Ethan Strimling wants residents to weigh in on his role, but city councilors say two legal opinions have already clearly defined it.

Frustrated that his assistant’s position is being eliminated, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said Monday that city councilors have undermined his effectiveness and he wants the council to appoint a panel of citizens to weigh in on the powers and duties of the popularly elected mayor.

Strimling announced that he would not veto the city’s municipal budget in response to the council’s 6-3 vote last week to eliminate the post of special assistant to the mayor because he didn’t want to prolong the infighting among city leaders. But he said he continues to believe voters want a mayor who has the resources and authority to be a strong leader for the city.

Strimling said a new task force should review the City Charter, which was changed in 2010 to have a mayor elected by voters every four years rather than a one-year rotating appointment by the City Council. The panel would suggest ways to “operationalize” the vision of the voters, he said.

“While I have strong feelings about what it says and the intent behind those words, I recognize mine is only one perspective,” Strimling said. “Individual councilors have their own. The people of the city have theirs. (And) now is the time to reconcile these differences.”

Some councilors, however, responded coolly to the idea of a new review, saying the city already has asked for and received two legal opinions that clearly outlined the limits of the mayor’s role in city government.

“The only one I can find who is unclear about this role is the mayor,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who supported Strimling’s election in 2015.

A task force can only be created by a majority of the City Council, and Strimling has one of nine votes as council chairman. If the task force is created the mayor would appoint the members, although councilors could override his choices with six votes.

Mavodones said he will hear Strimling out, but noted that the city has had two legal reviews about the mayor’s role and he considers the question settled. He also noted that Strimling lost the 2011 mayor’s race when promising to serve as a chief executive officer at City Hall, but he was elected in 2015 when promising to be more of a chairman of the board.

“What I’m seeing now is more of an attempt to be CEO rather than chairman of the board,” Mavodones said.

AVOIDING CONTENTIOUS BUDGET VETO

Strimling made his statements Monday during a news conference on the steps of City Hall. He again criticized the majority of councilors who voted to cut the staff position, saying the decision “undermines the ability of the independent office of the mayor to do the work the voters expect it to do.”

However, he said, a budget veto would only prolong the “political maneuvering, grandstanding and infighting and will only serve to further divide our city. I won’t let that happen.”

The council appeared to be ready to override a veto, which would have been the first since the elected mayor was given that authority in 2010.

Strimling said he wants the new task force to include five to seven people, who ideally would work throughout the summer to figure out a way that the office of the mayor can work with the city manager and City Council on a daily basis. He hoped the group would talk to former Charter Commission members about their views of the elected mayor position.

Portland’s mayor lacks executive powers, and day-to-day management is assigned to the city manager, who reports to the council. But the mayor is intended to be the full-time leader of the council and spokesperson for the city, especially at the state and federal levels.

“This same tension occurred under the previous mayor (Michael Brennan) – that’s an important thing for everyone to remember,” Strimling said. “This is not new. The previous mayor and I are very different people with very different focuses and very different personalities, yet this tension arose there as well.”

The task force would not have as much authority as a full-blown Charter Commission, which would have the power to recommend wholesale changes to city government and take its recommendations directly to voters. The task force would simply make recommendations to the council.

While Strimling tried to frame last week’s tense budget debate as a difference of interpretations about the charter, City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said that was not the case – it was simply a debate about one position, the special assistant to the mayor.

Thibodeau worried that the task force would be a distraction, given that the city already has received two legal opinions defining the powers and limitations of the mayor’s office, including one from the late Peter DeTroy that cost nearly $22,000.

“These are all questions that have been asked and answered,” Thibodeau said. “Let’s move forward and start working on some of those policies and leave this behind. Let’s get to governing.”

Both DeTroy and the city’s top attorney determined that requests for information from city staff need to be channeled through the city manager’s office, because the manager controls the day-to-day operations. They determined that the mayor should have significant influence over policy, while noting that influence comes through the City Council, whose support is needed to pass new policy initiatives.

Back in December, councilors interviewed by the Portland Press Herald said the legal opinions were in line with their views of the charter’s meaning. But when city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta emphasized cooperation between the manager and mayor, who effectively speaks on behalf of the council, Strimling said in an email response that she was “wimping out.”

DeTroy, who was a prominent Portland attorney, echoed West-Chuhta’s sentiment, noting that the mayor’s powers are “clearly and purposefully limited” by the charter.

“In short, the office of mayor was not created to improve deficiencies in the office of the city manager,” DeTroy wrote. “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.”

REACHING OUT OR SEEKING POWER?

City Councilor David Brenerman said Monday that he also believes the charter is clear, and that Strimling simply doesn’t like the answers he is getting.

“I think this whole discussion is about power – how much power does this mayor have. And I don’t think we had that discussion in the four years of the previous mayor,” said Brenerman, who supported Brennan for re-election in 2015. “The only person who doesn’t understand what the charter says seems to be this mayor, so the whole point of appointing this task force is to find somebody who will agree with him.”

At the news conference, Strimling emphasized that the mayor’s office is “independent” and said the charter envisions a “strong executive manager, a strong legislative council and strong policy mayor.”

“All three of those must be strong and they must be supported,” he said. “That’s what I believe the charter was trying to create. But again, that’s my version. I’m willing to put this out to a body that will make that decision.”

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

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