Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling launched a charm offensive during the inauguration ceremony Monday that ushered in two newcomers to the City Council and ushered out two of his strongest critics.

Strimling offered an olive branch – both literally and figuratively – to councilors who have grown frustrated with his leadership only one year into his four-year term.

Each councilor had an olive branch waiting for him or her on the dais. Later, Strimling delivered a speech complimenting the breadth of knowledge and experience of the council, before directly addressing the tension that boiled over during the end of the last council meeting.

Strimling said tensions at City Hall are partly attributable to genuine policy disagreements, personalities and the city charter, which keeps day-to-day operations in the hands of the city manager. He noted that since city voters created the new full-time mayor’s position in 2011, there have been two mayors, four city managers and 16 different councilors.

“This is the year I hope we can figure it out,” he said. “Together, let us work to fulfill the new charter and realize this more democratic form of government that the people demanded.”

Councilor Justin Costa said after the inauguration that he hopes Strimling is serious about working with the council on issues facing the city. But he also cautioned that it would take more than one speech to win back the trust of the council.

That trust was compromised when Strimling blasted City Manager Jon Jennings’ budget proposal to transition some health care services from a city-run clinic to a nonprofit clinic. Later, Strimling tried to sink two negotiated agreements – a tax break for a local business and a land sale – just before they were approved by the council.

“The substance of his comments were fine, but I think this is really about trust, and trust is only built on action and repeated action,” Costa said. “It’s going to take some period for us to rebuild that, and I look forward to trying to do that.”

Councilor Belinda Ray, who has clashed publicly with Strimling, said the olive branch and the remarks were a “nice gesture.” She and other councilors noted that her olive branch seemed to be the largest.

“I’m hoping for a good year with good dialogue and a lot of collaboration among the whole council,” Ray said.

Strimling’s remarks came shortly after Pious Ali and Brian Batson were sworn in as the city’s newest councilors. Both were greeted with large cheers and a standing ovation, but most of the cameras were focused on Ali, who in 2013 became the first Muslim to hold elected office in Maine when he won a seat on Portland’s school board. On Monday, he became Portland’s first Muslim city councilor.

Ali, a Ghana native who became a U.S. citizen about a decade ago, replaced Jon Hinck as an at-large councilor, while Batson replaced Edward Suslovic as the District 3 representative. Ali, 47, earned about 63 percent of the vote last month in a three-way race, while Batson, 25, earned 53 percent of the vote to edge out Suslovic by about 350 votes.

Strimling celebrated the diversity of the council, saying it was “probably the most diverse council in Portland history – maybe Maine history – from color to ethnicity to religion to class. The nine-member council has three persons of color, one Muslim, two Jews, a Greek, seven men and two women and ages that range from 25 to 65. “Other than gender balance, we currently reflect the city population in a way we never have before, and that is something to celebrate,” he said.

Outgoing councilors Suslovic and Hinck were also honored by the mayor, city staff and their fellow councilors. Both were commended for being fearless when standing up for what they thought was right – regardless of whether it was popular.

Speaking on behalf of the council, Costa described Suslovic as a “full-time councilor” who tirelessly represented the city on regional boards and commissions.

“For those of us who do this work and appreciate the complexity of it and the time and effort it takes, there are few among of us who can say they have given more of ourselves than you,” he said.

Hinck was praised for his commitment to the environment, especially his shepherding a proposal to install a solar farm on an old landfill on Ocean Avenue through council approval. “That solar farm on the landfill on Ocean Avenue is a true testament to your courage and patience,” Jennings said. “You have truly been a shining light for all of us.”

Also Monday, City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones was appointed mayor pro tem, meaning that he will fill in whenever Strimling is unavailable.

The council also tweaked some rules. It will begin its regular business meetings at 5:30 p.m., rather than 5 p.m., and take public comment on all non-agenda items at 6 p.m., rather than 7 p.m.

The council adopted a rule that expressly prohibits the use of signs in council chambers. Although councilors routinely ask attendees not to display signs, the council codified that practice into its rules in order to maintain a welcoming atmosphere, where everyone can feel comfortable expressing opinions.

Striming also made his annual appointments to council committees. The most significant change is reducing the Housing Committee from five members to three members, putting it in line with other committees.

Last year, Strimling appointed five councilors as members to tackle what he described as a “housing crisis.” The committee was stacked with a majority of the nine-member council to highlight the importance of the work and to increase the chances that its recommendations would pass the full council.

Although the committee was tasked with looking at zoning to encourage more housing construction and building new housing for the city’s homeless population, housing insecurity quickly rose to the top of its agenda.

Strimling called on the committee to enact strong tenant protections, including requiring landlords to accept housing vouchers, which is currently voluntary. Instead, the committee and ultimately the council passed modest measures aimed primarily at educating tenants and landlords, while also increasing the notice the landlord must provide when increasing the rent from 45 to 75 days.

 


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