I’m confused. It looks like the City Council voted to adopt a budget Monday that calls for the partial closure of the city-run clinic on India Street. But at the same meeting, Mayor Ethan Strimling announced, “We have saved India Street.”

That’s not what I’m confused about.

Most of India Street’s services will stay where they are for at least a year, so Strimling is declaring victory. That’s just spin, and it’s what politicians do all the time.

No, what confused me was that in the same speech, Strimling referred to himself as “the leader of the city.”

Is he?

The transfer of services from India Street to Portland Community Health Center was City Manager Jon Jennings’ idea and he put it in his budget.

Jennings made that proposal based on his evaluation of the city’s services and his philosophical principle that the government should focus on the things that won’t be done by anyone else.

When there is a private nonprofit health care center around the corner, Jennings reasoned, the city should find a way to get out of the business of providing clinical services.

In other words, he proposed a change in policy, and, with some amendments, the council, signed off, Strimling included.

That sounds like the manager is making policy, not just implementing it.

The mayor is supposed to be the city’s “policy leader,” according to the charter. And by virtue of being directly elected with support of the majority of voters, the mayor is supposed to be the instrument through which people have a say in the city’s direction.

But that’s not necessarily how it’s working.

When Portland had an election just six months ago, the India Street clinic was never mentioned. When the new council and the mayor set priorities early in the year, this wasn’t one of them.

In time, the solution the council approved Monday night may prove to be the right one, but it’s not a change that the people said they wanted during the campaign. The question for Portland voters is whether we are seeing a flaw in the charter’s design or a conflict of personalities. Could you fix it with an election, or would you need to rewrite the charter?

It would be easy to blame Strimling. In only six months on the job, he has accomplished something that it took Michael Brennan three years to do – turning most of the City Council against him.

Early on, Strimling ruffled some feathers by moving the mayor’s office at city expense and advocating for staff support – which reminded everyone that he is the only elected official of the city with a full-time salary.

Then, when he delivered a speech about the budget at a council meeting, he suggested that the India Street proposal was the product of out-of-whack values.

That drew stinging rebukes from the manager and council members who supported the idea, and it fed the imaginations of conspiracy theorists in the public.

Strimling could just be learning the ropes, figuring out where his job ends and Jennings’ begins, but there may be a structural problem as well.

When they were rewriting the charter, the charter commission spent a lot of time setting the balance of power between an elected mayor and a city manager.

But I don’t remember anywhere near as much talk about the relationship of the mayor and the council.

The mayor has the authority to appoint councilors to committees, set the council agenda, provide guidance to the manager on the budget and chair the committee that evaluates the manager’s performance.

But otherwise, the only power the mayor has comes from the council, and since a stronger mayor means a weaker council, the council doesn’t have much incentive to fork any over.

In the last weeks of his campaign, Brennan argued that the councilors who opposed him and endorsed Strimling were also councilors who didn’t like the idea of an elected mayor. Now we are seeing some of the same councilors going after Strimling.

If the India Street experience is any indication, the councilors are getting their leadership from Jennings, not the elected mayor, and the policy agenda is being set in the manager’s office, not the mayor’s.

Confused? I don’t blame you.


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