Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling addresses outgoing City Councilor Jon Hinck during a ceremony Monday at City Hall to bid farewell to two outgoing councilors and swear in their replacements. City Manager Jon Jennings is at left. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling addresses outgoing City Councilor Jon Hinck during a ceremony Monday at City Hall to bid farewell to two outgoing councilors and swear in their replacements. City Manager Jon Jennings is at left. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A power struggle at Portland City Hall that boiled over into public meetings over the past two weeks has been raging behind the scenes for the past year, according to internal communications obtained through a public records request.

And it appears to be far from over.

Mayor Ethan Strimling has been pushing to expand the authority of the elected mayor, clashing with the city manager and challenging the city’s top attorney and her interpretations of the city charter.

At one point, the City Council privately decided to spend more than $21,000 for a second opinion about the scope of the mayor’s authority from an outside lawyer, but even that has not settled the issue.

At another point, City Manager Jon Jennings sought advice about how to file a formal complaint against Strimling for violating the charter, after the mayor sought information from city staff without first contacting the manager’s office.

The struggle, however, has been playing itself out mostly behind closed doors and in emails, and only recently was aired in public meetings and interviews with the media. The conflict even prompted Strimling to literally extend an olive branch to each councilor – and Jennings – at the inauguration ceremony this week for two new councilors, although the mayor stopped short of admitting any fault and instead called on the council to help “realize this more democratic form of government.”

Jennings declined to discuss the dispute Wednesday.

“The people of Portland do not pay us to have these petty sideshows,” Jennings said. “I just want to be able to do my job.”

Strimling, meanwhile, said he no longer believes the charter is ambiguous about his role, but also suggested the issue is not settled. “The budget/(Capital Improvement Plan) process hasn’t started yet, but my sense is that when it does, we (the committee, Jon and I) will have a conversation about how to make it work,” he said in an email.

SEPARATION OF POWERS

At issue is the separation of powers between the city manager and the popularly elected full-time mayor. In 2010, voters changed the structure of city government to include an elected mayor, replacing the largely ceremonial position held by a part-time mayor appointed annually by the City Council. The new mayor’s position, however, still has very limited powers and no real executive authority, because the day-to-day operations of the city continue to be controlled by the city manager, who reports to the full council, not the mayor alone.

When asked why the debate about the city charter did not happen in public forums, a city spokeswoman defended the private discussions, saying they involved confidential personnel matters.

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request by the Portland Press Herald and interviews with city officials, questions about the mayor’s powers – especially his direct access to city staff and his ability to direct the city manager when drafting the budget – were raised almost immediately after Strimling took office in December 2015.

After attending a few meetings with Jennings and the city’s department heads, Strimling appears to have been cut out of internal meetings in February, according to a review of his calendar. Around the same time, Jennings has acknowledged that he turned down the mayor’s request to attend the manager’s budget meetings with department heads.

PROVISIONS OF CITY CHARTER

Also around the same time, Strimling sought a legal opinion about the mayor’s roles and responsibilities under the city charter from Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney. West-Chuhta’s Feb. 22 memo reproduces the charter language, along with definitions of key words that suggest the mayor does not have the power to direct the manager during the budget process.

For example, the mayor is supposed to “facilitate the implementation of city policies through the office of city manager,” according to charter language cited in the memo. West-Chuhta includes a definition of “facilitate” as meaning “to make easier or less difficult.”

Also, the mayor is to “consult and provide guidance to the city manager” in the preparation of city budgets, the charter says. West-Chuhta’s memo includes a definition of the word “consult” to mean “to seek guidance or information from,” and notes that the mayor also has the ability to recommend changes to the manager’s budget when it’s presented to the council.

West-Chutha’s memo concludes that the charter envisions a “cooperative relationship between the mayor and the city manager wherein the mayor formulates and articulates the City Council’s policy directives both on behalf of and in cooperation with the full council, and the manager implements those policies.”

After reading the memo, Strimling responded by accusing West-Chuhta of “wimping out at the end,” and by asking for more clarity about separation of powers.

“Simply saying it is up to the two parties to figure everything out leaves too much to the imagination,” Strimling wrote. “It almost feels like it backtracks from the rest of the memo, which seems to make it very clear. Let’s chat further!”

SECOND OPINION – FOR $21,000

After more email exchanges, West-Chuhta stuck to her opinion. She also noted in an email “the impact that this opinion could potentially have on you and the City Council’s view of the manager,” and wrote that the council could always seek a second opinion, which the council would later decide to do.

