Last year, Ethan Strimling was elected as Portland’s mayor on a promise of being the “Listener in Chief” who would unify a divided City Council.

But less than a year into his four-year term, the mayor now finds himself at odds with councilors who supported his election and with the city manager, the man in charge of day-to-day city operations. And the tension at City Hall is already raising a question that hung over the previous mayor’s administration: Does the structure of city government need to change again?

Strimling said the lingering questions have to do with a city still struggling to evolve from a part-time, ceremonial mayor to a full-time mayor with a mandate from voters.

“The people of Portland made it clear: The mayor is someone who should have a substantial influence over the policy direction of the city,” Strimling said. “From my perspective it’s a cultural shift. I think there are some members of the council who have not made that shift. There are city staff who have not made that shift. But the people of this city have made that shift.”

Several recent events have brought the conflicts into the open and led councilors to openly question whether Strimling is trying to change the makeup of the City Council to gain more influence and consolidate power.

An unprecedented poll conducted recently by local Democrats about Strimling’s positions and other city-related issues, including an at-large council race, has raised concerns about the increase in partisan politics at the local level. After the poll was conducted, Strimling endorsed Pious Ali in his bid to unseat incumbent Jon Hinck, an independent-minded councilor who remained neutral in last year’s mayoral race. Strimling also recorded an automated phone call boosting Ali’s candidacy and recorded radio ads in support of Ali.

"(Mayor Strimling) has little to no support on the council," says Councilor Ed Suslovic, a one-time ally.

“(Mayor Strimling) has little to no support on the council,” says Councilor Ed Suslovic, a one-time ally.

Strimling also refused to endorse three-term incumbent Councilor Edward Suslovic, a former ally at City Hall. Suslovic and other sitting councilors endorsed Strimling last year over former Mayor Michael Brennan, saying Brennan had alienated much of the council by the end of his four-year term.

“It took Brennan three years to get to this point,” said Suslovic. “(Strimling) has little to no support on the council.”

There’s no question that Strimling is a different type of mayor than Brennan, who often shunned the media spotlight and worked independently on policy initiatives without involving other councilors. Running council meetings sometimes seemed like an afterthought.

Strimling, who has been a political pundit on TV, radio and in newspapers, has actively sought the media spotlight, while aggressively lobbying councilors outside of the council chambers. He has a weekly half-hour slot on news radio and a weekly slot on a local TV station to talk briefly about issues before the council. And he has been conducting a series of sidewalk office hours to talk with residents.

Strimling runs council meetings more efficiently. He has streamlined the issues that go before the council, changed the start time and included a regularly scheduled time for open public comment on any issue.

But interviews with all eight of the councilors point to a rapid breakdown between the mayor, councilors and the city manager.

"The mayor is doing fine. ... he's challenging the council on some things." – Councilor Spencer Thibodeau

“The mayor is doing fine. … he’s challenging the council on some things.”
– Councilor Spencer Thibodeau

District 2 City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who is finishing his first year on the council, offered the most support for the mayor, even though he believes Strimling has crossed the line at times with how he talks about city policy, including the budget. Thibodeau said the mayor seems to be popular in his neighborhood in the West End.

“I think the mayor is doing fine. I think he’s challenging the council on some things,” Thibodeau said. “He’s driven a lot of the messaging of the council and I think that’s a good thing.”

BULLY PULPIT

Strimling’s use of the mayor’s bully pulpit has clearly contributed to his strained relationship with the council and City Manager Jon Jennings.

He publicly blasted the city manager’s budget proposals, pushed for housing policies that had already been turned down by his own Housing Committee because of legal concerns, and called for sweeping changes to a tax break for a local business after it had been negotiated and recommended by the council’s Economic Development Committee, among other things.

Strimling said those moves were necessary because city staff, including Jennings, did not seek or incorporate his input into drafting policy before it went to the council.

“That is the kind of process I would expect,” Strimling said.

But the public disagreements have had a cost.

"There is great opportunity. ... (but) leadership can't be accomplished via press conference."  – Councilor Belinda Ray

“There is great opportunity. … (but) leadership can’t be accomplished via press conference.”
– Councilor Belinda Ray

“There is great opportunity for a mayor to lead the council and the city, but it will require difficult conversations, hard work, and a lot of collaboration,” said District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray. “Leadership can’t be accomplished via press conference.”

Councilors and Jennings said a blistering budget speech in which Strimling accused the city manager of putting “pavement over people” – a reference to Jennings’ proposal to transition services from the city-run India Street Public Health Center to a nonprofit health center – was a turning point. The mayor claimed to have only learned about the impact of the proposal days before the budget was made public.

Tension had already been building over Strimling’s early moves to hire a special assistant and build a new mayor’s office in the executive suite in City Hall. Such a strong condemnation of a budget that he had been repeatedly briefed on and that had been vetted and recommended by the council’s Finance Committee was difficult for many to accept – including Hinck, who immediately condemned the mayor’s words.

It also fractured Strimling’s relationship with Jennings, who enjoys broad support from the council.

Earlier this year, City Manager Jon Jennings spearheaded a controversial budget proposal to close a popular public health clinic and needle exchange program in the midst of a heroin crisis.

Earlier this year, City Manager Jon Jennings spearheaded a controversial budget proposal to close a popular public health clinic and needle exchange program in the midst of a heroin crisis.

“He was very much in almost every meeting around the budget, especially around the India Street transition plan, and he was very supportive at the beginning of that,” Jennings said last week, also noting that he has lost a family member to substance abuse. “From a personal standpoint, I took offense to him questioning my values as it relates to ‘pavement over people.’ ”

Strimling argues that he should have been more involved in the budget-building process, but Jennings argues that working with the city’s staff and department heads is his job.

“This is another example of how (the mayor) refuses to accept what is clearly spelled out in the charter of the city in terms of our roles,” Jennings said.

‘THREE-HEADED MONSTER’

In some ways, tensions between Jennings and Strimling are to be expected because of the way the system is set up. Residents voted in 2010 to change the city government to an elected mayor after a yearlong debate. Prior to that, the mayor was a ceremonial position that was chosen annually by the council. The change allowed residents to pick the mayor, who would work full time to implement policies and speak for the city.

The city manager is charged with running the city and reports directly to the council as a whole, not the mayor. And, while the mayor’s position is a full-time job, the mayor has no authority over city staff or daily operations.

“It was clearly our intention that the mayor not meddle in running the city,” said Pamela Plumb, who chaired the charter commission that created the position.

City Councilor Jill Duson said the charter sets up a “three-headed monster” in the way it divides powers between the manager, mayor and council, but she does not currently support efforts to change it.

“Two strong-minded persons in those two positions will have conflicts from time to time, but they both have to be grown up enough to work through it in the best interest of the city,” said Duson, who thinks Strimling is doing a “fine job.”

Suslovic, however, believes a question ought to be put to voters about whether they want to keep the elected mayor structure, which he thinks is doomed to fail.

Plumb said she reviewed the charter language this spring, when tensions were high at City Hall. She, along with several councilors, believes the charter sets clear lines of authority between the mayor and manager, and that officials need more time to make it work.

“If it doesn’t work, I’m not going to go to the mat for it, but I don’t think we know that yet,” Plumb said. “I do think it would be helpful if the council and the mayor and the manager had agreed-upon interpretations about what it says in the charter. I think that’s where things often go wrong.”

MAYOR, MANAGER AS RIVALS

Tensions between the manager and mayor have presented themselves in interesting ways.

Over the last few months, Jennings and Strimling have both sought to speak for the city about issues and events such as the acquittal of a landlord accused of manslaughter after six people died in an accidental fire on Noyes Street. Last winter, both men tried to take the blame for mistakenly not calling a parking ban before a snowstorm.

In another sign of tension and distrust, Strimling at one point placed a white-noise machine outside of his office door, so other employees in the city manager’s office couldn’t overhear his conversations. The noise machine was removed after staff members complained.

