PORTLAND – With only a couple of weeks left before a July 1 deadline, the Charter Commission is rethinking two controversial proposals to change the city’s charter.
First, the commission is moving away from proposing that the city manager craft a budget under the mayor’s direction. A new proposal would have the city manager craft a budget with guidance from the City Council, as is the case now.
Proponents say the change would prevent conflict and confusion when the mayor and council have political disagreements. But advocates of a strong mayor say the change would strip the position of any real authority.
Second, while they still support having a popularly elected mayor, commissioners are re-examining whether to have the mayor elected through ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to cast ballots for their top candidate and several backup choices.
The commission must decide by July 1 on the package of proposed changes it will submit to city voters on the Nov. 2. ballot.
Under the commission’s original budgeting proposal, the mayor would “direct the manager in preparation of the budget.” But commission chairwoman Pam Plumb said that would allow people to bypass the City Council and lobby the mayor directly to insert pet projects into the budget.
Commissioners re-examined the original idea after hearing testimony from Tim Honey, city manager of Portland from 1980 to 1986. In addition, Chris O’Neil of the Portland Community Chamber argued that the mayor should not oversee budget or other administrative duties that are under the city manager’s purview.
A commission subcommittee unanimously agreed Wednesday to recommend that the city manager be named as the city’s chief executive officer and continue to submit an annual budget to the City Council.
The committee recommended that the council discuss and vote on budget directives prior to the start of the budgeting process. The mayor would be given a copy of the budget and allowed to comment in advance.
Honey said in an interview Wednesday that he supports the changes. He said there is no inherent conflict in having both an elected mayor and a city manager, but that it’s important to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each.
City Councilor David Marshall, who supports having a strong elected mayor, said he is disappointed with the change.
“I would say this a big step backwards,” he said. “Having an elected mayor with no power and a big salary is not what the voters are asking for.”
The commission still wants a popularly elected mayor rather than one elected annually by the City Council, as is the case now.
But critics at a public hearing last week argued that ranked-choice voting is significantly more expensive than the traditional method and that it poses a remote mathematical risk of producing no winner at all.
A subcommittee headed by Commissioner Ethan Smith is examining these arguments and will report to the commission at the June 24 meeting.
The commission would have the mayor hold the at-large seat now held by Councilor Dory Waxman, serve a four-year term and be limited to two consecutive terms.
This would be a full-time position that pays at least $67,359 a year.
The mayor would appoint committees, set the council agenda and act as the city’s point person with other government agencies. The mayor would also take a leadership role with the council when the council hires or fires a city manager or conducts annual reviews.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: