The Portland City Council has reached an impasse over Mayor Ethan Strimling’s plan to appoint himself as head of the city’s budget committee, and the stalemate could delay work on a variety of pending decisions and initiatives.

The council took up Strimling’s slate of committee appointments early Tuesday, at the very end of a marathon meeting. They overrode his list with no discussion and adjourned the meeting in a matter of minutes. The vote was 8-1 to override, with Strimling on his own in opposition.

“Remarkable that we are unwilling to debate,” the mayor said angrily before the vote.

What might have been a routine process has rekindled a tense debate about how to interpret the mayor’s role under the city charter. The mayor and the councilors dug in their heels after the vote, giving no indications Tuesday of a willingness to compromise. So the committees will remain vacant for the foreseeable future, which could impede the city’s ability to craft policies, review budgets and draft contracts. Ongoing initiatives in committee include a proposal for paid sick time, planning for a new homeless shelter and civil service reform.

“There’s a lot of work we have not completed,” City Councilor Belinda Ray, who led the Health and Human Services Committee last year, said. “If I knew I were going to be chair again, I could be plotting out that work plan. Right now, it will be delayed.”

Strimling accused the councilors of causing a “shutdown” and said he would not put forth another list of assignments.

“We have a lot of work to do, and the council obstructing that work is very disappointing,” Strimling said.

Committee appointments are traditionally made by the mayor in the beginning of December, but Strimling delayed the presentation as councilors resisted his plan to appoint himself head of the powerful Finance Committee.

Nothing in the charter prevents a mayor from appointing himself or herself as the head of a committee. In fact, former Mayor Michael Brennan headed the council’s legislative committee, which works with the city’s legislative delegation in Augusta.

But this would be the first time a mayor has used that authority to take over leadership of the Finance Committee, which oversees more than $345 million in annual spending.

Strimling said he wanted to create a process that would give the popularly elected mayor more influence over the budget process. He proposed the idea to councilors in recent weeks, talking with each one individually about his reasoning.

“The charter says over and over again that the mayor is supposed to be intimately involved in the budget process,” Strimling said. “It talks specifically about providing guidance in the passage and promotion of the budget. This ensures that I’m able to provide that input in a structured way that’s both transparent and substantive.”

But some councilors said it would concentrate too much power in the hands of the mayor. He is tasked with helping the city manager draft the initial budget and delivering a budget message to the council, and he has the authority to veto any budget passed by the council.

“He’s got a very clear role at the beginning and a very clear role at the end,” City Councilor Jill Duson said. “Chairing the finance committee means the mayor controls the budget. I thought that inappropriately shifted power and influence from the City Council itself. There are eight other councilors.”

Multiple councilors said they were worried Strimling’s position on the finance committee would reignite old fights. Strimling appeared to have begun mending his relationships with City Manager Jon Jennings and the eight other councilors. Tensions among the group had boiled over into public view over the summer, but since have settled down.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who has chaired the finance committee in recent years, said he initially told Strimling that he would not oppose his proposal if it was supported by other councilors. When he heard the concerns of his fellow councilors, he backed away from Strimling’s plan. “I told him I didn’t think we wanted to start out a new council year with a big fight over committee assignments, and unfortunately, that’s where we ended up,” Mavodones said.

Strimling talked with each councilor individually about his desire to chair the finance committee, and Duson said she was surprised he pressed forward with the plan even after hearing their concerns.

“That was a surprise to at least a couple of us who thought there was a possibility of moving forward, passing out some more olive branches,” Duson said. “So I continue to be surprised by my mayor’s decisions, I’m sorry to say.”

Strimling wrote two slates of committee assignments for Monday’s meeting.

In the first, he listed himself as the head of the finance committee and preserved many existing appointments. For example, Ray would continue to head the Health and Human Services Committee, and Duson would lead the Housing Committee as she did last year.

In the second, he made himself a member of the finance committee, but not its chairperson. He also shuffled the assignments for other committees, removing Ray and Duson from their current leadership roles.

“The second slate he put forward was clearly punitive or supposed to deter us from overriding the first one,” Ray said. “I wish there could be more seriousness in putting these together.”

Strimling denied trying to retaliate against councilors with his backup list. When the council voted to override his first list, he did not bring the second one up for a vote. He said later it was clear the council would defeat that one too.

“In the second list, I’m putting together who I think is best for the city going forward,” Strimling said.

He said he tried to give the councilors multiple options as a compromise.

“I’ve pulled together two compromises,” he said. “They have chosen no committees.”

But councilors called on Strimling to put forth a new slate, saying their override sent a clear message about the two options on the table.

“I’ve been on the other end of an 8-1 vote,” City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said. “You take the loss, and you move on.”

Jennings, the city manager, declined to take a position on the mayor’s desire to be the head of the finance committee, and he said day-to-day operations at City Hall would continue as normal. Strimling and councilors are seeking advice from staff about what to do if the committees remain vacant.

It is unclear if the existing committees could continue working, or if all work would need to come to the council as a whole.

“At some point, it’s time for them to realize they have to compromise,” Strimling said. “This is extremely petty.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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