She also recommended sending her memo to the full council. “Then you can all discuss the various roles during the city manager’s six-month check-in/review,” she wrote in a March 3 email.

Jennings had his six-month review on April 11. That review was closed to the public and city officials would not comment about what was discussed.

At some point, the council decided to spend $21,000 on another, independent review of the city charter by Peter DeTroy, a prominent Portland attorney who died in late May.

A public vote was not required to pay for that analysis, since any expenditure under $25,000 can be made administratively, according to the city’s procurement policy.

DeTroy’s analysis, dated May 3, echoes West-Chuhta’s conclusion that the mayor has the power to articulate the vision of the collective council, but is limited when acting independently. He also stressed the need for the mayor to work collaboratively with the council and manager.

“The mayor’s substantive powers are clearly and purposefully significantly limited by the charter,” DeTroy wrote. “In short, the office of mayor was not created to improve deficiencies in the office of the city manager. It was created to provide the accountability for the policy direction of the city and the improved functioning of the council. It is a role of comity, not power; of collaboration, not assertion.”

Detroy emphasized that neither the mayor nor any council member may give an order to city staff – the elected officials’ only employees are the city manager, city attorney and the city clerk. “This provision is reasonably interpreted to require that all requests for information to city officials, including those from the mayor’s office, must pass through the city manager,” he said.

Detroy suggested that Jennings and Strimling could always draft a Memorandum of Agreement about each other’s roles as a way to resolve the dispute. That has not occurred, according to a city spokesperson.

REACHING THE BREAKING POINT

But not even that outside legal opinion from DeTroy seemed to end the conflicts.

Emails reveal that Strimling had agreed to a meeting with a city sanitation worker around May 23, but had to cancel it after Jennings informed the mayor that the employee had filed a grievance against the city.

“As we have discussed on many occasions, you should not be meeting with city staff regardless of the issue,” Jennings said in a May 23 email to Strimling and the City Council. “I once again request you do not meet with city staff unless you go through me or (Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance).”

Two months later, Strimling had apparently reached out to a staffer at the India Street Public Health Center to get an update about how the transition of HIV positive services from the city clinic to a nonprofit agency was going. That prompted Jennings to send an email to the city attorney.

“I am formally requesting to know the process, if any, in which I can bring forward a complaint about the continued violation of the charter by Ethan Strimling,” Jennings asked in a July 6 email. West-Chuhta replied there is no formal process for doing so in either the charter or the council rules.

By this point, the relationship between Strimling and Jennings had completely broken down.

Both men met at least weekly up until April, when Strimling denounced Jennings’ proposal to transition health services from the India Street clinic to a nonprofit group, claiming the move put “pavement over people.” Jennings, who had a family member die because of substance abuse, was both personally and professionally offended, as were other councilors, who rebuked the mayor immediately after his remarks.

Strimling’s critique caught both Jennings and the council by surprise because the mayor had repeatedly been briefed on the budget. Strimling had attended a series of meetings in March between Jennings and each councilor to learn about the plan, and registered no complaints.

Strimling says he didn’t understand the impact on the clinic until shortly before the budget was released publicly.

TRYING TO MAKE PEACE – SORT OF

After that stinging budget message, Jennings and Strimling only appear to have met to set council meeting agendas, according to a review of the mayor’s public schedule.

Strimling and Jennings were still at odds as recently as November, when the Press Herald reached out to both men to discuss tensions at City Hall.

Jennings maintained that he had adhered to the charter by incorporating the council’s collective goals into his budget and meeting with the mayor to discuss the budget, while maintaining a firewall between the mayor and other city staff. Strimling, however, complained about a lack of access to city staff and argued that the city manager should have sought and incorporated his advice into the draft budget.

The council conducted its annual review of Jennings last Friday, and the session lasted two hours. City Councilor Justin Costa, who leads the Nominations Committee that oversees the review process, would not comment about whether the separation of powers was discussed during the private meeting.

Three days later at Monday’s inauguration ceremony, Strimling literally gave olive branches to each councilor and the manager. He also used the inauguration ceremony to deliver a speech and address the year-long conflict.

Although Strimling said he’d work to improve his relationship with the council, the mayor signaled that he was not yet ready to fully accept the legal opinions limiting his role in daily operations. He blamed the charter for much of the tension over the previous year and called on the council to help “realize this more democratic form of government that the people demanded,” suggesting that the city’s top elected official should have more say.