Nearly a century ago, dissatisfaction with city services and a heated political environment stoked by fears of immigrants prompted Portland residents to dramatically restructure its government.

After a tense election that included a successful campaign by the Ku Klux Klan and an egg-hurling mob at one voting ward, the strong elected mayor who ran the city was out, replaced by a professional city manager hired and overseen by the council.

Now, Portland finds itself in another era of dissatisfaction and political tension, this time fueled by the impacts of the pandemic and anger about racial inequity. And a soon-to-be-chosen charter commission could recommend broad changes to the structure of Portland government. Some already are pushing for a partial return to the structure discarded a century ago.

City residents will head to the polls in June to elect nine of the 12 members of the charter commission, which will have broad authority to review and recommend changes to the basic governmental structure in Maine’s largest city.

Creation of the commission was proposed by the City Council in the fall of 2019 in response to a citizen petition calling for a clean elections program, which would limit the influence of campaign donors by providing public funds for city and school candidates. Since then, however, impacts of the pandemic and the racial justice movement have shifted Portland’s political landscape.

Residents expressed a desire for change by voting overwhelming last July to form the charter commission. And in November, they approved five citizen referendums, ranging from the minimum wage to rent control to building codes for new developments, despite opposition from the City Council.

The commission and charter review process is being eyed by both supporters and opponents of the city manager form of government, and it presents an opportunity for people calling for an end to systemic racism to examine the underpinnings of Portland’s government and correct any mechanisms contributing to inequality.

“The structure of local government is probably one of the biggest contributors to institutional or structural racism,” said Carrie LeVan, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who teaches about race and politics. “So changing the structure of government can actually have a pretty profound effect on improving racial equality.”

It’s not clear how the energy and passions from last summer’s demonstrations in response to police violence against Black men and women might play out during the long, tedious process of a charter review, or which areas of city government will be identified for change.

The elected members of the charter commission can make any recommendations they choose, although city voters get the final say on whether to enact them.

Nomination papers are available for aspiring candidates for five district and four at-large seats on the commission. They will serve alongside three members appointed by the City Council.

As of Friday, 18 people had taken out nomination papers for those nine seats. Candidates have until March 29 to secure the requisite number of signatures to place their names on the June ballot.

A STRONG MAYOR AGAIN?

While the charter commission is being viewed as an opportunity to make systemic changes in the city, the primary debate will likely center on whether the city should once again have a strong elected mayor, with executive control over the city. Both racial justice advocates and progressive activists are calling for a strong mayor.

The last charter commission, established in 2008, created the current post of a hybrid mayor – someone who is elected every four years and works full time but does not have any staff or control over the daily operations of the city. Those powers are reserved for the professional manager, who is hired and overseen by the City Council.

While its supporters see the city manager post as a way to ensure professionalism and consistency in City Hall, activists have taken aim at the city manager in recent years, saying the position lacks the kind of direct accountability to voters that a strong mayor system has.

People First Portland, the campaign arm of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, and Black POWER, a local group of racial justice advocates, have highlighted the link between the manager form of government and the Ku Klux Klan, which supported the elimination of the mayor position during the charter reforms of 1923. Each group has members who have taken out nominations papers to serve as commissioners.

People First Portland launched its charter campaign shortly after the group stunned the city establishment by successfully petitioning and campaigning for four out of five referendum questions in November. Voters’ heightened sense of economic insecurity because of the pandemic was seen as a key motivator in November.

The group has since launched an online forum where people discuss potential charter changes. Issues being discussed include eliminating the city manager position and replacing it with a stronger council and mayor; implementing clean elections; electing the city attorney and creating a public advocate office; creating a “safe” or sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants and expanding voting rights; shifting funds from police to public services; and establishing a municipally owned broadband and electric utility.

Meanwhile, the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce is encouraging its members to run, but has not issued any priorities for the charter review.

“We support good government and civil discourse and hope to engage our members and the public to identify issues that should be addressed or that would benefit from clarification,” chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel said. “Our hope for the upcoming charter commission is that it is comprised of individuals who understand city government and who will approach the job thoughtfully and with an open mind.”

EVOLUTION OF THE CHARTER

The city charter establishes the structure of city government, including how the city leaders are elected, their terms and the election date. It lays out the number of city councilors and school board members and details such as residency qualifications, the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot, and the length of terms for councilors and school board members (three years) and the mayor (four years). It limits a mayor to two consecutive terms, but doesn’t limit service for other offices.

The city last established a charter commission in 2008. After two years of study, the group recommended what became the current system of government. Portland kept the city manager as the top executive, but elevated the ceremonial mayor post to an elected full-time job with a four-year term.

Those changes enacted by voters in 2010 were the most significant since 1923, when voters moved away from an executive mayor and adopted the city manager-council form of government.

Prior to the 1923 changes, Portland’s government was set up more like state government with an elected mayor, nine aldermen and a 27-member common council. Like the governor, the mayor was the chief executive and was responsible for appointing the police, fire and public works commissioners. One alderman and three councilors were elected from each ward. And the school committee was empowered to pass its own budget, without approval from the council.

