October 18, 2010

Our View: Question 1: Portland should have elected mayor

The city should update its charter to directly elect its leader, but not to extend voting rights.

Here's a test. You are a developer looking to do a big project in Portland. Who do you talk to?

The city manager? He's important, but he is an administrator, not a policy maker.

The mayor? You should probably give him a call, but realize that he has another full-time job and won't be able to put much energy into your proposal. Plus, take a good look at the calendar because the mayor's term starts in January and effectively runs out of steam around Election Day.

The City Council? Sure. But remember that there are nine of them and you need support from at least five. Keep in mind that any one of them can change his mind and three of them are up for re-election every year, so your five can turn into four or fewer very quickly.

The answer is that there's no one place to call where your idea will get a listen from someone whose job is to have a vision for Portland, speaks for the city and will be around long enough to get your project under way.

That's what the elected mayor proposal on the Portland city ballot attempts to change. Portland voters should say "yes" to providing leadership that the city has lacked.

The position as envisioned by the Portland Charter Commission after a year of research and deliberations, is a political leader for the city.

A FULL-TIME JOB

The mayor would run for office city wide, and because of a built-in ranked choice or instant run-off voting process, could only take office with support from a majority of the voters.

The proposed mayor's term would be four years, as opposed to three for city councilors or one for the honorary mayor chosen by the City Council.

The elected mayor would be considered a full-time job, and would be compensated that way, earning one and half times the city's median income, or $66,000 under current Department of Labor figures.

That mandate from the people, length of term and constant presence in City Hall would give the mayor stature that no city official currently has. For the first time, there would be one person, accountable to the voters, who could speak for the city.

Inside City Hall, the mayor would continue as one of nine voting members of the City Council, would chair their meetings and consult with the city manager on the development of the budget.

The mayor would have the special power of veto over the budget (which the council could override with six votes) and would chair the evaluation and hiring processes for top city officials. This would not be a "strong" mayor, as is common in some of the nation's biggest cities and some Maine communities like Westbrook, where the mayor is the chief executive officer and has the ability to hire and fire department heads.

Under this proposal, Portland would remain a council/manager form of government, where a professional city manager holds the reins on day-to-day operations and hires the department heads, such as the police chief.

POLITICAL LEADERSHIP

So why pay a salary to an official that has no executive power? Because Portland is not suffering from a lack of competent management but a lack of political leadership.

The City Council has the sole power to set policy, but that doesn't mean that the staff will carry it out without some prodding.

A political leader, whose job is to bridge differences on the council and make sure that their policy ideas are implemented, has a chance to move the city forward on issues that have been too complicated in the past.

The cost of one more person on the city's payroll to represent the citizens and oversee how the rest of their $196 million budget is spent doesn't sound like an extravagant expense to us.

The critics of this proposal are right about one thing: Portland is already a terrific city with a lot of potential to grow as a desirable place to live, visit and do business.

But the opponents can't show how directly electing a mayor would interfere with that. Instead we think better defined political leadership would position the city for an even brighter future. We urge Portland residents to vote "yes" on Question 1.

 

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