Flanked by members of the Portland City Council, Mayor Kate Snyder speaks at a news conference Saturday afternoon outside City Hall. Rob Wolfe/Staff Writer

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and members of the City Council on Saturday defended City Manager Jon Jennings amid demands from protesters that he resign over his handling of racial and economic equality.

The city’s leaders also announced several meetings through the month of June at which they plan to discuss policy changes – including to the city budget and police policy – in response to the protests.

The death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police, has sparked large demonstrations across the country. On Friday, Portland saw its largest – and, at eight hours, longest – protest yet.

Some organizers on Friday called for Jennings to resign, saying he had supported policies that disadvantaged people of color, and had backed a “law enforcement approach to poverty, homelessness, and mental and behavioral health struggles.” A flier distributed around town and online listed several such grievances against Jennings, who has served since 2015.

Snyder and council members defended Jennings at a news conference outside City Hall on Saturday afternoon, arguing that the manager has proved his competence and commitment to racial and economic justice. The council sets city policy and the manager carries it out, so any responsibility for unpopular policy lies with council members, not Jennings, they said.

“We are outraged at the fact of yet another unarmed black man” dying at the hands of police, said Snyder, who called for “accountability and justice.”

Snyder, who was elected in November, said she has been grateful for Jennings’ “constant, all day, every day” assistance. “The city manager has my full support.”

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jennings did not respond to a request for an interview on Saturday, and was not present at the news conference. Snyder said the council hadn’t brought him along because it wanted to take responsibility for its policy-setting role, and refocus the conversation on how the council can better serve constituents concerned about racial justice.

Police on Saturday didn’t offer a precise estimate of the size of Friday night’s protest, but said there were “thousands” of attendees.

From 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., a long column of demonstrators in black clothing marched the streets of Portland, chanting slogans and stopping to kneel or lie prone for “die-ins.” The protest was scheduled to last eight hours, to coincide with the eight minutes that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd before he died.

The demonstration was peaceful and meticulously organized, with armband-wearing organizers passing out face masks and water, and helping to direct traffic.

Only three arrests took place, all late at night, Portland police said in a news release Saturday. Just after 1 a.m., an adult and two minors were caught tagging a building on Market Street with graffiti. The release did not name the people involved, who police said were charged with criminal mischief. The children, who are from Yarmouth, were turned over to their parents.

On Saturday, council members, five of whom identify as people of color, took turns at a podium outside City Hall, expressing sympathy for the protests and promising change.

“Everyone who looks like me … is hurting,” Councilor Pious Ali said. “We want change. We want our people to stop being killed.”

On Tuesday, the council’s Health and Human Services Committee will begin a review of Portland Police Department policies, including those that govern use of force, body cameras, crisis intervention and de-escalation, and implicit bias. The remote meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m., and councilors encouraged the public to participate online.

On Wednesday, the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee will meet at 6 p.m. to hear public comments about Portland police and responses to the protests, and discuss its role.

Later in June, the council’s Finance Committee and the full council will hold discussions on the next city budget – including the police department’s piece. And on June 22 at 5:30 p.m., the police department’s handling of the protests will be discussed.

But the council members on Saturday repeatedly made clear that any potential reforms won’t include the removal of Jennings. Instead, they sought to engage constituents, encouraging people to approach them with ideas – and to hold them accountable at the ballot box if their work doesn’t serve the city well enough.

“I don’t see myself as serving on a body where our employee tells us what to do or what to think. I vote on all those decisions,” Councilor Jill Duson, a veteran in the Maine civil rights community, said Saturday.

Jennings’ powers as city manager and his relationship with other city leaders have spurred public debate before. As recently as the last mayoral election, in fall 2019, Jennings hinted that he would rather not see then-Mayor Ethan Strimling re-elected.

The two had clashed over differences in policy, as well as Jennings’ tight control over city staff. Strimling, at the time, complained that he couldn’t get information from staffers directly, because Jennings required that all requests for information go through his office first.

Snyder, then an educational nonprofit director and a former chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education, ran in part on a promise of smoother relations between the mayor and other decision-makers in City Hall.

Tae Chong, a councilor elected for the first time in November, noted on Saturday that he had made supporting immigrants, people of color and the economically disadvantaged his “life’s work.” Prior to joining the council, Chong was a founding member of Friends of Portland Adult Education, a board member of a local NAACP chapter, and was known for helping immigrants and people on low incomes find jobs and start businesses.

Chong said the suggestion that “a systemic problem” is one person’s fault – the city manager’s – “just didn’t make sense” to him.

But he added, referencing his own fight for racial and economic justice, “This is a reminder that the work needs to continue.”

Note: This story was updated Monday, June 8, to clarify that the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee will listen to public comments about the department and protest response. It does not have oversight of policy responses, according to the city.

 

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