Portland City Manager Jon Jennings on Friday talked about his “strained relationship” with the city’s popularly elected mayor and called on business leaders to take a more active role in policymaking, rather than relying on business trade groups to speak on their behalf.

“A small group of very vocal people can drive an issue and it’s not always in the best interest of the city,” Jennings said. “Please, please get engaged with the things that are happening in the city. We need to make sure we are moving the city in the right direction.”

Jennings spoke during the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “Eggs & Issues” event at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, where he touched on a wide range of issues, including his relationship with Mayor Ethan Strimling and his concerns about borrowing $70 million to renovate four elementary schools.

Jennings also said that he will ask the City Council to hire an additional full-time planner to rewrite the city’s zoning code as a way to “lower the temperature” when it comes to real estate development.

Chamber board President Quincy Hentzel began the one-on-one interview by asking Jennings about his relationship with Strimling, who was not at the event.

The City Charter calls for the manager and mayor to work closely together, keeping day-to-day operations under the purview of the manager and having the mayor help to implement the council’s goals. That arrangement has caused friction for Strimling, as it did for his predecessor, Michael Brennan.

Hentzel said the chamber advocated for the elected mayor position, which was enacted in 2010, partly because of the botched effort to redevelop the Maine State Pier. “The chamber saw the effects of a leaderless council,” she said.

Jennings, however, said he believes the previous form of government, in which the council selected a ceremonial, part-time mayor annually, “worked well.”

Hentzel asked Jennings to respond to statements Strimling made during his first run for mayor, in 2011, when he campaigned on the idea that the mayor should be chief executive officer of the city and the manager should be the chief operating officer.

Jennings said he and numerous legal opinions disagree with that interpretation, saying the mayor is essentially a chairman of the board.

“I begged (the City Council) not to hire me if they didn’t want a strong city manager focused on core services of city government,” said Jennings, who became city manager in July 2015. He added that he accepts the limitations of his position. “The mayor also has to understand that, and that’s the heart of the issue.”

When asked whether news reports about his tensions with the mayor were accurate, Jennings said it was “very accurately portrayed in the Press Herald.”

“Of course our relationship is strained,” he said. “Anyone who knows me (knows that) I’m extremely honest and direct. I’m not one of those people who sticks their finger in the wind to figure out which way the wind blows.”

Jennings said while he and the mayor may not get along, it’s important they work in the best interests of the city.

SCHOOL BOND

Jennings expressed concern about borrowing $70 million to renovate four elementary schools in the city, noting that the top complaint he receives from residents is about property taxes. He believes the city should borrow a smaller amount of money to renovate fewer schools, which would preserve the opportunity to receive state funding for other schools.

He noted that the city has a long list of capital needs, including 22 “failing” roads that need to be reconstructed and nearly $18 million in updates to the city vehicle fleet, which currently includes plow trucks without heat.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would tell the state we are not interested in their money and taking it all on ourself,” Jennings said of the school bond.

An ad hoc committee of councilors and school board members will hold a public hearing on a $60 million to $70 million bond to renovate the schools on Jan. 19.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said in an interview Wednesday that he will propose a $35 million bond to fix two schools, in order to preserve the chance for state funding in a few years.

’21ST CENTURY CITY’

Jennings also touched on ways he was looking to make Portland a “21st Century city in terms of technology and innovation.” He pointed to an effort to update city technology to allow residents to access more services online, including applying for and receiving building permits, without coming into City Hall.

The city is also looking at ways to install fiber-optic broadband internet throughout the city, as well as adding public Wi-Fi throughout the city by installing routers on streetlight poles.

RAPID DEVELOPMENT

Jennings also discussed the city’s rapid development.

He announced that he would ask the council to hire a full-time planner to rewrite Chapter 14 of the city code, which deals with zoning. He said the existing code, which has 1,000 pages, often conflicts with itself and “creates a lot of anxiety” around development.

He also noted the importance of rezoning the land along the western waterfront to allow for a 70-foot cold storage facility to be built there. The proposal has generated opposition from West End residents, who are concerned about losing their water views.

Jennings described the proposal as a “generational issue,” much like the failed attempt to redevelop the Maine State Pier and the missed opportunity to build a convention center in downtown Portland.

“This cold storage facility is one of those issues,” he said. “We’ve got to make this happen for the future of the city.”