Sheila Hill-Christian, the top administrator at Portland City Hall, has taken herself out of the running to become permanent city manager, prompting the city to extend the deadline for other candidates to apply.

Hill-Christian has been acting city manager since the fall and was considered a front-runner to take the permanent position, which oversees the municipal operations of Maine’s largest city. She enjoys broad support on the City Council and among city staff. Some councilors had publicly encouraged her to apply.

She instead plans to return to the job of deputy city manager when a permanent manager is hired, according to a written statement provided Tuesday to the Portland Press Herald.

“Portland is a wonderful city and I thoroughly enjoy working here,” Hill-Christian said in the statement. “The position of city manager is one of tremendous responsibility and commitment. I am grateful for the opportunity that (the) council has given me to serve. However, I moved to Portland with the intention of serving as deputy city manager and continue to believe that working in that capacity is a better fit with my personal and professional goals.”

The deputy manager handles direct day-to-day oversight of key municipal operations and works closely with department heads. The city manager oversees the $220 million municipal budget and more than 1,300 full-time employees, and works directly with the mayor and eight city councilors. It’s the top salaried position, excluding overtime, in city government.

The city has extended the deadline for applicants from March 6 to March 31. Initial screenings of applications are being handled by a consultant.

MAYOR DISAPPOINTED, NOT SURPRISED

Mayor Michael Brennan, who is leading the city manager search committee, was disappointed by Hill-Christian’s decision, but not surprised.

“I thought she would have been a strong candidate, but at the same time, I knew when she was hired she very much came here with the expectation that she wanted to be in a deputy’s position,” he said.

Brennan declined to characterize the initial response to the job opening, including the number of applications received. “We extended the deadline and are still collecting resumes,” he said.

The extension was granted, Brennan said, “based on the assumption that some people didn’t apply because they thought there was a very strong in-house candidate.”

SKILLS FOR MENDING RIFT WITH STATE

Hill-Christian’s decision comes as the LePage administration has waged a campaign against the city’s welfare programs in an attempt to build public support for his ambitious budget proposal, which includes changes in General Assistance funding and substantial tax reforms that could directly affect the city’s budget.

Councilor Jon Hinck said he was “profoundly disappointed” that Hill-Christian didn’t want the top job. He described her as “very capable, very skilled, thoughtful, sincere, smart and respectful.” Those qualities could have proven helpful in trying to mend relations with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.

“What I really want from Portland is to be working well again with the state of Maine,” Hinck said. “I actually think that Sheila is the kind of person who could accomplish that. That’s one of the reasons I worry about losing her, because she could be very effective in improving the communications and getting us back on track with the state.”

The city manager has overall responsibility for operations of the city, including staffing, so Hill-Christian’s future as deputy would be up to the future manager.

LEADERSHIP IN BUDGETING PROCESS

Councilor David Brenerman also was disappointed that Hill-Christian did not apply for the job, but respects her decision to remain in a position that is more in line with her personal and professional goals.

“She appears to be a strong leader,” Brenerman said. “My observation is the staff supports her in her role, and that’s an important thing to have in City Hall.”

Brenerman commended Hill-Christian’s leadership through the budgeting process, always looking for ways to keep property taxes low and setting realistic expectations about the city’s ability to fund long-term capital projects.

“Having a strong role in our budgeting is an important role any city manager should have with an elected mayor and eight elected councilors,” he said.

ACTING MANAGER SINCE SEPTEMBER

Hill-Christian was named acting city manager after Mark Rees resigned last September. Her salary rose to $148,000, up from $125,000 as deputy.

Rees, who made just under $146,600, served in the post for three years. He was hired at the same time the city switched from a ceremonial mayor appointed each year by the council to a popularly elected mayor with expanded authority. Rees, councilors and Brennan sometimes have struggled to define their respective roles under the system, given that the manager oversees the city’s day-to-day operations.

Another mayoral election is scheduled for this fall. As full-time mayor, Brennan makes nearly $68,400 a year.

FORMER HEAD OF CONSULTING GROUP

Hill-Christian was hired as the deputy city manager in 2013. In that role, she oversees critical city departments such as fire, police, health and human services, public recreation and facilities management, parking and the Portland International Jetport.

Before coming to Portland, Hill-Christian led the Hill-Christian Consulting Group in Richmond, Virginia, which provides services to municipal and nonprofit agencies. She also has worked at a variety of municipal and quasi-municipal agencies, including a stint as chief administrative officer for the mayor of Richmond, where she managed day-to-day operations and oversaw a budget of more than $1 billion.

Hill-Christian also has served as executive director of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and chief operating officer of the GRTC Transit System.