It’s way too soon to say “I told you so,” but Portland’s full-time elected mayor certainly seems to be answering many of the critics who said the new position was too weak to make a difference.
When voters were asked to change the city charter in 2010, some said they should vote no because the new position would not be a “strong mayor” with executive powers to hire and fire. We agreed with the Charter Commission that what Portland really needed was a political leader who could put together coalitions and set priorities, not an elected City Hall boss. Fortunately, the yes side won, and late last year Portland voters directly elected their first mayor in more than 80 years.
Recently, the state has gotten a look at how that is working out. Mayor Michael Brennan is seemingly everywhere, speaking to business and neighborhood groups, running City Council meetings and testifying against a series of bills before the Legislature. It is in that arena he’s operated alone and as a member of an organization of mayors who campaign for the same causes from disparate corners of the state.
This is the kind of activity that advocates of an elected mayor were hoping to see when the idea was being debated, so seeing it in action is gratifying. Portland is lucky to have Brennan as its first modern elected mayor, because despite a health setback this winter, he is someone with tremendous energy and a deep understanding about how government works.
But it seems unlikely that Brennan could be as effective as he is if he were doing this job on a part-time, volunteer basis as his predecessors did. The structure of the position, under which the city pays a full-time salary and expects at least full-time work, puts him in position to plan, organize and follow through on ideas that might have been left to languish in the past.
It will take some time to see whether this will make the city more responsive to residents and businesses, which was a top priority for those who backed the elected mayor concept. But so far it’s clear that a mayor doesn’t have to be “strong” to be effective, and at least part of the elected-mayor vision has already come true.