With facilitators’ help, Portland Charter Commission shows support for stronger mayor

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The Portland Charter Commission is continuing its slow progress towards a recommendation to create an executive mayor with more authority to lead the city, although the discussion now requires hired facilitators to steer the group. 

During a facilitated discussion last week, commissioners took a series of straw polls to see where members stood on certain issues. The polls were nonbinding and a way to gauge which broad ideas commissioners would support.

Hilary North-Ellasante
Hilary North-Ellasante (Courtesy Training for Change)

This was the first meeting with the two facilitators the commission has hired: Samaa Abdurraqib, associate director of the Maine Humanities Council who also facilitated the city’s Racial Equity Steering Committee, and Hilary North-Ellasante, a consultant from Lewiston.

Yet despite the desire for the straw polls to largely be informal and not rooted in specific details, the commission did get bogged down in details several times, to the point where facilitators had to remind them they were just conducting straw polls.

Unlike previous meetings, the facilitators kept commissioners on a time limit for comments: they were allowed just three minutes per turn to speak, although they could raise their hands and be granted additional time. No commissioners ran out of time. 

Samaa Abdurraqib
Samaa Abdurraqib (Courtesy Maine Humanities Council)

Of the 11 commissioners present during the facilitated meeting, seven supported making the elected mayor the city’s chief executive, and the hiring of a city administrator with managerial or financial expertise.

Chairman Michael Kebede, who proposed using straw polls, said his intention was not to hammer out the details or finalize a proposal. Given that there are so many commissioners and varying opinions, he said he didn’t anticipate them being able to “successfully vote a full package of a governance proposal up or down,” so this was an attempt to see what had the most support either by majority or by consensus.

“The only way to complete our work is by eating the elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “And this strikes me as the most appropriate first bite.”

Nine commissioners agreed in a straw poll asking if the executive mayor should not have unilateral power to hire and fire department heads or the city manager.

When asked if the executive mayor should have the authority to draft the annual municipal budget, eight agreed.

And when asked if they would support moving the mayoral election to coincide with the presidential election, nine were in support.

The group has struggled to make progress on a recommendation for changing the division of power in City Hall.

Initially, three members of the governance committee submitted a proposal. Then Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, another member of that committee, submitted a separate proposal.

When the full commission convened, Commissioner Marpheen Chann offered what he called a compromise of those two proposals. Then Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who chairs the governance committee, submitted proposals to amend Chann’s compromise proposal.

The commission must send a preliminary report of the recommendations it has completed to the City Council in May, with a final report due in July. The proposed changes to the City Charter will go to a voter referendum in November.

Commission has spent more than $35K on legal fees

In the eight months since it began working on recommendations that could overhaul city government the Portland Charter Commission has spent almost half of its allotted budget on attorney fees.

Chairman Michael Kebede said the commission had spent just over $37,000 of its $75,000 budget through March 9, with more than $35,000 of that for legal fees paid to the panel’s attorney from Perkins Thompson.

The fees do not include payments to facilitators hired to help guide commission discussions and additional fees for speakers and staff.

On Monday, Kebede said the facilitators would each be paid $150 per hour. The final cost for their services will likely be between $2,800 and $3,600, but Kebede said he could not be sure of the final amount.

The commission budget has been a challenge from the outset. While they began meeting last June, commissioners had to wait two months until they received a final budgetThe process angered some members of the commission at the time, with one commissioner claiming City Hall had been “stonewalling” the 12-member commission.

Commissioners were also initially told they only had a budget of $1,000 with an additional $74,000 set aside for legal services. That was eventually resolved and the commission was told it had a total budget of $75,000 to use at its discretion.

— Colin Ellis