PORTLAND – When a plan emerged in March to refurbish and add offices to a historic church in the West End, residents and business leaders looked to Michael Brennan – the city’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years – to take charge of the controversial proposal.
Residents wanted him to help protect their prestigious neighborhood and quality of life. Business leaders hoped he would embrace the opportunity for economic development.
Instead, Brennan stepped back and allowed the proposal to work its way through the committee process. It crystallized the type of measured, process-oriented mayor that he would be in his first year in office.
“It’s a cautious decision on my part,” Brennan said of his leadership style. “I’m focused on the end result of getting something done, not making proclamations early on about whether something should move forward.”
On Monday, Brennan began his second year as mayor. His preference for working behind the scenes rather than dominating headlines has won over some who opposed the creation of the full-time position. At the same time, some hope he will become more visible in the coming year.
The battle over the old Williston-West Church is seen as a good example. The zone change needed for the development was eventually approved, with limits set on the office use. While businesses are pleased, residents are appealing the decision in court.
“I personally did want to see him jump out more” on the issue, said Michael Bourque, president of the Portland Community Chamber.
Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, agreed.
“There were a lot of legitimate big policy issues that I personally thought did not get enough debate, versus, ‘We have to save the building,’” said Pringle, who opposed the plan.
Brennan, 59, is widely praised as a consensus-builder who puts a premium on process and the expertise of the professional staff.
In some ways, building consensus is the only true power of the office. Under the city charter that created Brennan’s position, the city manager is responsible for day-to-day operations, and five votes are needed to pass any significant policies through the City Council.
Brennan, who earns $66,000 a year and has a four-year term, has the power to set council meeting agendas, appoint members to committees, form task forces and veto the budget.
Brennan has been cautious in dealing with the eight councilors, whose experience ranges from three to 27 years in office. He holds dozens of meetings weekly with residents, businesses, elected officials and city staffers to collect feedback.
On the state level, Brennan helped to organize a coalition of mayors to help offset rural communities’ influence in the State House.
Brennan has been building two coalitions that he says will bear fruit over the next year. One is aimed at improving workers’ training by bringing educators together with leaders in cutting-edge industries. The other is a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education initiative, Growing Portland.
That cautious, collaborative leadership style has largely comforted those who didn’t want the city to have an elected mayor – which voters approved by a 12,963 to 11,825 vote in 2010.
Several initial skeptics and opponents, who feared the prospect of a bombastic mayor who would meddle in city operations, have been encouraged by the early performance of the man and the position.
“He’s made me much more comfortable than I was a year ago,” said Thomas Valleau, who opposed the switch to a mayor elected by residents, rather than city councilors. “It’s working better than I imagined, thanks to Mike’s approach.”
USING BULLY PULPIT AT STATE LEVEL
For a mayor with limited power, one of the most tangible tools is the bully pulpit — going public to set a direction for policy discussions or build support for an initiative.
Reluctant to use it locally, Brennan did use it in Augusta to blast proposed state cuts to General Assistance.
He and the Mayors Coalition held a news conference and testified before legislative committees about the effects that state budget cuts to welfare programs could have on Maine cities.
Brennan seemed comfortable in Augusta, where he represented Portland in the House and Senate, including as Democratic Senate leader from 2004 to 2007.
Brennan said the coalition helped to reduce a $2 million cut proposed in General Assistance to $220,000. Observers in Portland support that claim.
“What people should judge is the results, not whether or not you’re standing up at the beginning and making proclamations and pronouncements,” he said.
Brennan was less successful in opposing publicly funded charter schools, one of which is expected to open in Portland in 2014.
IS HIS STYLE TOO QUIET?
Brennan’s behind-the-scenes style can keep even his most ambitious policy initiatives out of public view, making some residents wonder what’s on the mayor’s mind.
He was reluctant to discuss his plan for a “research triangle” with a reporter before publishing an opinion piece on the topic.
The mayor does not keep open office hours for residents, and his schedule is not posted publicly. A search of the city news archives produces only 11 news releases with his name, although City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg forwarded several others.
Updates on Brennan’s Twitter account, which was run by Councilor Edward Suslovic’s daughter, stopped in October. But Brennan keeps a relatively active Facebook page, which is updated by an intern.
Pamela Plumb, who chaired the charter commission that established the position, said she was initially skeptical about having a popularly elected mayor. But she gave Brennan high praise for his first year in office.
Plumb, however, said she feels out of touch with what the mayor is thinking and doing.
“I would love to see him be even more visible,” she said. “I think the community needs to be able to really follow the mayor and know what the mayor is doing and be better prepared when another election comes up.”
REACHING OUT TO BUSINESSES
In 2010, the Portland Community Chamber endorsed three candidates in the 15-way race that Brennan won through ranked-choice voting. None of the endorsements went to Brennan, whose experience is in education and social services. “I couldn’t be more surprised and happy from what we’ve seen from Mike Brennan,” said Bourque, the chamber president. “He’s got fabulous energy. To his credit, he has reached out to learn where he can.”
Business leaders praised Brennan, who meets with them regularly, for seizing on the city’s first economic development plan, which was adopted before he took office.
The plan calls for a business visitation program and several loan programs, which Brennan announced in the spring. In the past five months, he has visited 10 businesses.
“That is very important to us,” said Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District.
ISSUES THAT ARE MOVING FORWARD
Working to implement the recommendations of the city’s task force on homelessness will be a big issue in the coming year. Business and community leaders hope that Brennan will be in front of that effort.
The report recommends three new 35-unit housing complexes for the chronically homeless, among other ideas. It has already proven contentious.
Business leaders are concerned about more services for the homeless being downtown.
“There has to be a public dialogue that respects the differences of opinion,” said Pringle, the West End neighborhood leader and a former mayor and city councilor.
Elements of the report have been referred to council committees, which have been asked to report back to the council in the spring.
Also in the coming year, Brennan expects to announce progress on his “research triangle,” which seeks to address the problem of many job seekers lacking skills needed for the jobs available, and the Growing Portland education initiative. Brennan said he also has begun assembling a working group to look into ways the city can begin implementing the Affordable Care Act, which is facing opposition at the state level.
“Regardless of what the state does do or doesn’t do, we’re hoping to move forward in Portland to implement as much of the Affordable Care Act as we can,” Brennan said.
WHAT NEXT THREE YEARS HOLD
Along with learning how local government works, Brennan’s first year as mayor included overcoming a serious health problem.
Two weeks after his inauguration, he was diagnosed with cancer. He had a carcenoid tumor removed from his intestine, which put him on a part-time schedule for the first couple of months.
He still receives monthly treatment in the form of a hormone shot for the residual cancer in his liver that will never go away.
With the cancer shrinking and one year of leadership under his belt, Brennan has three more years to concentrate on his major policy goals and hold staff members accountable for their performance.
That will be the true value of having an elected mayor, said Nathan Smith, a former city councilor. Previously, mayors chosen by the council rotated every year, limiting the impact of the ceremonial job.
“Portland usually gets around to doing the things it should do, it just takes forever,” Smith said. “It’s that kind of continuity and sustained presence which is going to make (change) happen in a timely way.”
Smith said Brennan’s goal-setting for the city manager and city clerk, who are employed directly by the council, will ensure more accountability than a councilor could during a one-year appointment as mayor.
“That’s a sea change,” Smith said. “It crystallizes the will of the council and gives the manager direction.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: