November 30, 2011

Greg Kesich: New mayor can make a quick impact through city planner search

The process to hire a new planning director should get as much public input as the search for a police chief.

By Greg Kesich gkesich@pressherald.com
Editorial Page Editor

Dear Mayor Brennan,

We haven’t seen much of you since you stood in a crowded room in City Hall on Nov. 9 and watched a computer work through 13 instant runoffs, nudging  you over the 50 percent mark in the final round.

It made for exciting viewing for us, while you looked like you just swallowed some milk that was past the use-by date. It ended well for you, though, and we hope that you have enjoyed these last few weeks outside the spotlight after a long and demanding campaign.

The obscurity ends soon, however. Monday, to be exact.

Since you spent about five months telling voters what you were going to do if they elected you, you probably have some idea of what you want to do now that you’ve won. But you know that what happens in campaigns and what really happens can be two different things. You’re probably prepared for this, but in case you’re not, here are a few reminders.

No one expects you to work miracles. We never really believed that you could get that $1 million in school funding back from the Legislature. Maybe if Sen. President Kevin Ray was running for Congress in the 1st District instead of in the one up north you might have had a shot. But there’s still plenty that needs to be done here. The first task should be right at City Hall.

You were there at every candidate forum. From the audience to the podium, almost everyone repeated the same complaint: Portland is a hard place to do business.

Developers, architects, homeowners and the people who work for them pull out an endless stream of anecdotes describing an unpredictable and obscure planning and inspection process that discourages people from investing in the city.

Whether they are right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter. So many people think that it’s true that it has the same effect.

If the new mayor and the still-sort-of new city manager can’t change this perception, Portland won’t be able to succeed on its other goals, like improving the schools or holding the line on taxes.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity to do something about this right away. The position of city planning director is currently vacant. The new head of the planning office will be hired by City Manager Mark Rees, but if the mayoral campaign carried any message, it is that the new mayor has a mandate to change the culture in City Hall. The fastest way to do that is to change the people in the top jobs.

Over last six years, Portland has hired two police chiefs. Each was selected after an extensive public process that included interviews by panels made up of a wide range of stakeholders. Why can’t Portland do that when it hires a planning director?

Like a police chief, a planner is someone who has to work well with employees and the public.
And like a police chief, a director of planning can have a profound effect on the quality of life inside a community.

Portland’s charter is clear that hiring a department head is the city manager’s job. But the new mayor should definitely be part of the hiring process. This is a chance to change the way people view City Hall, and it should not be missed.

There will be plenty of other chances to show some leadership, starting with the debate over the Occupy Maine permit, which is supposed to come to the council in your first meeting after you are sworn in. This is an issue where freedom of speech comes into direct conflict with people’s desire to live orderly lives, and every choice is loaded with political blow-back. Good luck with that.

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