By now, most Portlanders have grown tired of hearing about Portland’s leaders not getting along in City Hall. Some want to blame all the strife on the recently adopted city charter (2010), which allows Portland voters to directly elect their mayor for a four-year term.

But don’t blame the charter. Our city charter cannot make people get along or agree any more than the Maine or U.S. constitutions can make state or federal legislators get along.

Functional government in a democracy, of any form, requires that individuals trust each other and collaborate. Charters and constitutions create an outline of responsibilities and duties, but they succeed only when people do their job. No form of government can succeed when people turn cooperation into conflict.

Portland is no different. Like most cities in America, Portland has a “council-manager” form of government where “policy” authority is vested in a City Council, and “management” authority is vested in a professional city manager. If those two entities don’t get along, Portland struggles.

In 2010, Portlanders voted to change our city charter (our city “constitution”) to improve the accountability of our City Council, and to increase the council’s ability to make and set policy for the long term. After several failed development projects in the city (like the Maine State Pier project), Portlanders wanted more leadership from the city, and more direction.

The answer was to do what most cities like Portland have done: allow voters to directly elect their mayor for a term of years, and give the mayor new tools to help lead the City Council. The new charter also retained the authority of the city manager to implement – but not set – the policies adopted by the council.


Some people have asked, “But why have a mayor and a city manager? Isn’t that redundant?”

Very simply, no. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all “council-manager” cities have an elected mayor and a city manager, including Kansas City, Missouri; San Jose and Long Beach, California; San Antonio and Austin, Texas; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Moreover, even cities with an “executive” mayor (think Boston or Chicago) have a position called “chief of staff” who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of government.

OK, others challenge, but what can our mayor really do? Isn’t the position just ceremonial? Still no. Unlike city managers, who are not elected, a mayor has the authority to speak for the city, and a directly elected mayor means Portland voters have a say in their mayor, which had not been the case for over 86 years. We wouldn’t want to take away this right.

Moreover, unlike our old system of rotating part-time mayors, our current mayor position gives our mayor enough time to work closely with constituencies inside and outside the city. This increases the city’s opportunity to obtain grant funds, succeed in Augusta and Washington, and develop policies that promote sustainable growth and prosperity. Even a few wins, which Portland mayors have accomplished, have more than paid for the cost of our elected mayor.

However, despite these new mayoral responsibilities, setting policy in Portland still requires a five-vote majority on the City Council, not the single vote of a mayor. This means that for Portland’s mayor to succeed, the mayor must work collaboratively with other councilors and city staff, and be a “facilitator” – which is a word that appears multiple times in the city charter regarding the mayor position. In this respect, our mayor’s new powers are designed to help the mayor develop a working majority on the council, but the powers do not ensure such a majority. That is something the mayor must earn through trust and collaboration – exactly what most of us want from our government.

The good news is that, despite the turmoil in City Hall, Portland is succeeding as a city. Our population is growing, our tax base is growing and unemployment is low. But we can always improve, and there are several important policies – from schools, to housing, to jobs – that need to happen in order for our city to keep moving forward.

If we want these policies to happen, our city leaders need to stop scouring the charter to figure out how much power they have to “force” their colleagues to listen, and instead spend their time developing reasons for their colleagues to want to listen – because they like what they hear. Don’t get us wrong: Many of our leaders are working hard to collaborate, and we applaud that. But no city charter can force everyone to cooperate. Rather, it is our leaders who must exercise the choice to cooperate.

So please, in the best interest of Portland, we ask all of our city leaders to put aside their differences and work together. It’s time.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.