Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said Wednesday he plans to appoint himself head of the city’s budget committee – a move described as a “power grab” by some city councilors who have threatened to scuttle the plan.

Committee appointments are traditionally made during the business meeting that follows the inauguration. But that wasn’t the case after the ceremony Monday.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said, “My being chair of the finance committee means that I will then be able to play the leadership role that the charter says I’m supposed to play.”

Strimling, who has yet to share his full slate of appointments with fellow councilors or the public, said he needed some more time to talk with councilors. He expects a council vote on his appointments Dec. 18.

In an interview, Strimling wouldn’t identify any specific initiatives that he wanted to include in next year’s budget. Instead, he wants to create a process that would give the mayor more influence over the budget process itself.

“My being chair of the finance committee means that I will then be able to play the leadership role that the charter says I’m supposed to play,” Strimling said. “I will then be in the place to influence, amend and try to encourage my colleagues to join me if I feel like changes need to occur. You can’t do that from the outside looking in.”

The move comes as Strimling appeared to have begun mending his relationships with City Manager Jon Jennings and the eight other councilors. Tensions among the group boiled over into public view over the summer, but have settled down since.

The mayor’s move threatens to upend that progress, while reigniting debate about how to interpret the mayor’s role under the city charter, said Councilor Jill Duson.

“It’s really disappointing,” Duson said. “I thought we could keep moving forward with building trust and I wished we could have had a fresh start. But this whole process makes me feel like that may not be possible, because he hasn’t changed.”

Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who has served on the council for the past 20 years and has chaired the finance committee in recent years, said he told Strimling that he would not oppose his proposal if it was supported by other councilors.

But Mavodones seemed to be reconsidering that position, given the divide on the council.

“It has the potential to be a protracted battle, but I don’t think that would be in the best interest of the city or the council,” he said.

If that happens, it’s possible that committees could remain vacant for an extended period, which would impede the city’s ability to craft policies, review budgets and draft contracts.

Under the city charter, the mayor is responsible for appointing councilors to its standing committees that oversee policy development. Those assignments are important because most of the council’s work occurs at the committee level, and chairing a committee is a way for individual councilors to control the conversation and put their stamp on policies that will be taken up by the full council.

COLLISION COURSE WITH SOME COUNCILORS

Nothing in the charter prevents a mayor from appointing himself or herself as the head of a committee. In fact, former Mayor Michael Brennan headed the council’s legislative committee, which works with the city’s legislative delegation in Augusta.

But this would be the first time a mayor has used that authority to take over leadership of the finance committee, which oversees more than $345 million in annual spending.

Councilors can override mayoral appointments with six votes. Over the weekend, it became clear that several councilors were not supportive of Strimling’s proposal, according to interviews with councilors this week. And City Councilor Belinda Ray, who opposes the proposal, went so far as to survey councilors and offer her own committee suggestions based on each councilor’s preference.

Her unsolicited assistance was not well-received by the mayor.

“I’m very disappointed by Councilor Ray’s attempt to undermine the authority of the mayor in this way,” Strimling said.

Other councilors defended Ray, saying Strimling’s criticism was unfair. They noted how in the past, Strimling has mischaracterized their positions to other councilors, pointing to the creation of the mayoral assistant position as an example. The city manager funded the position based on the belief that it was supported by the council. That was not the case and the council eliminated the position over the summer.

“It is in the best interest of the city for us to work together and collaborate, (but) it is very hard to work on behalf of the city and on behalf of my constituents with a mayor who is consistently disingenuous,” Ray said. “There were many things he said to people that, when they were fact-checked, were inaccurate.”

Several councilors expressed concerns that letting the mayor lead the finance committee would give Strimling too much control over city spending, because he is also tasked with helping the city manager draft the initial budget and delivering a budget message to the council. He also has the authority to veto any budget passed by the council.

The council oversees a municipal budget of more than $240 million and sets the bottom line for the school budget, which topped $105 million this year. It also oversees the Capital Improvements Plan, which this year included nearly $18 million in new debt to fund significant upgrades to city and school infrastructure, including roads, buildings and vehicles.

And the budget is often described by politicians as a moral document – a place where city leaders actually make an investment in their stated values.

“I think this would give him possession and control of the budget from day one to the end of the process, and that’s completely inappropriate,” Duson said. “I think this move just disrupts the balance of powers amongst the council, manager and the mayor to the detriment of the council.”

THREAT OF REIGNITING TENSIONS

But Strimling said his existing budget duties were not effective. “Any councilor can make a speech,” he said.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau worries that Strimling’s proposal would set back the progress that he and Jennings have made toward establishing a working relationship.

As a result of previous budget disagreements, Jennings refused to meet with the mayor for more than a year, although the two resumed regular meetings after the summer blowout.

Thibodeau said the mayor can influence the budget during those weekly meetings, without leading a council committee tasked with overseeing the budget recommendation to the full council.

“The collaborative relationship they have developed is better left where they are,” he said. “If we get through this budget, maybe I will feel differently next year. But it doesn’t make much sense to create a dynamic that may cause a situation where you have two figureheads battling it out. I don’t think that’s helpful to the budget process at all.”

Councilor Justin Costa said he was more open to the idea than other councilors, but was still undecided. Councilor Kim Cook, who was sworn in Monday, said she would not be able to decide until she saw Strimling’s full slate of appointments. Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson did not respond to requests for comment.

Mavodones said councilors’ concerns about turning over too much of the budget process to the mayor are valid and he plans to discuss that with the mayor.

For now, Strimling seems intent on moving his proposal forward, even if it gets turned down by councilors. He described his committee assignments as “a compromise” between accommodating the desires of councilors while also giving him the best opportunity to pursue policies that he believes the people of Portland want.

“I can’t emphasize it enough: I don’t work for the council. And that’s been part of the battle. I work for the people,” Strimling said. “If this gets vetoed, I will put together a whole new list and I’ll still be chair of finance on the next list. Hopefully that list will get through.”