its organizational meeting next week.
But how will the group of 12 individuals, some without political or government experience, approach the year-long and far-reaching task of making recommendations that may revise the structure of city government?
The city’s last Charter Commission in 2010 had several members with some experience in either elected office or public service; most of those on the new panel do not. For most of the commissioners – and many of the candidates who ran in the election – this is their first taste of public service.
The previous commission included current state Sen. Ben Chipman; former School Board Chair and current School Board member Anna Trevorrow; former School Board member Laurie Davis; and former City Councilors Pamela Plumb, James Cohen, and Nathan Smith. Plumb, Cohen, and Smith each also served as mayor when that job was still a one-year appointment by the City Council.
Several other commissioners were also lawyers, providing some level of experience in creating documents and reports that could go to referendum, and theoretically stand up to any legal challenge.
Robert O’Brien is the only member of the new commission who also served on the commission in 2010. He is also a member of the Historic Preservation Board, and is a former member of the School Board.
The only other newly elected commissioner who has a working familiarity with city procedures and municipal documents is Marpheen Chann, who is a member of the Planning Board. Chann is also a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, but does not practice law. Another commissioner, Ryan Lizanecz, is a student at the law school.
The three City Council-appointed members of the commission are Dory Waxman, Peter Eglinton, and Michael Kebede. Waxman is a former city councilor, Eglinton is the former School Board chair and Portland Public Schools chief operating officer, and Kebede is policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine.
Cohen, who served on the council from 2002-2008 and was mayor from 2005-2006, said his advice to the incoming Charter Commission members is to understand the options available for municipal government, study them, and see what can best be applied in Portland.
“The charter is about the operations of the government,” Cohen said. “It’s not a policy document.”
Cohen, a partner in Portland’s Verrill law firm and president of the board of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, said the commission should follow the same steps as the last one, starting with setting ground rules that enable public participation, which will ultimately lead to rules to how they can agree on what to send to voters.
“For members of the Charter Commission who don’t have prior experience, their learning curve is going to be steep,” he said.
Cohen said it is too early to comment on whether the panel will be able to accomplish any of the goals set by the candidates. But he said one job they have to do right from the start is to decide precisely what they want to work on.
He advised being selective.
“Many candidates talked about a wide range of issues, but there isn’t time to meaningfully address all those issues,” Cohen said. “They need to more surgically address key areas they can meaningfully take on in the number of months they have available.”
Cohen said there are things that he hopes the commission will examine – such as the ambiguity between the roles of the mayor and city manager, and allowing city councilors access to city staff – and he respects this group for taking on what will be a time-consuming process.
“The future of Portland rests on the thoughtful, conscientious decisions that they make,” Cohen said, “and I hope they are able to make good decisions.”
Former City Councilor and School Board member Justin Costa said the important thing for the commission is to be willing to think through policy ideas and reach an agreement on what they want to achieve. After a campaign that included lots of discussion about policy and larger societal changes related to inequality and racial justice, he said, the question becomes what changes can be made to address those issues.
“I think it will be difficult to make progress if people can’t think through (the issues),” Costa said.
He said one talking point he heard throughout the campaign was a desire to do away with at-large City Council seats and increase the number of council districts. He said that could essentially close the door on anyone who is a renter running for office, because he believes districts tend to be smaller, residential areas that favor homeowners.
“Not that there’s a right or wrong, but I think we need to come up with an idea of what are we trying to achieve and what’s the problem we’re trying to solve,” Costa said. “There are no answers, it’s not a mathematical equation. It’s a series of tradeoffs and competing values. If we don’t do that, it’s easy to have unintended consequences or waste time on things that aren’t productive.”
Costa said one example of a waste of time would be commissioners spending time debating the council’s role in approving the School Department budget, since that is defined by state law.
“I hope the commissioners don’t waste a lot of time debating something they can’t change,” he said.
Like Cohen, Costa said there will be a steep learning curve for the incoming commissioners who don’t have experience in government, just as there is for any inexperienced city councilor or School Board member.
“We have a pretty complex local government,” he said. “We deal with things beyond just the traditional police and fire. We run public health; we have an international jetport.”
Costa said it will be important for the commissioners to think through the goals of specific changes.
“Undeniably, there’s an upside to new people with a fresh perspective,” he said. “But there’s also an undeniable downside to having people who have never worked with the city manager opining on what the relationship between the mayor and the manager should be. There are two sides to that coin.”
Chipman, who previously served in the Legislature, said since many of the incoming commissioners don’t have experience, the experience of O’Brien, Waxman, and Eglinton will be valuable, along with the attorney hired by the city to advise the commission and help draft legal documents.
That attorney, James Katsiaficas of the law firm Perkins Thompson, said his role will not be to determine policy. He said his job is to provide legal advice to the commissioners and to help them write their final recommendations.
“There are about 80 municipalities in Maine that have home rule,” Katsiaficas said. “When these are made or revised, it’s common to have an attorney provide advice.”
Katsiaficas said it would be premature for him to discuss any legal advice or guidance he might provide to the commission ahead of its June 28 meeting. He noted the panel has 30 days after the meeting to hold its first public hearing.
“We’ll see how this process unfolds,” Katsiaficas said.
Chipman, meanwhile, noted that although he had political experience, he had never run for office before being elected to the last Charter Commission.
“I think it’s a place where someone without a lot of political experience can gain some political experience,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to be part of something significant in the city’s history.”
But he also said many of the elected commissioners ran on “big, bold issues” that are “probably much larger than something that can be achieved” by a Charter Commission. He said the last commission, which recommended returning to an elected mayor and adopting ranked-choice voting, was “always concerned if we tried to do too much, the voters wouldn’t approve it.”
So his advice for the new commissioners is to keep in mind what they think will actually succeed with voters.
He also agreed there will be a steep learning curve for most of the incoming commissioners, who, unlike other elected officials, have to jump right in and won’t be able to spend a year figuring out how to do the job. He also warned that meetings may not be exciting, especially as they get “into the weeds” of the charter.
Overall, however, he said the commission has “a great opportunity. I’m optimistic they will come up with something voters will approve.”
Plumb, who was Portland’s mayor in 1981, said she hopes the incoming commissioners take the time to learn how other municipalities work as part of their research. She said she also hopes they will be open to various points of view.
“One advantage we had a decade ago was a really varied group of people with different points of view,” Plumb said. “It turned out to be a great asset. That will be a challenge (this time). They have a surprisingly uniform perspective on the city and how the city should be run.”
Plumb said serving on the Charter Commission is also a learning experience. She said when she served, most of the group had never heard of ranked-choice voting. But a few commissioners brought it to the table, and from there the panel brought in experts and people from communities that used the system.
“I was totally converted,” Plumb said. “I think it’s the best thing we accomplished. That kind of openness to new ideas would be important for them.”
She said it will take time for the Charter Commission to really get into their work, and advised members to talk honestly about their key interests, so they can find expertise in those areas. She said the previous commission’s recommendations on the revised role of the mayor was something that required a lot of research.
“Everyone walks into the room with an opinion, we all did,” Plumb said. “But we all then participated in a process that gave us a lot of information. Many of us prevailed in some areas, and learned new things, and changed our minds in other areas.”
1st commission meeting coincides with council’s racial equity discussion
The first meeting of Portland’s new Charter Commission will be held the same evening the City Council plans a workshop on the final report from the Racial Equity Steering Committee.
The commission will meet remotely at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 28, to receive an overview of rules and procedures, establish a schedule of future meetings, and elect a chair, vice chair, and secretary. Commissioners will also schedule their first public hearing, which must be held within 30 days of the organizational meeting.
The organizational meeting could conflict with the City Council’s workshop on the final report from the Racial Equity Steering Committee, which is planned for the same evening at 5 p.m.
The council has already received the report from the racial equity panel, but decided to hold a workshop to discuss the recommendations.
— Colin Ellis