Monday may mark the culmination of a long battle between Portland’s elected mayor, Ethan Strimling, and the city’s highest-level employee, City Manager Jon Jennings.

The two have been sparring for more than a year, arguing over the limits of their job titles and duties. Jennings says Strimling has been stepping on toes in City Hall by communicating with employees, including to help him research and draft policy proposals. He says Strimling’s job is more limited than the mayor thinks. Jennings also has called Strimling a liar and says he is politicizing City Hall and antagonizing workers.

But Strimling says Jennings’ opposition is rooted in ideology, arguing that the city manager doesn’t support the progressive agenda that got Strimling elected in 2015. He says Jennings and the City Council have deprived him of the resources he needs to bring about policy changes and undermined his ability to do the job of full-time mayor that Portland voters created in a 2010 charter change referendum.

The feud has largely been conducted long-distance, with Jennings and Strimling trading accusations in news columns and on radio talk shows and rarely meeting face-to-face. But Monday they will square off at City Hall during a council workshop that may have the atmosphere of a heavyweight prizefight.

Strimling wants the council – which has largely backed Jennings in the past – to side with him and tell the city manager to provide more help to the mayor. Jennings hopes Strimling is given the message that the mayor is essentially just one of nine councilors, although the city charter gives him a few duties and powers beyond the eight part-time councilors.

RISING TENSIONS IN RECENT MONTHS

The tensions reached a new level in May, when the council voted to eliminate the job of special assistant to the mayor. Several councilors argued that the position strained their relationship with the mayor. After it was eliminated, Strimling sought more access to City Hall workers to help with policy drafts and research.

Jennings, however, has insisted that requests for using staff time go through him. Strimling has argued that his requests are often ignored.

Jon Jennings, 2015 Staff photo by Derek Davis

The bitter fighting boiled over this summer as each aired grievances even after the council set a date for having Strimling and Jennings try to work out their differences at a public meeting.

Jennings largely held back in his last radio appearance before Monday’s meeting, although he did correct one of the hosts on the WGAN radio show Friday morning who said Jennings had recently suggested that Strimling was a liar. It was no suggestion, Jennings said.

“I actually did call him that,” Jennings said. He went on to say that Strimling’s “personal attacks” on him were “a little strange,” and suggestions that their differences were largely ideological were “mind-boggling.”

“I’ll have an opportunity on Monday to set the record straight in a public forum,” Jennings said.

Councilors contacted Friday said they were still working out the details of Monday’s session, which is officially billed as a public workshop to “discuss the assignment and duties of the city’s Executive Department.”

The council originally said the discussion would be held in executive session, citing a provision in Maine’s open-meetings law allowing non-public meetings to discuss personnel issues when an employee’s reputation may be harmed. An attorney for the Portland Press Herald objected, saying the agenda did not meet the legal standard for a private session. Jennings has waived that right, councilors said, although the official agenda says the council could enter a closed session to receive legal advice.

QUESTIONS ON WHO RUNS MEETING

The council has not decided who will run the meeting, which is a workshop and will not be televised. The mayor would normally run a workshop, but several councilors said Friday that may not be appropriate in a meeting where the focus will be on a dispute between Strimling and the city manager.

Ethan Strimling Staff photo by Derek Davis

“I’m not sure that makes sense,” said Councilor Justin Costa, when asked if Strimling would run the meeting. “Frankly, it’s an awkward situation.”

Other councilors suggested that Costa could chair the session because he runs the committee that evaluates the jobs of the city’s three employees, including Jennings, who report directly to the council.

Costa said the council will discuss that at the outset Monday. Strimling, however, said no one has told him they think he shouldn’t run the meeting and he has no intention of turning the gavel over to someone else.

“As the charter says, I run the council and I plan to run the meeting Monday,” he said.

This won’t be the first time the council, mayor and manager have wrestled with the scope of the mayor’s job. The council has gotten two legal opinions on the mayor’s role, both confirming the mayor has no executive authority. The council largely ignored Strimling’s call in May to set up a task force to help define the role.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said the tussle among the mayor, city manager and council is overshadowing issues the council should be dealing with, and dominates and diminishes the public’s perception of city government.

“When there’s dysfunction, that’s all people see,” he said. “There are seven or eight of us who work really well together, and when he (Strimling) started we worked really well together.”

Thibodeau said that in the end, the mayor has one vote, the same as the other eight councilors. But when Strimling got an assistant and pushed what Thibodeau saw as the limits of the mayor’s job, he became isolated from the councilors.

“That put him on an island by himself,” Thibodeau said.

FINDING WAY TO WORK TOGETHER

Costa, too, said he thinks Strimling is stepping on other councilors’ toes in demanding more time from City Hall employees. “No individual has the right to commandeer the use of the staff,” he said.

Councilor Nicholas Mavadones said routing requests for information through the committees that vet policies is the most efficient way to use staff time.

“What’s important to me is that each councilor, including the mayor, gets the same level of service from the employees who work for us,” Mavadones said.

Strimling said he remains hopeful that Monday’s meeting will resolve the issues, as deep and as personal as they seem to be.

“The goal is to find a way for the city manager and I to work together,” Strimling said. “He is the city administrator and I am the mayor and the two of us need to work hand-in-hand.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at:

[email protected]