PORTLAND – Whether the city needs a policy leader who is accountable to the voters is central in the debate over a proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot for a popularly elected mayor.

People campaigning on both sides of the issue laid out their positions Wednesday afternoon at a forum hosted by residents at The Atrium, an independent-living facility at The Cedars.

John Spritz, a member of the recently disbanded charter commission that developed the proposal, represented the “Elect Our Mayor: Vote Yes on One” campaign. He said Portland voters should be able to elect someone who sets goals for the city and has four years to address them.

Under the current charter, the popularly elected City Council chooses one of its nine members each December to serve as mayor for a year. It’s largely a figurehead position that includes leading council meetings and attending public functions.

“No one says Portland is broken, (but) can it be better?” Spritz asked rhetorically. “We don’t have a public debate about what Portland could be. I want to vote for a mayor who’s accountable.”

Spritz pointed out that three former mayors were members of the charter commission — Jim Cohen, Pam Plumb and Nathan Smith — and each said they felt hindered by a lack of authority to set real goals and a limited amount of time to accomplish them.

Jack Dawson, a former city councilor and mayor, spoke for Citizens to Retain Responsible Government, a group that opposes having an elected mayor.

Dawson said he believes that allowing voters to elect a mayor will increase politics in city government. He said that although Portland’s elections are supposed to be nonpartisan, he was put off by the politics he encountered when he was on the council.

“We’ve survived this many years without political agendas,” Dawson said, noting that the council succeeded in banning smoking in restaurants when he was mayor.

Longtime Councilor Cheryl Leeman also spoke against having an elected mayor, a concept she has long opposed.

Leeman said the idea of paying a full-time mayor $67,000 a year plus benefits is particularly untimely because the council eliminated 40 city jobs this year. She noted that many people who oppose an elected mayor are city employees.

Leeman said the city doesn’t need a policy leader because it operates like a company, with the council as the board of directors and its city manager as chief executive officer.

The proposal on the ballot calls for a weak elected mayor who wouldn’t have sufficient authority to accomplish much, she said. It also would create another layer of bureaucracy and a leadership position with few duties, so the mayor would be “running around City Hall, trying to find things to do.”

Spritz disputed Leeman’s description of the city as a company. He said the city manager is the chief operations officer, so it doesn’t have a chief executive officer.

Spritz acknowledged that the ballot proposal wouldn’t create a strong mayor, like those elected to run other cities. However, it would give Portland’s mayor more powers, including a budget veto and oversight of annual performance reviews of the city manager, city clerk and city attorney, he said.

Moreover, Spritz said, the elected mayor would have authority that comes from being elected by voters on a platform hashed out during the campaign process, as it happens in cities across the United States.

“We’re not making up something new that’s wild,” Spritz said. “We’ve proposed what will work for this city at this time.”

About a dozen residents of The Atrium attended the forum.

“Sounds like you’re saying if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Mary Giggey said to Leeman after she spoke. Giggey said she probably will vote against the elected-mayor proposal.

Harriet Bogdonoff said she’ll probably vote for it.

“I think there should be someone in (the mayor’s position) for four years to accomplish something, who has a vision,” Bogdonoff said. “You really can’t accomplish anything in a year.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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