Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is continuing his push to lead the council’s budget-writing committee despite unanimous opposition from city councilors.

But he also is signaling that he may be willing to compromise to break an impasse on committee assignments if other councilors would accept reassignment from some of their preferred committee slots.

Strimling issued a news release Wednesday afternoon offering councilors two new slates of committee appointments to consider at their Jan. 3 meeting. His first option would have him chair the Finance Committee – which councilors quickly shot down last week. He also would appoint himself to committees overseeing economic development and health, human services and public safety.

Councilors have said giving Strimling leadership of the Finance Committee amounts to a power grab, but he has argued that he was elected to play a greater role in the city’s direction. The impasse has left the council without the committees that typically set policy and shape new initiatives.

“It’s important for the Mayor to be involved in policy development from the first day, and I have heard from my colleagues that they want me to collaborate more closely with them,” Strimling said in his written statement. “Working day in day out on the nuts and bolts of policies can only serve to facilitate that collaboration. My participation as chair of one committee, and a member of two others, will make for more understanding and richer collaboration on behalf of the people of Portland.”

Strimling said his new appointment proposals reflect the diversity of the city, ensuring each committees has at least one woman, and that five of the six would have a person of color. He also noted that veteran councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson, typically more cautious than the mayor, would also be on the Finance Committee to “provide balance.”

It’s not clear whether the latest proposal will sway enough councilors to win approval. Several city councilors said Wednesday they were not aware of the mayor’s new committee assignments until they were contacted by a reporter. The new assignments also come a week after Strimling used a weekly radio appearance to accuse councilors of displaying “ultimate arrogance” in not debating the assignments in the early morning hours of a lengthy meeting last week.

“It’s pretty surprising,” said Councilor Jill Duson, who had not yet seen the new committee slates. “I’m mostly flummoxed by the notion that I should hear about council appointments from (a news reporter). … After over a year, the mayor continues to try to lead the council through the media rather than through actually engaging with the council.”

Strimling said that he reached out to Duson last week to discuss committee assignments, but she declined, opting instead to discuss them in a public session of the council.

He said in an interview that he is making himself available to individual councilors next week prior to Wednesday’s vote.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones was not informed of the new slates, either. He said that if the council fails to approve committees Wednesday, he will ask the city attorney to find another way to conduct city business.

“Committee positions shouldn’t be brinkmanship – it shouldn’t be using people as pawns to get it through,” Mavodones said. “It’s never been this way before. If this is the way it’s going to be, we need look at an alternative structure. There’s nothing that says we need to have committees or committee recommendations.”

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was also surprised given he has a meeting scheduled next week with the mayor to discuss committee appointments.

Thibodeau, a critic of the mayor, was also skeptical of Strimling’s second slate, which would make the mayor a Finance Committee member, but not the chair. It would also remove City Councilor Belinda Ray, also a vocal critic, from her position as chair of the health committee and remove Thibodeau from the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, which he wanted to continue leading next year. The second slate also leaves Duson off the Finance Committee.

“It doesn’t strike me as a serious slate,” Thibodeau said after quickly reviewing the city’s news release.

Strimling said he looks forward to explaining his rationale to Thibodeau and other councilors.

Councilors Brian Batson, Kimberly Cook, Justin Costa and Ray did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Councilor Pious Ali said in an email that “I am glad that the Mayor has listened to our (councilors) concerns and is forwarding a second set of slates which I may consider supporting so that we can start working on the many critical issues facing Portland.” He continues to oppose Strimling as finance chair, however.

The battle over committee assignments has renewed tensions in City Hall, just as things seemed to be getting back on track.

Strimling has spent much of his two years in office locked in battles with councilors and city administrators about the scope of power of his position, which was designed to have no executive authority over city operations.

Instead, the mayor’s four-year term and full-time position, which currently pays $71,000, are designed to allow better collaboration with the council and to have the mayor work with the city manager to ensure the council’s goals are executed, while also allowing the mayor to advocate for the city at the state and federal level.

Things quieted down over the summer, after a long, combative meeting where councilors, City Manager Jon Jennings and Strimling aired their grievances. Jennings and Strimling agreed to resume regular meetings, which both men said had improved their relationship. Several councilors were cautiously optimistic.

Then this month, Strimling moved to appoint himself chairman of the Finance Committee so he could have more influence over the budget, which has been the source of much tension at City Hall.

Strimling reached out to each councilor to explain his decision. Councilors told him privately they would not support his proposal, but he moved forward anyway.

The City Charter empowers the mayor to appoint councilors to committees and nothing expressly prevents the mayor from appointing him or herself to a committee or chairing that committee. However, those committee appointments can be overridden by six councilors.

That’s exactly what happened last week. Councilors resoundingly rejected Strimling’s proposal by an 8-1 vote on Dec. 19, primarily because it would give him too much control over the city’s budget. Strimling was the only one to support his proposal.

The council did not debate the measure before taking the vote at around 12:30 a.m. But they previously argued that the City Charter clearly spells out the mayor’s role in the budget process, by requiring him to work with the city manager to implement the council’s budget goals, offer input when the manager’s budget is presented to the council and authorizing him to veto any budget passed by the council.

During a his weekly appearance on WLOB on Dec. 20, Strimling railed against the council for “throwing their constituents under the bus” and having “obstructed and blocked our city government from being able to do the work the people have asked us to do.”

Strimling said the lack of committees would “stop government,” but Jennings said Wednesday that government operations would continue as normal.

“The residents, businesses and visitors to the City of Portland should be assured that all daily functions of city government continue to operate without interruption,” Jennings said. “We are within the FY 18 budget so there is no budgetary impact on daily city services. We will continue to do the jobs, without any delay, the people of Portland expect from us.”

The impasse, however, could slow work on other policies, such as Striming’s paid sick leave proposal and planning for a new homeless shelter, because that work would have to be done by the full council.

On the radio, Strimling said councilors said the councilors behaved like children.

“The worst part of the arrogance on Monday night … They refused to even debate the issue,” Strimling said.

Strimling accused the council of executing a “power grab” and attacked them for not being liberal enough – a criticism advanced by political operative Steven Biel and his group, Progressive Portland. Strimling called out West End Councilor Spencer Thibodeau by name for his support of a tax break for the biotechnology firm, Immucell.

Thibodeau is up for re-election in 2018.

“There’s been some remarkable steps some councilors have taken that would show you they aren’t actually as progressive as they may seem,” Strimling said.

Thibodeau said he was surprised by the attacks. Duson and Mavodones said after learning what the mayor had said that they were disappointed.

“That says a lot about him and the way he works and his relationship with his colleagues,” Mavodones said. “Saying those types of things about your colleagues certainly isn’t the kind of way I would gain trust and collaborate with anyone.”

“Fortunately for him and perhaps unfortunately for the other eight members of the council, we try to behave like intelligent grownups whose interest is serving the people of the city,” Duson said. “I won’t allow myself to be dragged into a name-calling temper-tantrum.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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