The ongoing feud between Portland City Manager Jon Jennings and Mayor Ethan Strimling boiled over Friday, the two trading accusations of lying and blocking access to city employees.

The first salvo was fired by Jennings during his regular appearance on a WGAN radio talk show Friday morning, when he accused Strimling of lying and creating a politicized atmosphere at City Hall.

Strimling responded in an interview later, saying that Jennings opposes him on ideological grounds and is restricting access to city staff as a way to block Strimling’s progressive agenda.

The two are expected to air their differences later this month at a public session scheduled with the Portland City Council on July 31. That meeting was initially scheduled to be held behind closed doors until the Portland Press Herald argued that there were no legal grounds to do so.

Jennings suggested Friday that he has the council’s backing.

“I know that the Press Herald and others have tried to make this into a disagreement between the mayor and myself and I think it’s apparent it’s not just me,” Jennings said on the “Ken & Matt Show.” “There is a City Council that also feels strongly about what’s going on.”

Jennings also got in a not-so-subtle dig by saying he had been “supportive” of Strimling after he was elected in 2015, even finding funds “to redo his (Strimling’s) office the way he wanted it done.”

Jennings said he has only rarely met with Strimling face-to-face, and on those occasions the mayor would later, in public statements, “completely lie about the nature of the meetings.”

He also disputed Strimling’s suggestion this week that Jennings owes him an apology for resisting the mayor’s efforts to get staff assistance on policy proposals.

“Ethan Strimling is the last person on this planet I would take advice from as far as what is appropriate,” Jennings said. “The time has come for me to speak publicly about what’s been going on … If I’m going to be attacked repeatedly by the mayor, I’m going to respond and I’m going to respond aggressively and so the time has come to do that.”

In a phone interview later, Jennings said that until Friday he had “taken the high road” in his dealings with Strimling, but felt that he has been publicly “attacked” and needed to respond.

Strimling said that Jennings opposes some of the policy initiatives he has proposed as mayor, including a plan to send to the voters a bond referendum to repair four city elementary schools.

“My sense at this point is that it’s really come down to ideological differences,” Strimling said.

“People opted for an elected mayor to push policies that reflect the city,” he said, but Jennings has been providing “pushback” on those efforts.

“The city manager and I have different visions” for the city, he said.

CHANGES IN MAYOR’S ROLE

Strimling is Portland’s second mayor elected by popular vote since the charter was changed in 2010 to create the full-time post, although the mayor’s powers are limited and the city manager is responsible for day-to-day management. Prior to the charter change, the mayor was chosen by the City Council and the role was limited to chairing council meetings and taking part in ceremonial events.

Strimling said the city manager has barred him from directly contacting staff members in City Hall and requires him to send a note to Jennings when he wants to speak to someone about a policy initiative. Jennings generally does not respond, Strimling said, noting that he never received a response to a recent request to speak with a public health official about a paid sick leave proposal.

Strimling had a paid assistant until the council stripped funding for the position this year.

The mayor said he remains willing to sit down with Jennings to discuss their disagreements – “anytime, anywhere, anyplace,” he said – but has been rebuffed.

“He has to decide whether he can work with me or not,” Strimling said.

Jennings has a year left on his contract as city manager, while Strimling has two-and-a-half years remaining in his term as mayor.

After being told of Strimling’s comments, Jennings said in the phone interview that Strimling’s suggestion that the problems between the two stem from ideological differences is “complete nonsense.”

‘AN UNFORTUNATE DISTRACTION’

Jennings said he and others in City Hall have worked on Strimling’s policy proposals and responded to his requests, but “we have busy jobs and we don’t have time to do every single thing he wants done.”

“The time will come when this will all come out,” Jennings said, adding that Strimling refuses to recognize the limits put on the mayor’s role in the City Charter.

He also said one senior staff member, whom he refused to identify, has said he is considering retiring early, at least in part because of the politicized nature of City Hall, an atmosphere Jennings blamed on Strimling.

That staff member and others “are just feeling the effects of constant attacks on city staff because we do not agree with every single thing that certain people want us to do,” Jennings said.

Two councilors reached Friday indicated that they backed Jennings in the dispute.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said the ongoing dispute “is troubling” and “an unfortunate distraction,” but said it’s driven by Strimling’s expansive view of his powers under the City Charter.

“Here we are again talking about the mayor instead of issues that people care about,” Thibodeau said, noting that the city has already hired a lawyer to interpret the charter and he came up with a more limited view of the mayor’s powers than Strimling espouses.

Thibodeau called Strimling’s suggestion that the dispute with Jennings was based on ideology “unconscionable.”

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he thinks Jennings is doing a great job as city manager and called Strimling’s view of the mayor’s role “distressing.”

‘A GREAT DEAL MORE POLITICIZATION’

Mavodones said he doesn’t believe that Strimling has followed through on his campaign theme of being the city’s chairman of the board instead of a chief executive officer.

“I’ve seen a great deal more politicization since we’ve had an elected mayor,” he said. “I hope we don’t get to the point where Ethan’s actions and the actions of his supporters cause us to lose the city manager.”

Councilor Pious Ali walked a middle ground, saying he hopes the July 31 meeting will clear the air and lead to a better working relationship between the mayor, the city manager and the council.

“I am waiting to see how our conversation will be on July 31,” Ali said. “I am hoping to see a collaborative working relationship.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at:

[email protected]