It should not have come as a galloping shock to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Portland politics that incumbent Mayor Ethan Strimling lost his bid for re-election earlier this month. It’s easy to put the blame on Strimling for his loss, as his ideologically driven, confrontational style didn’t win him a lot of friends either inside or outside City Hall. While the voters of Portland were wise to get rid of Strimling, the problems in City Hall may well have just as much to do with the nature of the mayoral position itself as with who occupies the chair.

When the charter commission decided to implement a popularly elected mayor nearly 10 years ago, they didn’t grant the position any sweeping new powers. Essentially, they created a full-time position with full-time pay but didn’t give the mayor true full-time duties or much authority, other than the ability to veto the budget. Although Strimling was probably the wrong person to advocate for any changes to the city charter, he may have raised a good point that it’s time to consider revisiting the document.

For a slightly different model of council-manager government, Portland should take a look at other cities in Maine and their structure. In Waterville, for example, they’ve landed on a different balance of power: That city’s mayor remains a part-time position, but has more powers than Portland’s. He or she can veto not only the budget, but also most other items passed by the City Council, giving the mayor veto power similar to that of the governor or the president. The mayor of Waterville can also make a variety of appointments, though they can be rejected by the City Council. While Waterville has granted its mayor additional authority, the city still has a full-time professional city manager who oversees day-to-day operations, striking a nice balance between giving the mayor vast sweeping powers and leaving him or her a mere figurehead.

Portland could move to give its mayor more powers, just as Waterville has, while ensuring that the City Council retains a check on those powers. Although it may be counterintuitive, giving the mayor more powers may actually lead to more collaboration between the council and the mayor, since they’d have to work together to get things done. That would be especially true in a local setting, with nonpartisan elections and a small legislative body. It would codify somewhat the relationship between the council and the mayor, rather than simply depending on vague instructions.

Giving the elected mayor a few more powers would enable that person to better fulfill his or her twin duties of implementing a vision for the city and facilitating cooperation between the city manager and elected officials. It’s not enough to simply instruct an elected mayor to lay out a vision for the city; the charter ought to have given the mayor more tools in his toolbox to get that vision implemented. It’s all well and good to instruct the mayor to both have a vision for the city and facilitate cooperation, but there are times when those twin goals are going to come into conflict. If the people elect a mayor with a bold plan that isn’t shared by other municipal officials, then the mayor isn’t going to be able to get much done.

Conversely, if the people elect a mayor focused on facilitating cooperation, that’s not really a platform in and of itself, nor is it necessarily good for the city as a whole. While constant fighting at City Hall doesn’t get much done, neither does having a whole slate of elected officials who are focused on going along to get along. Cooperation and bipartisanship might sound good on paper, but they can just as easily lead to bad policies as good ones.

It would be nice to think that, with Ethan Strimling gone, everything will be rainbows and unicorns at City Hall – but history indicates otherwise. Indeed, when he was first elected four years ago, it was largely out of opposition to then-Mayor Michael Brennan; Strimling was supported by four sitting members of the City Council and this newspaper in the mistaken belief that he’d be able to bring people together.

Rather than being concerned about who occupies the mayor’s chair, it is time for the city of Portland to reconsider exactly what the role and powers of the mayor should be. A better balance of power between the mayor and the council could, indeed, lead to better outcomes for the city as a whole.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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