Setting a salary level for an elected mayor in Portland, should such a position be approved by voters in November, has been described as a “politically delicate issue.”

Well, only if by “politically delicate” you mean “potentially explosive.”

That’s because the members of the panel drawing up proposed changes to the city charter have decided not only to recommend that the city have a full-time mayor, but also that the position should be compensated as a real job with real responsibilities.

The panel’s recommendation, however, comes at a time when the city is under fiscal pressure not only because of local revenue shortfalls and cutbacks in state aid from the recession.

So, the idea that the city should raise the mayor’s pay from the current $7,195 to a minimum of $66,590 appears excessive in some eyes. “Excessive” is a term that’s easy to apply to a raise of 925 percent, but the commission makes a strong case for it, despite the views of a few dissenters.

After all, the job the panel is proposing has only one thing in common with the job currently being performed: its name. The current “mayor” of Portland could more correctly be called “chairman of the City Council,” because that is what the position really is. At present, the mayor is chosen by a majority of the council and is tasked with chairing council sessions, appointing councilors to committees and representing the city at ceremonies.

The new post, as defined by the Charter Commission, would be a full-time position elected directly in a citywide campaign for a four-year term.

Although the new mayor would still be one of the nine city councilors with just one vote on council proposals, the occupant would be the city’s political leader and presumably would be elected on a platform of municipal goals and improvements that would become the mayor’s agenda in office. In conjunction with that agenda, the mayor would oversee the city manager as that hired employee prepared the annual city budget, the most important task the administration performs.

Commission members said they struggled with setting a fair base salary for a post that oversees 1,300 workers and a $250 million budget, and they decided it should be 1½ times the median household income in the city, currently $44,393.

The council would set the mayor’s annual salary by majority vote, but the charter panel wanted a minimum to prevent councilors from cutting the job’s pay as punishment.

There’s a public hearing on the plan on May 6, so citizens with questions should show up to ask them. But this idea should be easy to defend.


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