Mayor Ethan Strimling, right, and special assistant Jason Shedlock often discuss work matters on the steps of Portland City Hall. Some councilors predict Shedlock’s position will be cut from the city budget next week. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The final debate over Portland’s proposed $345 million budget will likely center on one position: the special assistant to the mayor.

It will be the first time the City Council will have a public discussion about the job, which was created at the suggestion of City Manager Jon Jennings shortly after Ethan Strimling was elected mayor in 2015 and was not introduced as part of an annual budget. The position is expected to cost more than $69,000 in the upcoming year, nearly as much as the mayor’s $73,000 salary.

The discussion will take place Monday ahead of the council’s vote on the combined city and school budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. And it is shaping up to be a tense debate.

Strimling said he was surprised last week when City Councilor Belinda Ray suggested cutting the position from the budget, and that other councilors were open to discussing it. He said having an assistant is crucial if the city wants an effective elected mayor, an office that was created in a charter revision passed by voters in 2010.

“I think there’s still a debate at City Hall and on the council about whether we want to have an effective elected mayor,” Strimling said. “I don’t get how anybody thinks you can lead a city of 67,000 (people) without having substantial support.”

A BUDGET ISSUE, OR POLITICAL PAYBACK?

Portland’s mayor is a full-time position that does not have executive control over city operations, but is charged with setting policy direction for the city, leading council meetings and appointing members to task forces. The special assistant is charged with helping draft policy, building community coalitions, writing speeches for the mayor, assisting council committees and councilors, and attending internal meetings when the mayor is not available, according to a job description provided by Strimling.

Ray, meanwhile, said she has enough support from councilors to eliminate the position, which she says is unnecessary and has been criticized by her constituents. Other councilors, including those who have been skeptical of the position, would not reveal how they planned to vote, but also predicted the measure will pass.

While not critical of the man in the job, Jason Shedlock, councilors say they simply don’t see the need for the post.

Ray said she originally was told the mayor’s assistant also would assist the council, but neither she nor other councilors say they find the position useful. Ray and other city councilors said they get all of the information they need through City Manager Jon Jennings.

“I assure people that it’s not political,” Ray said. “But it could easily be viewed that way.”

Councilors say the debate over the position of special assistant to the mayor is not a reflection of the work done by Jason Shedlock, who has held the job since April 2016. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

That’s exactly how it is being characterized by Progressive Portland, an activist group that promotes many of Strimling’s policy positions and has polled his approval ratings.

On Wednesday, the group put out a call to action, suggesting that Ray’s amendment is retribution for the mayor’s efforts to pass a $64 million school bond, which she doesn’t support. Like Strimling, the group argues the move is an attempt “to weaken the office of the mayor.”

On Thursday, the group ramped up its rhetoric, describing the move as “a petty personal attack” and saying the motive is to “exact revenge” against Strimling related to other policy disagreements.

“No one can say Jason (Shedlock) hasn’t done a great job in the position the city hired him to do,” the group said Wednesday. “And since he has a daughter and family, it’s especially cruel to treat him as a pawn in a petty political vendetta.”

However, even supporters of the $64 million school bond, such as City Councilor David Brenerman, aren’t buying that assertion. He said the creation of the mayor’s assistant position has been one of the most controversial issues among his constituents.

“This has nothing to do with the school bond,” Brenerman said. “I was opposed to the position in the first place when it came up and I had hoped the mayor would have asked the council to consider it as part of last year’s budget. Instead, he moved ahead with it as one of his first acts as mayor. I think it would have been in his best interest to obtain the (formal) support of the City Council first.”

DIFFICULT CONVERSATION FOR COUNCILORS

City Councilor Jill Duson said she is leaning toward eliminating the position, but she hasn’t made a final decision. She too is looking forward to the public discussion Monday. She believes the mayor does need some staff support, but perhaps not at the level of the current position.

The council and mayor had a part-time administrative assistant until 2008, when the job was cut from the budget. That position paid $30,000 a year for a 30-hour week, the city said.

“The position, as created, turned out to be very different than I expected,” Duson said. “After giving it some time, I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s useful to the eight councilors. I think it’s fair to review it.”

Both Progressive Portland and East End resident Jay Norris, who leads the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, are making very personal arguments to keep the position, which has been filled for more than a year by Shedlock.

Speaking for himself and not the organization, Norris noted in a mass email that Shedlock is a single dad.

“You can imagine how frightening it would be to have your job potentially eliminated overnight, and at the whims of politicians who aren’t getting along,” Norris said.

Shedlock, who turns 38 on Saturday, said he’s disappointed that his position has become a lightning rod in an otherwise non-controversial budget.

“The debate should be on policy, not politics,” he said. “I come to work everyday believing we can make a difference. While it’s easy to be distracted by other things, I’m going to continue to do my job as long as my key still works.”

City councilors Brian Batson, Justin Costa, Pious Ali and Spencer Thibodeau all said they needed additional information before reaching a decision, noting that they would prefer to discuss the issue publicly on Monday. City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones did not return calls seeking comment.

“I think this is a legitimate policy discussion,” Costa said. “It’s never been voted on by the council. I think it would be odd for anyone to be surprised that this is coming up. People have been skeptical of this position from the beginning.”

Duson predicted that Monday’s discussion would be difficult, especially since most councilors believe Shedlock has done the job he was hired to do.

“It’s going to be a difficult conversation for the council to have and to keep it from being a referendum on Jason himself,” she said. “It’s really about the position and whether it’s needed.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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