For the last 20 years, Portland has been the epicenter of growth in Maine. The city is now the undisputed economic engine for the whole state and is the subject of continual glowing national praise – for everything from our restaurants to our livability. The pandemic has magnified Portland’s appeal. The real estate market is scorching hot, and construction projects clutter the peninsula.

At the same time, though, look what’s happened in our politics. The city council form of government replaced. Two mayors defeated for re-election. Wholesale changes on the council. The escalation of policy-by-referendum. Vast new sums of money spent on campaigns in conjunction with the rise of more sophisticated and edgier interest groups. City Hall intrigue splashed across the headlines.

It’s clear to me that all of these facts flow from a common source: Many people are dissatisfied with the city’s governance. The flip side of our success explains why. Has the city made enough progress making itself more affordable for the middle and working class? Is our educational attainment on a satisfactory trajectory? Are we turning the tide against against homelessness? No, no, and no.

I am running for the Charter Commission because I believe progress is possible, but simply electing different people doesn’t get at the root of our struggle. I believe the charter itself is fundamentally flawed, and only a serious reform will set up our elected officials for success. The problem is less our people, and more our system.

The details of reform will be worked out by the commissioners, surely after extensive input from the people of Portland. However, a few values should be guideposts for all who will do the work of facilitating better governance: greater accountability, more responsiveness to the public, and expanded participation in voting. If the changes we make strengthen these three areas, I am certain we will make more progress on the important issues in the coming years. Here are a few ideas to start:

Accountability: The ultimate responsibility for city governance needs to be in the hands of those who are accountable to the voters. Too often now, that is not the case. If we are going to have a mayor let’s have a mayor. This is not about whether you are pro-Strimling or pro-Jennings – rather it’s about a system that is accountable to the people, regardless of the personnel holding those positions. I believe that power should reside where the voters have the biggest say.

Responsiveness: Politics 101 dictates that the smaller the district, the more responsive the elected official. This is a desirable goal, since there are too many people who – rightly or wrongly – feel left out of the city’s governance. It’s not up to us to convince those people they are wrong, it’s to create a system that ensures that feeling won’t continue. Specifically, I believe creating nine council districts (up from five), and eliminating the at-large council positions, will vastly improve access to each councilor – and will have the added benefit of improving the diversity of our elected officials.

Democracy: Our system works best when the most people participate – it is only then that the true will of the people can be known. In Portland, advances in this area mean granting the franchise to non-citizen residents; tying the mayoral election to presidential years, and instituting public financing of municipal elections.

With spring in the air, and a return to normalcy in the near future, new beginnings are all around us. The charter is our opportunity for city government to start fresh and really tackle our pressing issues. If the work is done well, inclusively, and with solid values as a guide, I know this commission can make a real difference. It can ensure that the coming years will see national attention shift to Portland’s ability to tackle seemingly intractable problems.


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