At the time, a group called the Committee of 100 sought to change the charter to replace the mayor with a city manager hired and overseen by a five elected city councilors. The group was described in one newspaper story as industrial and professional people of all walks of life, who were dissatisfied with city government and believed they were overtaxed compared to the services they received. 

The Portland Evening Express and Advertiser opposed the manager form of government, saying it would “introduce an autocratic element into the management of city affairs, which has the flavor of autocratic governments of Europe, which existed previous to the World War.”

But the Committee of 100’s recommendation, which it believed would lead to a more efficient government that was free of partisan influence, was embraced by the Ku Klux Klan, which saw it as a way to push back against Catholics and Jews in city government, especially the school board. The New York Times described the Klan’s campaign as its first foray into electoral politics in New England.

A Ku Klux Klan procession through the streets of Portland around 1923. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #1265

Abraham Peck, an adjunct history professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the Ku Klux Klan was having a resurgence throughout the country in the 1920s, including with well-educated whites, and Maine was no exception.

“Portland didn’t have enough of an African American community to really give the Klan that kind of a focus,” Peck said. “So the Klan basically drew on the the old anti-Catholic position against most likely Franco American Catholics more than anybody else who they saw, of course, as as a threat to the hold of a Protestant community.”

At the time, Peck said America was closing its borders to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. He said some of the last ships carrying immigrants were temporarily rerouted to House Island in Portland, since Ellis Island in New York was so busy. The Klan helped garner support for the charter change by stoking fear of the immigrants who filled the ships in Portland Harbor, he said.

“They focus their attention on doing something to overcome the growing influence of Jews and Catholics on the education and politics of Maine and of Portland,” Peck said. “The Klan actually (uses immigration), saying here we’ve got the immigrants coming to Portland not just to America.”

More than 56 percent of voters supported the switch to the city manager form of government. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1923, The New York Times ran a headline: “Klan Wins Victory at Portland Polls,” stating the vote was 9,928 to 6,859, with the Klan-backed reforms carrying six of the nine wards.

The election was contentious, with the Times reporting on a “riot call” in one of the wards.

“State Senator Ralph O. Brewster, one of the leaders of the Committee of 100 and in charge of the Council manager’s campaign, was pelted with rotten eggs by a turbulent throng of 400 when he visited the ward rooms,” the Times reported. “The police were (summoned) on a riot call, but by the time they arrived the trouble was was all over and innocent bystanders were busy removing the debris from their clothing.”

OTHER CHANGES OVER THE YEARS

It’s unclear how many other charter commissions have been launched over the years. A City Hall spokesperson said the only history the city could provide was the 2010 charter commission report.

An appendix of the existing charter provides a hint. The city’s first charter was adopted on July 4, 1786, when the town of Portland was incorporated by the Act of Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The city adopted a new charter – as the city of Portland – in 1832, 12 years after Maine became a state.

The 1923 reforms that created the city manager post followed unsuccessful reform efforts in 1905 and 1921.

Charter commissions in the decades since then have often focused on other reforms, with varying success.

In 1960, voters rejected a proposal to give the school committee autonomy over its own budget. The city’s method for choosing district councilors, and how many it should have, proved contentious throughout the years with changes adopted in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Voters have also struggled with the elected mayor issue many times since the 1923 reforms.

An attempt to move back to an elected mayor and aldermen form of government failed in 1929. And referendums to reconstitute an elected mayor were defeated in 1970 and 1975.

Residents launched a petition drive in 1997 to form a charter commission to again consider the elected mayor idea, arguing that a professional manager was not accountable. Voters disagreed, with 62 percent of them rejecting calls to form a commission.

Finally, in 2010, a charter commission recommended and voters approved the current compromise: a hybrid mayor elected citywide every four years to serve as a full-time council chairperson but without executive authority or control over city operations. A separate proposal from the 2010 commission to expand voting rights to all residents, regardless of citizenship, failed.

It has not been a smooth transition to the current elected mayor system. Ill-defined lines of authority inside City Hall and perhaps unrealistic expectations of the mayor’s actual power outside of City Hall, have created tensions among councilors and city staff.

The only two mayors to run for re-election have been defeated. Mayor Kate Snyder was elected in 2019, denying Ethan Strimling a second term. And Strimling was elected in 2015, denying Michael Brennen a second term.

ACCOUNTABLE TO VOTERS

LeVan, the assistant professor, said calls for structural change typically happen when a city is undergoing a demographic shift. And the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been successful in making white people more aware of the racism that still exists in society.

LeVan said having a strong elected mayor and an elected attorney can create a more equitable government because they are accountable to voters, rather than a small group of councilors  whose interests they are expected to protect.

Also, increasing the number of city councilors could also help to include more voices in policymaking, she said, provided that they are elected by residents of a specific district, rather than at large. A larger council that is more reflective of the city’s demographics could have a significant impact on policies, as well as civic engagement, since people can see themselves in their government, she said.

“We know that cities that have smaller councils – less representatives – tend to exacerbate racial inequalities. They benefit numeric majorities in the cities,” LeVan said. “Larger councils tend to be more descriptively representative.”

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