Take some of the smartest people in town, put them in a room for a year with access to experts, research and support staff, and what do you get?

In the case of the Portland Charter Commission, you may end up with a thoughtful, restrained and forward-thinking document that gets rejected by the voters in November.

Why? Because they ended up with a mayor who does too little, selected by an election process that might do too much.

Either one could sink the commission’s year of work on its own, and both together just might give too many people too many reasons to vote “no” on the whole package.

The commission is having one final meeting before delivering a final result to the City Council next week. The council can’t do anything but send it to the voters in November, so it’s up to the commission to make its final product as palatable as possible. If they’d asked me, and they didn’t, I would give the Portland mayor veto power and drop the idea of instant runoff or ranked-choice voting.

What the commission has proposed is adding a popularly elected mayor to the council-manager government that Portland has had since the 1920s. The big change would be that the mayor would be directly elected by the people and serve for four years, instead of the one-year rotation of councilors that is currently in place.

The mayor would also be the only elected official in the city who draws a full-time salary, leaving one important question for the people who would have fund the pay check — what would he do all day?

The manager would draft the budget and hire city employees. The council would set policy, approve the budget and hire or fire the manager.

As the commission sees it, the mayor would represent the city in talks with businesses and other governments. He or she would set the council agenda and would sit on hiring and evaluation committees for the manager.

But the mayor would only lead the city to the extent that he or she could work with the manager and council and would have no more tools to influence the process than any of the at-large city councilors.

Portland is probably not ready to support a real “strong” elected executive, but for $67,000 a year, this mayor should have at least a little more clout. That would come with veto power.

Waterville Mayor Paul Le-Page has been campaigning for governor in part on his experience running his city during tough economic times.

No one who hears LePage speak would think of the term “weak,” but when you compare Waterville’s charter to the one proposed for Portland, the powers of the mayor are virtually the same. But, as the Wizard of Oz tells the Tin Man, “he’s got one thing you haven’t got,” which in this case is a veto.

In Waterville, the mayor can say “no” to a budget or any ordinance passed by the council, and can only be overridden with a super-majority vote of the council.

That gives the mayor more political influence, without disrupting the balance between elected officials and professional staff.

It would also give Portland taxpayers a reason to believe that the mayor they elect and pay will have a little more say over what happens than the other eight members of the council they get for next to nothing.

What has emerged in the last few days as a bigger issue than the mayor, however, is the method that the charter commission would use to pick one.

Known as instant runoff voting or ranked-choice voting, the process used in a number of communities around the country is designed to add legitimacy to elected officials by guaranteeing that they have majority support, and promote voter interest in elections.

But as the commission moves into its final phase there is growing evidence that the new voting process does not necessarily deliver a majority, and might make voters less confident in the results if they think the system has been gamed.

Keeping this reform in the referendum does have the potential of sinking the whole elected mayor concept, if it is seen as a confusing process that could be manipulated.

The same goals could be achieved by a much more familiar electoral process where voters go behind a curtain and pick only the person they would like to win.

Either a primary before the general election or a runoff after it would both guarantee a two-way race and a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote. The extra election might cost a little more (very little if the city used the existing June election for the primary) but would use a process that everyone understands.

In the end, you have to ask why a plurality winner is a problem in the first place. We have city councilors now who didn’t get 50 percent of the vote in their elections and they are no less legitimate than those who did. A Maine governor has received more than 50 percent of the vote only once since 1982, and the winner this year will not likely pass the 50 percent threshold.

So what? We are used to seeing the candidate with the most votes winning, whether they got a majority or not.

The Charter Commission has one more chance to put the final touches on itswork in such a way that the voters will approve it in November. Those of us who think Portland needs this reform hope that it doesn’t try to do too little, or too much.

Greg Kesich is and editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or: [email protected]