Three candidates running to represent District 1 on the Portland Charter Commission appear to have distinct approaches to the year-long process of reviewing and recommending any changes to the structure of city government.

Only one candidate, Shamika (Shay) Stewart-Bouley, is running on a detailed platform of potential changes, including investing more power in the elected mayor’s office. Karen Snyder and David Cowie, however, have concerns that such a move would make city government and services more partisan.

Snyder believes the commission should first focus on creating a public financing system for municipal elections, since that is why the charter commission was first proposed. And Cowie, who also supports clean elections, said he doesn’t have a big agenda and instead wants to be part of an open and thoughtful process.

Twain Braden, a maritime lawyer, will also be on the ballot as a fourth candidate. But Braden said Monday that he decided to drop out over the weekend and endorse Stewart-Bouley, a fellow Peaks Islander.

Stewart-Bouley is also part of the so-called Rose Slate, a group describing itself as first-time candidates who support feminist values and includes three at-large candidates: Catherine Buxton, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Patricia Washburn.

District 1 represents the eastern half of the peninsula, including Bayside, the Old Port and Munjoy Hill, as well the islands. The winner will be decided through ranked-choice voting.

The 12-member commission will be comprised of four at-large members and one member from each of the five City Council districts. Those nine elected members will join three members already appointed by the council. The 12-member panel will spend the next year reviewing the charter. Any recommended changes would have to be approved by city voters.

Voting could begin as soon as Tuesday and last through June 8.

DAVID COWIE 

Cowie, a 63-year-old retired teacher and Democrat, said he is not running with any “big agenda” in mind. Instead, he thinks his experience as former sixth-grade teacher and union negotiator and his background in restorative justice would be beneficial on the commission.

“If elected to the position, I plan to find out as much about it as I can from my constituents and other people in the city and do my best to review how it’s presently written and make recommendations for improving it – if improvements are needed,” he said. “I don’t have a big platform other than to bring fairness and an open mind to the process.”

Cowie said he understands the frustration of some residents who question whether the city’s elected and appointed officials are listening to their concerns. While some candidates believe a strong mayor would help create a more responsive and accountable city government, he’s hesitant to concentrate too much power in the elected mayor position. Generally, he believes collaboration on policies and the city budget lead to better outcomes.

“I’m not crazy about the idea of one person having broad executive powers,” he said. “I’d rather see that those authorities rest in the hands of a group, even a small group, so it’s not one personality or one person dictating the up or down decision on how things should be.”

He supports the idea of creating a public campaign financing – or clean elections – program for municipal races to “level the playing field” and reduce the influence of money in politics.

“Limiting the amount of money spent on campaigns and keeping it even is good so that one person doesn’t overwhelm the field because they have a deeper purse,” he said. 

He does not support extending voting rights in municipal elections to noncitizens.

He’s open to the idea of increasing the number of councilors, possibly adding one councilor to each district, as long as it isn’t detrimental to conducting city business. Such a move, he said, could make it easier for constituents to contact their representatives. But he would like to study other communities before committing to any specific proposal.

He doesn’t have a strong opinion about whether the council should continue to set the bottom line of school spending before the budget is sent to voters. It’s one of the many issues he’s willing to explore if elected to the commission if it generates enough interest among members.

“I’m interested in the process,” he said. “I think I can bring some good ideas and clear thinking to craft the best language to serve the city of Portland in 2021. And if I make it onto the commission, I will give it my best.”

KAREN SNYDER 

Snyder, a 52-year-old Democrat, said that, as a data analyst, she would rely on data before supporting any specific proposals to change the city’s charter. (Snyder is not related to Mayor Kate Snyder.)

She said the primary issue before the commission is public financing for municipal races, since that is what prompted the city to form a charter commission in the first place. A clean elections program is needed, she said, because of the large amounts of money that have been pumped into local races and especially referendum fights, which have drawn significant out-of-state funding.

“The elections have gotten contentious and too much money from out-of-state interests has been pouring in and it’s not reflecting the interest of local residents,” she said.

She thinks the commission should either expand the City Council, or redefine the districts, to make councilors more responsive to each neighborhood. That includes creating a separate council seat to represent the islands. And she’s open to the idea of eliminating at large seats and making them district seats, but would need further study the issue.

“The data is not there to analyze as to what would be the best solution,” she said. 

She believes the commission should “demystify” the city manager’s position and analyze the benefits and drawbacks. Currently, the manager is hired by and reports to the full council, not the mayor, and is tasked with implementing council policies and budget while managing daily operations.

She is concerned that switching to a strong elected mayor with executive authority over city operations would only increase partisanship at City Hall. She would seek to better understand what additional “power” people would like to vest in the mayor’s office, because too much mayoral authority could lead to policies being adopted, then immediately repealed by future mayors, much like executive orders at the federal level.

“I’m not really clear as to what ‘power’ people are talking about,” she said. “Again that (mayor) position needs to be analyzed and demystified as well.”

She’s open to considering changes to the school budget process. But she said the existing process, which involves review and approval by the council before going to voters, seems to provide the “most transparency and fairness to residents who pay property taxes.”

Ultimately, she thinks the commission should focus on a few key issues – like clean elections – rather than trying to take on too much.

“There should be caution to tackling the top three to five issues that are of most concern to most citizens, rather than having a smorgasbord of issues and not getting anything done,” she said. 

SHAMIKA (SHAY) STEWART-BOULEY 

Stewart-Bouley, a 48-year-old Democrat, is the executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston nonprofit anti-racism organization, and creator of the Black Girl In Maine blog. She said she’s running to bring a racial and economic equity lens to the commission.

She believes equity work is too important for ad hoc committees with volunteer members. She’s calling for the creation of an equity council in the charter, which includes a staff-level diversity, equity and inclusion officer to ensure that the work is ongoing. 

“One of the things about equity in this moment that’s a little disturbing for me is that often it just feels like empty words,” she said. “If this is a guiding, core principal we want in our city, we need to make that actual investment and make sure that we’re not simply relying on volunteer community members.” 

She supports a strong mayor position, one that would oversee city departments and employees, provided there are checks and balances with the council, transparency and accountability. The mayor would propose the budget and policies, but would need to work with the council to get them approved. She said some type of administrative support would still be needed.

“I think what we have now is a system that doesn’t promote equity or democracy,” she said. “We’ve seen now – at least a few times – it feels like once the person is elected (mayor), many of the things they thought they might be able to enact as far as changes are not things they can do because of the structure of the charter.”

She favors expanding the council, possibly by eliminating at-large seats and having two councilors, instead of one, represent each district. She also supports increasing council pay, ideally to a full-time salary, though she’s cognizant of costs. