PORTLAND – Should Portland voters elect a mayor? Should the city allow non-citizens to vote? Should voters rank candidates in order of choice rather than pick just one?

Those are some of the big issues the city Charter Commission is wrestling with as it considers changing the structure of Portland’s government.

The response from the public, though, has been underwhelming.

Residents’ enthusiasm was considerable when the commission began its work last summer. But the road to history-making has become a tedious and wonkish journey through the particulars of good government.

When the commission meets in the City Council chambers every two weeks, most of the seats for the audience are empty.

”In the best of all worlds, people would be watching our every move and commenting and giving us feedback,” said Jim Gooch, one of the 12 commissioners. ”But that isn’t the way it happens.”

Commissioners hope to win back the public’s attention Tuesday night by holding a special meeting designed to engage residents in a dialogue.

The commissioners will break up into small groups to discuss their proposals. Depending on how many people show up, there may be only one commissioner in each group.

During the commission’s regular meetings, residents comment by speaking at a microphone. That might intimidate some people, said Pamela Plumb, who chairs the commission.

Plumb hopes that Tuesday’s intimate setting will encourage more people to speak up.

Moreover, the give-and-take of a conversation can be more productive than the speech-making that goes on at the typical public hearing, she said.

”The dialogue is the more creative environment,” she said. ”We’d love to have a lively set of conversations going.”

Tuesday’s meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the State of Maine Room at City Hall.

On Thursday, the commission plans to take a preliminary vote on one of the most controversial proposals — allowing non-citizens to vote in city elections.

The commission has already indicated that it supports a popularly elected mayor and a system of voting known as ”ranked choice voting” or ”instant run-off voting.”

The commission plans to issue a preliminary report in May and a final set of recommendations in July.

Voters will get a chance in November to decide whether to approve the recommendations.

The commission will have to decide whether to give voters a package for an up-or-down vote, or allow voters to vote on individual proposals.

The stakes are high, Gooch said.

”We only have one bite at the apple,” he said. ”There may not be another Charter Commission for another 20 years.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]