PORTLAND — When residents head to the polls on Nov. 8 to choose a mayor, they will be cementing the biggest change in city government in nearly 90 years.

Last year, voters narrowly approved changes to the City Charter to have a popularly elected mayor – one who will serve a four-year term and be paid a $66,000 annual salary.

Much has changed since 1923, the last time Portland government underwent such a change. Back then, streetcars and trains, not automobiles, were the primary mode of transportation.

But the reasons for the major change in city government haven’t changed.

According to documents compiled by the Maine Historical Society, the arguments in favor of changing from the popularly elected mayor to the city manager-council form of government 88 years ago stemmed from a perceived lack of leadership on economic development, and high taxes.

“Greater Portland Celebration 350,” compiled and edited by Albert F. Barnes, put it this way: The poor business practices of the elected mayor were “killing investment and freezing capital by a tyranny of assessments which reeks of glaring inequities.”

The same argument could apply today.

Weak leadership at City Hall on economic development has been a benchmark of the current campaign, and the candidate thumping the economic pulpit the hardest has out-fundraised his nearest opponent by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. 

Something else that hasn’t changed much is the involvement of the daily newspaper.

The campaign to abolish the elected mayor began in 1921 with pamphleteering. The Guy Gannett Newspapers, which had recently merged the Daily Press and the Portland Herald to create the Portland Press Herald, picked up the cause the following year.

Meanwhile another city paper, the Express, sent its reporters to communities with a manager-council government to expose scandals.

“Neither newspaper attempted to balance its coverage,” Barnes’ book concluded.

Fast forward to 2010. The Press Herald not only supported the elected mayor on its opinion pages, but it gave more than $45,000 in free advertising to the political action committee promoting the campaign.

One thing has changed: the influence of anti-Semitic groups.

Voters originally turned down the proposal to abolish the popularly elected mayor in 1921. Two years later, the Ku Klux Klan held rallies at City Hall, drawing about 6,000 people on Sept. 7, 1923.

F. Eugene Farnsworth, a local KKK leader, urged the crowd to support the manager-council form of government as a way to “rid the city government of Jews and Catholics.”

The pro-change group, known as the Committee of 100, only had one Catholic, no Jews and no representatives of other ethnicities.

Opponents argued the change was a scheme by Protestants in the Woodfords and Deering neighborhoods to take over city government.

Three days later, voters approved the change in by a vote of 9,928 to 6,931. During the next election, the KKK endorsed candidates in all five wards. Three of their choices were elected, and all five councilors were Protestants.

As Portland again embarks upon major change in its government, there are important differences. 

The mayor in 1923 presided over an 18-member Common Council and nine aldermen. As the city’s chief executive, the mayor had the final say in all city matters, leading to charges of cronyism.

The mayor being elected next week is considered a weaker position, without the ability to hire and fire city staff, or craft the budget; those responsibilities remain with the city manager.

The mayor ultimately has only one of nine votes on the City Council, but will set the agenda and lead meetings. The mayor will be able to veto the budget, which needs seven votes to pass, but the veto can be overturned with six votes.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

Image No. 1265 from the Collections of the Maine Historical Society shows the Ku Klux Klan marching along Forest Avenue in Portland, circa 1923, when the group rallied at City Hall to help abolish the elected mayor form of government.

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