Thursday, April 17, 2014
PORTLAND - For months, the city's Charter Commission has been divided into two camps: members who would give real power to a popularly elected mayor, and those who would preserve the authority of a professional city manager.
Facing a July 1 deadline, the commission reached a compromise Thursday. It plans to give voters a proposal to make a popularly elected mayor Portland's political leader and give the city manager the job of overseeing the day-to-day operations.
The city manager would no longer be the city's chief executive, according to the proposal, and would no longer submit a "manager's budget" to the City Council every year.
But the mayor wouldn't submit the budget, either.
Rather, the commission decided Thursday that the city manager and the mayor would jointly submit the budget to the council.
The commission also approved charter language to give the mayor the power to "consult with and provide policy direction" to the city manager in the preparation of the budget.
The compromise, which followed more than three hours of debate and was supported by moderates on the issue, angered those who have been most vocal on either side.
Commissioner Thomas Valleau, an opponent of a popularly elected mayor, said the compromise would leave the city manager with meager status and little clout compared with the mayor.
"This is another step to the incredible shrinking city manager," he said.
And Commissioner Anna Trevorrow, who wants a mayor who would craft the budget and submit it to the council, said the compromise left her "disheartened."
"We are kind of drifting away at the last minute from what we originally had drafted," she said.
Supporters of the compromise said it would let the mayor be the city's leader on matters of policy while protecting city departments from political interference from the mayor in day-to-day operations.
"We do not intend to have the mayor fiddle with the budget any way he wants," said Pamela Plumb, the commission's chair.
The commission would have the mayor hold the at-large council seat now held by Councilor Dory Waxman, serve a four-year term and be limited to two consecutive terms. It would be a full-time position that pays at least $67,359 a year.
The mayor would appoint committees, set the council's agenda and act as the city's point person with other government agencies. The mayor would also take a leadership role with the council when the council hires or fires a city manager or does annual reviews.
The 12-member commission is struggling to finish its work by July 1, when it is scheduled to take its final vote on a package of charter changes to propose to Portland voters on Nov. 2.
Still unresolved is the question of how residents would vote for a mayor.
The commission voted several months ago to support a new voting system called ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference, and there could be several rounds of votes until a winner emerged with majority support.
But in recent days the commissioners have been getting numerous e-mails from opponents of the voting system from around the country.
Plumb urged the commission to re-examine the issue. In a letter she presented Thursday, she said the controversy has "clouded the ability of the public to focus on the question of an elected mayor."
If it appears on the ballot, she said, ranked-choice voting could become a "lightning rod" for a larger national debate and frighten people away from voting for an elected mayor.
Commissioner Nathan Smith, who leads a subcommittee examining criticism of the voting system, told the commission Thursday that his committee needs more time and will meet again before the July 1 meeting.
The commission has made it clear that the mayor must be elected by a majority vote.
Plumb said there are only two other options: an open primary before the November election, or a runoff within a few weeks after the election if nobody wins a majority.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: