PORTLAND – When Portland voters decided to form a Charter Commission in November 2008, many focused on the issue of an elected mayor.

In the months since the commission convened, the most common conversation with members of the public – for each of us – has been whether we would recommend an elected mayor and, if so, what kind of mayor that would be.

Now that we commissioners are nearing the end of our discussions and are ready to put such a suggestion in front of you, we think a little explanation is in order.

and large, the council/manager form of government has done well by Portland. The city gets national attention for its livability, and it is the economic powerhouse of Maine. In suggesting a change to that form of government, we have been acutely aware of what we stand to lose.

On the other hand, we are also inspired by what we have to gain. Many Portlanders feel that in recent years, city government has lacked consistency and transparency. It has lacked leadership and vision.

Our challenge has been to create a position that provides a platform for vision and leadership, yet guards against the pitfalls of unfettered power. It is a narrow ledge to walk.

Some might critique our proposal, saying that it does too little – that it timidly proposes a mayor with little more power than the current structure, while leaving in place a strong manager and council.

But that argument overlooks the power of a steady hand over a full four-year term. This mayoral position is designed to distill the political power of the council into one vessel – the mayor – who will shape the tenor and direction of city policy over four years rather than one. Even as the council changes, the guide remains the same.

For example: in our proposal the budget belongs to the mayor. He or she will draw on the expertise of the city manager to build the budget and maintain the city’s fiscal health, but the policy decisions will be the mayor’s.

The mayor must also get the approval of the council to pass the budget. That will require compromise, but because the mayor holds office for four years, he or she will exercise the “soft” power of a consistent hand on the tiller. The manager acts as a check on fiscal foolishness and the council provides restraint on radical politics.

Thus, the mayor’s job is to develop and promote policies that advance the city; the city manager’s job is to ensure that Portland functions properly.

The mayoral position will be a challenging one, not least because he or she will have to balance the interests of the council, the city manager and staff, and the people who have voted him/her into office. Our proposal recognizes that challenge and specifies a full-time salary for the position. It will require an exceptional individual, a person of energy, conviction and patience.

But it also offers opportunity far exceeding the basic, concrete powers described in the proposal. The popularly elected mayor of Maine’s largest city will have a platform with leverage that rivals the governor. This person will have the chance to advocate directly with our delegations in Washington and in Augusta.

Unlike the current system, with a new and largely ceremonial mayor every year, this mayor will have a chance to develop relationships with staff and elected officials and will carry political weight our current council chair does not.

The mayor will also be the face of business in Portland. We are a market player in real estate development, in education, in infrastructure and in labor and we owe it to ourselves to have a voice for citizens in those conversations.

All of this clout is held carefully in check by the inherent limitations of the position: The proposed mayor still needs the City Council and the manager to run the city day-by-day.

We hope you will take some time between now and November to read our report. Our goal has been to enable the visionary leadership we feel Portland deserves. Throughout, we have tried to match our work to the city’s character.

This fall, you can let us know if we’ve succeeded.

 

– Special to the Press Herald