The Portland City Council plans to hold a closed-door meeting later this month in an effort to improve the working relationship between the mayor and the city manager’s office. But questions are being raised about whether the discussion should be held in public.

The move comes after the council eliminated the position of assistant to Mayor Ethan Strimling and after previous attempts have failed to forge a truce between Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings. The core of the issue is whether the full-time, elected mayor has enough access to city staff to develop policy and carry out the duties of his job.

All requests for information and meetings with city staffers now run through City Manager Jon Jennings, who controls the daily operations of the city.

While other councilors have not expressed any frustrations about their access to staff, Strimling has said his inability to speak directly with staff has made it difficult to be the strong policy mayor envisioned in the City Charter. Having an assistant allowed Strimling to develop and vet his policies before presenting them to the council.

Strimling said he has been trying to speak with Jennings since late May about who would help him finish ongoing projects now that Special Assistant to the Mayor Jason Shedlock no longer works for the city. Shedlock’s last day was June 30.

That unresolved question led city officials to schedule a private council session on July 31.

“I don’t know why we need to have a secret meeting to figure out how we’re going to create policy,” Strimling said, noting that councilors justified cutting the assistant position by saying it was duplicative. “If it was duplicative, then there should be someone who can step in and do this work. Why is it taking six weeks and I still don’t have an answer?”

CLOSED SESSION LAW

Maine law requires most public business to be conducted in a public setting, unless it meets a specific exemption. In justifying the executive session, the city cited a portion of law dealing with personnel issues. However, the public description for the private session does not identify a specific position being discussed, but rather a city department.

It says: “This session is being held to discuss and consider a personnel matter related to and involving the duties and assignments of the Executive Department of the City of Portland.”

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta defended the closed session when pressed by a reporter.

Asked why the council could have a private conversation about the duties of an entire department of city government and how that differs from other discussions in public about staff duties, West-Chuhta said “such personnel discussions may be done in executive or public session, but an executive session has been requested and is appropriate under Maine law.”

Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment attorney who also represents the Portland Press Herald, disagreed, saying personnel matters may only be discussed in private if a public discussion could reasonably be expected to damage someone’s reputation or constitute an invasion of privacy.

“Because government acts through people, to conclude that any discussion by a public body about people or what they do can be held in secret, would eviscerate the public’s right to know what government’s up to,” Schutz said. “The law protects discussion reasonably likely to threaten legitimate public employee reputational and privacy interests, but does not make secret garden variety talk about the work of public employees, including their employment, duties, staffing or similar matters.”

Councilor Belinda Ray called for the executive session, but declined to discuss the subject matter or what prompted the discussion. However, Ray said the request for a closed session was supported by the entire council.

Other councilors declined to discuss specifics of the upcoming meeting and referred questions to Ray.

“It’s just generally to discuss staff positions and assignments and who’s working with who,” City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said.

EMAIL EXCHANGE

A recent email exchange between Strimling and Jennings may shed some light on the meeting.

On May 30, Strimling emailed Jennings, asking for guidance about who would be taking over Shedlock’s duties, which included “research and policy development, outreach to community partners for input/support, coordination of the stakeholders and overseeing the navigation through the council process.”

A June 28 email from Strimling said that Jennings did not respond to that initial inquiry. About three hours later, Jennings replied, “I spoke with a few councilors and they would like to have an executive session with us to determine next steps.”

Strimling replied by saying an executive session was not necessary. He suggested that Julie Sullivan, the senior adviser to the manager, be assigned to his office in the interim.

The upcoming executive session also follows an unsuccessful attempt to organize a mediation between Jennings and Strimling.

The two leaders have been at odds ever since Strimling publicly criticized a 2016 budget proposal by Jennings to close a public health clinic as “putting pavement over people,” a criticism that surprised his fellow councilors.

Since then, the mayor and manager have not been meeting on a regular basis despite language in the City Charter calling for a close collaboration between those two offices and the City Council.

City Councilors David Brenerman and Nicholas Mavodones had been tasked with mediating a meeting between the two men, according to people familiar with the matter. However, a meeting scheduled for May 19 was called off after a warning from the city’s attorney that such a meeting could be held only after providing public notice.

Shortly after that, Strimling proposed creating a citizen task force to offer recommendations about how to “operationalize” the charter and make the full-time mayor’s office more effective. That idea was immediately batted down by councilors, and Strimling has since backed off that plan, saying he’s been more focused on policy issues.

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

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Twitter: randybillings