Editor’s note: This is the last of a two-part series on proposed changes to the Portland City Charter.

 

PORTLAND – When Portland residents step up to the podium in City Council chambers on Thursday and tell the Charter Commission what they think of our recommendations, most — maybe all — will be speaking about the elected mayor proposal.

But there will be two other charter questions on the ballot come November. Those other recommendations may not inspire the sparks that an elected mayor proposal does. But they, too, may well change how Portland operates as a city.

ABOUT THE SCHOOLS

The first of these recommendations concerns the administration of our public schools. The Charter Commission examined how Portland might be able to avoid repetitions of the fiscal problems that arose a few years ago.

Could we “hard wire” something into the Charter that would codify a better relationship and joint fiscal and budget planning between the City Council and the School Committee?

After much expert testimony, discussion and compromise, we came up with a series of recommendations:

Require the chair of the School Committee to give an annual state-of-the-school-system address to City Council;

Require City Council and the School Committee to hold regular joint meetings on the school budget;

Require the school superintendent’s budget to more closely resemble the overall city budget;

Add the words “sound fiscal management” to the Charter language describing School Committee responsibilities;

Add language to the Charter encouraging city and school departments to share staff and resources to provide better and more cost-effective services.

We also recommend pay parity between the City Council and the School Committee (councilors currently get a slightly larger annual stipend). Why? Because School Committee members put in just as long hours, attend just as many meetings and frankly deserve a similar recognition of the time and commitment they are investing.

Finally, we’re also recommending the name of the School Committee be changed to the Board of Public Education. A tiny change, yes, and one that may seem insignificant, but it brings Portland into alignment with current practice for most municipalities in Maine (and across the country).

If you know anyone who has ever served on the School Committee, you know that the job brings great responsibilities and burdens. “Board of Public Education” more accurately reflects that work.

TECHNICAL CHANGES

Following the elected mayor and school proposals, our third and final recommendation is what we loosely call “technical changes to the Charter.” It’s a series of recommendations for important language changes.

The Charter hasn’t been looked at in 23 years, and many of its details are now out of date. Laws, accounting procedures, programs and processes have changed. So the commission asked all city departments to give us a list of details that needed to be brought up to date.

Most of these changes are, indeed, technical. But one or two warrant attention.

For instance, recalls. Currently, if voters want to recall a city councilor or School Committee member, nothing distinguishes between those representing districts and those elected citywide (at large).

In other words, if there is a move to recall a councilor elected from a specific district, everyone in the city can vote on the recall.

That didn’t seem fair to us. So we recommended that signatures on a recall petition for a district councilor or School Committee member be only from voters registered in that member’s district. And if that recall petition succeeds? Then only those district voters could vote on the recall question. Again, it just seems fair.

Similarly, we learned that a district recall petition requires the same number of signatures as a recall petition for citywide (at large) councilors or School Committee members.

That didn’t seem fair, so we are proposing that if you’re recalling a district-elected member, you only need one-half the number of signatures required for someone who was elected citywide. It’s not a huge change, and recalls happen rarely, but at least it makes the playing field a little fairer for those voting in, and elected from, individual districts.

You can find all the details on the above, and the elected mayor proposals, on our link on the city website (www.ci.portland.me.us). We encourage your comments and look forward to seeing you on the 10th.