Portland officials have decided to discuss issues between the mayor’s and city manager’s offices in public later this month, rather than behind closed doors as originally planned.

The switch came after the Portland Press Herald questioned whether the executive session planned for July 31, advertised as “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,” was legal under Maine law, which requires government business to be conducted in public unless it meets a narrow list of exemptions.

The newspaper followed up its July 8 story about the planned private meeting with a formal objection by its attorney, Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment lawyer who sent a four-page letter to City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta on July 11.

West-Chuhta argued that the City Council could hold a closed session to discuss “assignments” and/or “duties” of staff in a city department. However, Schutz contended that those discussions could only be held privately if they could damage the reputation of an employee or violate an individual’s right to privacy.

Mayor Ethan Strimling also questioned the need for a “secret meeting to figure out how we’re going to create policy.” He said he had been asking City Manager Jon Jennings for six weeks about getting additional staff help with his policy agenda.

West-Chuhta responded to the Press Herald two days later, reiterating her position that the executive session would have been appropriate because the planned discussion could be reasonably expected to invade privacy or possibly damage reputations. She noted that the session was not only to discuss the mayor’s request for more staff help, but also “complaints by staff.”

West-Chuhta included a July 10 email from Jennings to councilors and city staff, expressing his “total surprise and frustration” at seeing details of correspondence between himself and the mayor leaked to the press. He was concerned about the “selective use of forwarding emails” that had not been screened for potentially confidential information and could be damaging to the “integrity of the city.”

Jennings also said he would be comfortable discussing the issues publicly.

“While I never shy away from a fight, and although I feel it is totally appropriate to have this conversation in an executive session, I am comfortable and would agree to discuss publicly all of these issues, as well as the ones I have with the actions of the mayor,” Jennings wrote.

He added: “I think it is critically important for you and perhaps the general public to know all that we as staff have done for the mayor, including responding to numerous requests for meetings with follow-up information.”

On Thursday, the city said the discussion would be public, but reserved the right to go into executive session for discussion and to receive legal advice.

Strimling said in an interview that he was disappointed by Jennings’ response and that he hoped to sit down with him to talk about ways to keep his policy initiatives moving forward.

“A more appropriate response from the city manager would have been to apologize for not having responded to my request for assistance and to set up a meeting between the two of us to make sure that the city is meeting the expectations of my office and the people who elected me,” he said.

The July 31 meeting comes after the City Council voted to eliminate the position of special assistant to the mayor, saying it was not needed, which only served to further alienate Strimling from the rest of the council.

For much of his first year and half in office, Strimling has resisted having to channel requests for information and meetings with staff through Jennings. Although other councilors do not object to doing so, Strimling has said his requests often go unanswered or it takes too long to get a response.

Tensions between Jennings and Strimling came to a head during the 2015 budget season, when the mayor accused the city manager of putting “pavement over people” by proposing to close the city-run health clinic on India Street. That criticism caught councilors off-guard because Strimling had been repeatedly briefed on the plan and hadn’t objected earlier.

At that point, Strimling had already asked West-Chuhta for a legal opinion about the mayor’s powers and duties under the new City Charter, which was changed in 2010 to have the mayor elected by city voters instead of councilors. The mayor’s authority is limited, however, because daily operations, including directing staff, are handled by the city manager.

Later, the city sought a second opinion from Peter DeTroy, the late Portland attorney who was paid nearly $22,000 for his help. Like the city attorney, he concluded the mayor’s job was to work with the manager and councilors.

“The mayor’s substantive powers are clearly and purposefully significantly limited by the charter,” DeTroy concluded. “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.”

However, Strimling has continued to assert that the manager is obliged to incorporate the mayor’s guidance into budget and policy proposals.

After the council voted to eliminate his assistant, Strimling threatened to veto the entire $240 million municipal budget. Instead, he held a news conference calling on councilors to establish a citizen task force to recommend ways to “operationalize” the new charter. That suggestion was immediately panned by councilors, and Strimling has since backed down.

“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,” City Councilor David Brenerman said at the time.

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

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