Councilors say that Strimling has been lobbying them to interpret the City Charter in a way that would give him more control over city staff – a move that both councilors and the city manager are resisting.

Hinck noted that Strimling’s decision to endorse Ali in the at-large race came after he refused to support Strimling’s interpretation of the charter.

“He’s at odds with the city manager because he wants to have more influence and control over the employees that the city manager manages,” Hinck said. “So he asked me, and probably other councilors in private meetings, to join him in rebuking the city manager and giving the mayor more day-to-day authority. And I have flatly declined to help Mayor Strimling do that.”

While councilors have not complained about a lack of information coming from the manager’s office, Strimling has.

“It’s important for the mayor to get any and all information the mayor needs,” Strimling said. “There’s a real difference between directing staff and gathering information. If I need to know how a program is working, I need to be able to talk to people who are in charge of that program.”

Jennings said it’s an issue of time management for staff. Before Jennings joined the city more than a year ago, councilors and the mayor were directly communicating with staff, putting them in politically sensitive positions, he said.

“Professional staff should not be at the whim of elected officials, so I will continue to maintain that separation,” said Jennings. “He (Strimling) is not an executive mayor. He’s a policy mayor and the idea of staff being called into his office in almost a revolving door is simply not going to happen.”

‘BOLD, PROGRESSIVE CHANGE’

Throughout last year’s campaign, Strimling vowed to be the chairman of the board, a collaborative mayor who would work to achieve the collective goals of the council. He says he’s done that by establishing goals early in the year that have been incorporated into the budget and are being worked on by council committees.

Strimling, however, also emphasized that he has been elected to represent the city as a whole. He pointed to the recent poll by the Portland Democratic City Committee, which showed a 60 percent approval rating as proof that he’s doing a good job. The poll also indicated that 66 percent of those surveyed believe the city is headed in the right direction.

“There’s no doubt that people instill a lot of hopes, a lot of dreams and a lot of concerns in their mayor,” he said. “That poll reflects that people want bold, progressive change.”

The poll itself has become a sore point inside City Hall.

Strimling said he knew the Portland Democratic City Committee wanted to conduct a poll and he encouraged it to do so. He said he played no role in drafting the questions, many of which tested his positions on the issues.

The poll of 489 Portland voters showed support for measures to improve housing security, to require livable wages and local workers when granting tax breaks for local businesses, to float a $70 million bond to renovate schools, and to keep the city’s homeless shelters open to anyone in need.

“I will be pushing the council to be as bold as we can to address these problems we face,” Strimling said.

Strimling said he’d like to see the Democratic City Committee conduct two polls a year. And that just so happens to be the committee’s goal, according to committee chairwoman Emily Figdor.

“The mayor has staked out some strong positions and we support him on that,” Figdor said. “We think the city should be bold.”

The poll, however, has raised a lot of questions for the council, all of whom also are Democrats. Councilors are puzzled that the committee polled residents about the at-large race between Hinck and Ali, but did not release the results publicly.

Hinck said he asked to see the results, but was denied. He said Figdor told him that she felt obligated to share the results with Strimling, who encouraged her to become the chairwoman of the city committee. Strimling endorsed Ali days later. Strimling and Figdor would not say whether those poll results were shared with the mayor.

“I don’t know what the strategy is there,” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said, echoing the sentiment of his colleagues about the unusual poll.

“I really could care less about this poll or any poll,” Jennings said. “Any true leader is not going to make decisions based on a poll.”

Though Strimling’s positions may be polling well, councilors question whether the mayor is serious about enacting his proposals, or whether it’s strictly politics.

“I think the way to get measures passed is to work with your fellow councilors to have a good discussion and try to come up with the best solution to issues,” Ray said. “I don’t think the way to get good ideas passed is to drop them into the end of a discussion as a lone wolf.”

When asked what steps he would take to win back the council, Strimling said that his goal is to be “communicative” with his fellow councilors.

“I certainly recognize there are going to be times I am going to ruffle feathers and there are going to be times I’m going to be celebrated,” Strimling said. “Most of the time, I’m not deserving of either.”