December 4, 2012

In first year, Portland's mayor walks softly

Michael Brennan has mostly stayed out of headlines, preferring to work behind the scenes to build consensus.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – When a plan emerged in March to refurbish and add offices to a historic church in the West End, residents and business leaders looked to Michael Brennan – the city's first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years – to take charge of the controversial proposal.

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Mayor Michael Brennan on the steps of Portland City Hall.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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• Led Mayors Coalition to lobby in Augusta for needs of cities

• Reduced the number of City Council committees to provide better staff support

• Established performance guidelines for the city manager and city clerk

• Actively opposed state cuts to General Assistance

• Laid the groundwork for a "research triangle" and education initiatives

• Started an initiative to increase the use of local produce and milk in schools.



• Unsuccessfully lobbied against charter schools

Residents wanted him to help protect their prestigious neighborhood and quality of life. Business leaders hoped he would embrace the opportunity for economic development.

Instead, Brennan stepped back and allowed the proposal to work its way through the committee process. It crystallized the type of measured, process-oriented mayor that he would be in his first year in office.

"It's a cautious decision on my part," Brennan said of his leadership style. "I'm focused on the end result of getting something done, not making proclamations early on about whether something should move forward."

On Monday, Brennan began his second year as mayor. His preference for working behind the scenes rather than dominating headlines has won over some who opposed the creation of the full-time position. At the same time, some hope he will become more visible in the coming year.

The battle over the old Williston-West Church is seen as a good example. The zone change needed for the development was eventually approved, with limits set on the office use. While businesses are pleased, residents are appealing the decision in court.

"I personally did want to see him jump out more" on the issue, said Michael Bourque, president of the Portland Community Chamber.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, agreed.

"There were a lot of legitimate big policy issues that I personally thought did not get enough debate, versus, 'We have to save the building,'" said Pringle, who opposed the plan.

Brennan, 59, is widely praised as a consensus-builder who puts a premium on process and the expertise of the professional staff.

In some ways, building consensus is the only true power of the office. Under the city charter that created Brennan's position, the city manager is responsible for day-to-day operations, and five votes are needed to pass any significant policies through the City Council.

Brennan, who earns $66,000 a year and has a four-year term, has the power to set council meeting agendas, appoint members to committees, form task forces and veto the budget.

Brennan has been cautious in dealing with the eight councilors, whose experience ranges from three to 27 years in office. He holds dozens of meetings weekly with residents, businesses, elected officials and city staffers to collect feedback.

On the state level, Brennan helped to organize a coalition of mayors to help offset rural communities' influence in the State House.

Brennan has been building two coalitions that he says will bear fruit over the next year. One is aimed at improving workers' training by bringing educators together with leaders in cutting-edge industries. The other is a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education initiative, Growing Portland.

That cautious, collaborative leadership style has largely comforted those who didn't want the city to have an elected mayor – which voters approved by a 12,963 to 11,825 vote in 2010.

Several initial skeptics and opponents, who feared the prospect of a bombastic mayor who would meddle in city operations, have been encouraged by the early performance of the man and the position.

"He's made me much more comfortable than I was a year ago," said Thomas Valleau, who opposed the switch to a mayor elected by residents, rather than city councilors. "It's working better than I imagined, thanks to Mike's approach."


For a mayor with limited power, one of the most tangible tools is the bully pulpit -- going public to set a direction for policy discussions or build support for an initiative.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Mayor Brennan

Do you think Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has done a good job in his first year in office as elected mayor?



View Results


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