PORTLAND – After nine months of work, Portland’s Charter Commission is nearing the end of its deliberations. On Thursday, it will vote on a package of charter changes to propose to voters in November. A clear majority of the 12-member commission supports putting three questions on the ballot.

The first question would ask voters to establish a popularly elected mayor and have that mayor elected by ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to vote for their top candidate and several backup choices.

The second question would ask voters to change the name of the School Committee to the Board of Public Education and require joint City Council and school board meetings after the superintendent submits an annual budget.

The third question would be a grab bag of technical changes to update the city’s charter, which hasn’t been changed in 25 years.

The commission plans to publish its preliminary report on May 21. After getting feedback from the public, it will hold a public hearing on June 10. The commission is scheduled to hold a final vote on July 8.

For residents who want to change the commission’s direction, the best opportunity will be at the public hearing Thursday before the commission votes on its preliminary report, said the commission’s chair, Pamela Plumb. The meeting in the City Hall Council Chambers will begin at 5:30 p.m.

“The preliminary report is the final statement of what we have agreed to,” Plumb said. “It will only change if the public convinces us we are wrong about something.”

QUESTION 1

All of the controversial issues would be packed into this one question.

The commission recommends that the charter be changed to provide for a popularly elected mayor, rather than a mayor elected annually by the City Council, which is the current practice.

The mayor would serve on the council, taking the at-large seat now held by Councilor Dory Waxman. The first election would be in November 2011. The mayor would serve a four-year term and be limited to two consecutive terms.

Being mayor would be a full-time job. The City Council would set the pay, which would be at least 1½ times the median household income in Portland. If the salary were set today, the minimum pay would be $67,359. Currently, the mayor is paid $7,195

The mayor would oversee the implementation of city policies through the office of the city manager. The mayor would direct the city manager in the preparation of all budgets requiring approval from the City Council, and present the budgets to the council for approval.

The mayor would also play a “facilitative role” with the manager, the council, the school board and the public to secure passage by the council of the city and school budgets.

The mayor would keep the same powers the current mayor has: chairing council meetings, voting as a member of the council, and annually appointing the council committees and various ad hoc city committees.

The city manager would retain the authority to hire and fire city staff members, and the council will retain the authority to hire and fire the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk.

In fact, the mayor wouldn’t have much more legal authority than the current mayor has. Rather, the mayor’s clout would be through the “moral authority” of having his or her political platform approved by voters in citywide election, Plumb said.

The commission believes the mayor should be elected by a majority of voters rather than a plurality. To achieve that without a primary or a run-off election, the commission is recommending that the mayor be elected through a system known as ranked-choice voting or instant run-off voting.

Ranked-choice voting is essentially a series of run-off elections, tallied in rounds. Here’s how it works:

On ballots, voters rank candidates in order of preference by filling in the first-choice bubble next to their favorite candidate, the second-choice bubble next to their second favorite, and so on.

After the polls close, the first-choice votes are counted for all candidates. If no candidate gets a majority, the ballots are recounted with the last-place candidate eliminated.

The second-choice votes on ballots won by the eliminated candidate are redistributed to the remaining candidates.

In later rounds, if a second-choice candidate has already been eliminated, voters’ third-choice votes are redistributed.

The process repeats until one candidate has a clear majority.

Tom Valleau and Richard Ranaghan Jr. are the only two commissioners who oppose an elected mayor. They plan to issue a minority report.

QUESTION 2

The second question deals primarily with the School Committee and its relationship with the City Council.

Commissioners say that giving the committee a new name — Board of Public Education — would increase its status and make it clear that it is not a subcommittee of the City Council.

Its members would get a raise so they would get the same pay and benefits as city councilors. School Committee members now receive annual stipends of $3,000 and no benefits. Councilors receive stipends of about $5,670 and have the same access to city benefits, such as health insurance, as other city employees.

In addition, the proposal instructs the council to give an additional stipend to the chair of the school board. The chair now receives $3,900. The chair would also be required to address the council annually regarding the state of the school system.

The commission recommends that the words “sound fiscal management” be added to the description of the school board’s responsibilities, and that there be joint city and school meetings after the superintendent submits a budget to the school board.

In addition, the commission wants to insert language in the charter that encourages the city and school departments to share staffing and resources.

QUESTION 3

Because the city charter has not been reviewed in nearly 25 years, many details are out of date, commission members say. Many of the proposed technical amendments would address changes in state and federal laws, accounting procedures and programs.

The biggest technical change would modify the recall provision to require that signatures to recall a district city councilor or school board member be from voters registered in that member’s district. Currently, anyone in the city can sign a petition recalling a district councilor.

REJECTED PROPOSALS

The commission considered and rejected these proposals:

Allowing non-citizens to vote in city elections.

Reducing the number of at-large seats and replacing them with district seats.

Establishing public financing for candidates for municipal offices.

Combining school and city inaugurations.

Changing the title of school board chair to “president.”

Requiring election wardens and clerks to be Portland residents.

Requiring the mayor to nominate a professional to conduct a review of the city manager every three years. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or:

[email protected]