A diverse group of 24 Portland residents hopes to win seats on a charter commission that could recommend changes to the basic structure of city government, including whether daily operations should be overseen by an elected mayor instead of a professional city manager.

The June 8 city ballot will ask voters to choose nine members of the commission, which includes five district seats and four at-large seats. Candidates range in age from 23 to 73. They include a full-time student and retirees, blue collar and service workers, small-business owners and a nonprofit executive. Some have no political experience, while one served three decades in office.

Although it’s a nonpartisan race, three candidates are Republicans, three are unenrolled and the rest are Democrats. Several candidates cited the need for more transparency, accessibility and accountability as their reasons for running.

The winners will join three members who were appointed by the City Council last summer: Efficiency Maine Deputy Director and former school board member Peter Eglinton, ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede, and former City Councilor Dory Waxman, who also is founding owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Co.

The commission will have authority to recommend major changes to the city’s charter, although any reforms would need to be approved in a future citywide vote. A previous commission, elected in 2009, changed the mayor position from a one-year ceremonial post selected by councilors to a full-time popularly elected position with a four-year term, but with no real control over daily operations.

Creation of this 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. The city’s attorney determined the change would first need to be vetted by a charter commission. Since then, however, impacts of the pandemic and the racial justice movement have shifted Portland’s political landscape and fueled calls for deeper change.

The commission and charter review process is being eyed by both supporters and opponents of Portland’s 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.

Note: This article was updated  April 6 to correct the age range of candidates.

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