Little progress was made in trying to mend Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling’s relationship with City Manager Jon Jennings and city councilors during a meeting at City Hall on Monday night.

The councilors and Jennings exchanged sharp words with Strimling during the four-hour meeting, which was preceded by demonstrations involving a small number of the mayor’s supporters and critics.

At the end of the night, councilors only urged Jennings and Strimling to meet more regularly. But Jennings said he would resign if councilors forced him to give Strimling unfettered access to the city staff.

“If I’m going to be directed by the council to violate the charter, you will have my resignation immediately,” said Jennings, who reminded councilors that his contract expires in about a year.

Charter revisions enacted in 2010 put the daily operations of the city, including managing staff time, under the city manager, while the elected mayor was envisioned as the city’s spokesman and policy leader.

The eight city councilors rejected the perception that this is just a conflict between Jennings and Strimling, taking turns expressing their support for the city manager and noting that they never have a problem getting information from him.

Several councilors accused Strimling of mischaracterizing their positions on issues, leading to a deterioration of trust. Jennings accused Strimling of lying.

“The council is telling you, Mr. Mayor, that you need to get it together,” said Councilor Spencer Thibodeau.

MAYOR WANTS INFORMATION

Strimling, however, said he was disappointed that the council was not open to his requests, such as allocating additional resources to the mayor’s office and allowing him to see media releases before they’re issued.

“I’ll keep doing my job the way I’m doing my job, but I have got to get information,” Strimling said. “I’m not going to give up my responsibility to develop policy that the people of the city ask me to develop and I tell them I will. That is a significant part of my job.”

Supporters of Mayor Ethan Strimling gather on the steps of City Hall in Portland prior to Monday’s City Council meeting. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Strimling tried unsuccessfully to make the case that he was being treated differently than the other councilors. The mayor was frustrated that his case “goes over people’s head.”

The biggest issue to emerge was trust. Jennings, who rarely looked at the mayor during the meeting, said he would not meet with Strimling unless another member of his staff is present.

He accused the mayor of using Washington-style politics and vowed that “staff will not be a punching bag.”

“Unless you agree with him 100 percent of the time, he will keep coming after you,” Jennings said. “We do not deserve to be abused by you, any member of the council or any member of the public. From now on, I will be responding to you directly.”

Councilor Jill Duson said she will not meet with Strimling until November, because he took to social media to mischaracterize a recent council vote. Other councilors echoed concerns about the mayor misrepresenting their conversations and positions on the issues.

While councilors and the manager don’t trust Strimling, Jennings said the mayor has made comments about not trusting city staff. Jennings said he brought up the mayor’s lack of trust in staff to Strimling one day.

” ‘That is right,’ ” Jennings said the mayor responded. ” ‘I do not trust anyone who works in government because all you do is cover your ass.’ ”

The mayor did not publicly refute that claim, like he did several others.

Jennings said he would offer details of the staff’s concerns about meeting with the mayor in a closed session, which councilors agreed could occur at a later date.

Strimling listed a litany of instances in which Jennings did not respond, or responded too late, to his requests for information. But councilors noted that much of the information he had sought was included in meeting materials, or was available with a simple internet search.

“Sometimes work needs to be done by an individual. Not everything can be given to you,” Councilor Belinda Ray said.

Councilors told Strimling that policy development occurs at committee meetings, which have dedicated staff, and that any councilor, including the mayor, are welcome to attend and offer feedback.

SUPPORTERS AND CRITICS

Before the meeting, critics and supporters of Strimling gathered at City Hall as a long-simmering power struggle between the mayor and the city manager spilled into the public arena.

A group of a dozen former Portland mayors, councilors and other officials criticized Strimling during a news conference in the City Hall rotunda shortly after 4 p.m.

“Many of us here today supported the mayor,” former Mayor Cheryl Leeman said. “We are quite frankly disappointed that the mayor has not delivered on his promise of ‘Portland Together.’ … There is absolutely no excuse for the rift that has spilled out in the public arena.”

Leeman also denounced Progressive Portland, a citizens group that supports the mayor and has accused Jennings and the council of ignoring the will of city voters.

The former mayors who gathered at City Hall all served when the position was a part-time, one-year appointment, while Strimling is a full-time mayor with a four-year term. Michael Brennan, the only full-time mayor to precede Strimling since the position was revamped in 2010, was not present.

“I am here because I was an ardent and enthusiastic supporter of Ethan when he ran and, frankly, he has let me down,” said Linda Abromson, Portland’s mayor from 1982-1983.

Meanwhile, a group of about eight Strimling supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall at 4:30.

An email to Strimling backers urged them to bring props, including diapers, baby rattles and pacifiers, “for crybaby city councilors and Jon Jennings, city manager.” Demonstrators stood on the steps with signs depicting Jennings as a pouting baby and saying, “Let the mayor do his job!” and “End the bickering!”

The gathering was first promoted by Progressive Portland through its email list, but the group later said it didn’t organize it. The group’s co-founder, Steven Biel, was holding a sign depicting Jennings as a baby.

RISING TENSIONS

Strimling and Jennings have been at odds for more than a year, mostly over the mayor’s inability to contact staff without first going through the city manager.

Portland’s city charter was changed in 2010 to adopt an elected full-time mayor. Previously, mayors were chosen by councilors and only served one-year terms.

The mayor and the manager are supposed to work closely together on policies and priorities that have been endorsed by the entire council.

But over the last year or so, Jennings and Strimling have rarely met and recently have blamed each other publicly for tensions at City Hall.

Before Jennings was hired in 2015, councilors and the mayor often would contact staff directly, seeking information and nudging along projects in their districts.

But Jennings requires councilors to channel those requests through his office – a process that appears to work for everyone except Strimling.

Until July 1, Strimling had a special assistant to help him develop policy. But councilors eliminated the position because they believed it was duplicative and only further isolated the mayor, who needs the council’s support to enact policy.

The dispute had been simmering privately for months. The city paid $22,000 for an independent legal analysis of the city charter and the role of the full-time mayor that concluded the mayor has the power to articulate the vision of the collective council, but is limited when acting independently. But even that failed to resolve the dispute.

Strimling also has called on councilors to establish a citizen panel to weigh in on the mayor’s powers, but councilors immediately dismissed the idea.

Councilors were originally going to conduct Monday’s meeting in closed session, until it was challenged by the Portland Press Herald’s attorney.

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

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