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February 27, 2013

Greg Kesich: Portland got the kind of mayor it was looking for

By Greg Kesich
gkesich@pressherald.com
Editorial Page Editor

Michael Brennan has been mayor of Portland for 14 months.

During that time he has run the City Council meetings, fought against budget cuts in Augusta and steered through some complicated policy issues that put different groups of constituents at odds, like ending the Occupy Wall Street encampment or developing a city strategy to prevent homelessness.

In the meantime, he got to meet the governor and welcome Mumford & Sons to the Eastern Prom. So, all in all, not a bad year.

But Portland got its first taste of what it means to have a mayor Monday when Brennan rolled out his long-awaited and ambitious "cradle to career" education plan, which puts the city's business, nonprofit and philanthropic communities on the same team with the public schools and area colleges to make sure Portland students start right and finish with jobs.

Called "Portland ConnectED," the new public-private partnership will start promoting early childhood education, kindergarten readiness, grade-level proficiency and higher graduation rates. It will also raise funds for a multimillion-dollar endowment to help Portland graduates afford college tuition.

The huge undertaking would improve the lives of Portland students, provide new and growing businesses with a well-prepared work force and leverage the city's resources to shore up an important public service without putting new burdens on the taxpayers.

Win, win, win, win.

Maybe. It's way too early to celebrate the success of this project, but that's less important at this point than the size of the effort.

This is really big. It could affect everyone who lives and works here, and it will be years before it all plays out. It's the kind of thing the city could not have imagined taking on before we had an elected mayor.

Remember back to 2010? When the Charter Commission was listening to people's concerns about city government, a few themes kept coming back.

Portland lacked leadership. The city didn't lack ideas or talent or people doing interesting things, but it didn't have any coordination. The ceremonial, part-time mayor could run the council meetings and cut ribbons, but he or she could not bring together the kind of coalition that Brennan has assembled, and wouldn't have had the time to see it through after its launch. Under the old system, there was a different mayor every year, giving the city a different set of priorities every time the calendar changed.

A popularly elected mayor with a four-year term behind a desk in City Hall treating leading the city as a full-time job gives the right person an opportunity to take on a big problem and give it the attention it deserves.

And a popularly elected mayor also has to face the voters. Brennan has made concrete promises that he will have to answer for if he decides to run for reelection. That's a level of accountability that Portland was missing when the elected mayor idea was being cooked up.

Over the last three years, too much debate was spent on whether the mayor's position was "strong" enough. No doubt about it, this is a "weak" mayor who has no direct hiring authority for department heads, which is still a job for the city manager.

But Portland didn't need someone to fire the police chief. It needed someone who could bring various groups together and work on the big problems collectively.

Because Portland does have some big problems. It's the richest community in the state as well as the poorest. Construction crews are building high-end condos and apartments while homeless people line up to take turns panhandling at busy intersections.

The schools find a huge achievement gap among children based on their family income. It's not that the poor students aren't as smart as wealthier classmates, but they don't read as well by third grade, which could impose limits on what they can achieve throughout the rest of their lives.

And even though the city is becoming a launching pad for small, high-tech businesses, they can't find enough of the workers they need to expand and grow.

In the past these have been seen as separate issues, but they are all related.

"We're seeing as the economy comes back it has changed shape," said Chris Hall, the acting executive director of the Portland Regional Chamber, which is a partner in ConnectED. "It doesn't look like it did before and we all need to make changes to bring it back in alignment."

That means business leaders taking an interest in pre-kindergarten, and educators thinking about the workplace and city politicians talking about issues beside trash, traffic and taxes.

That's why Portland needed a mayor. It looks like we got one.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com





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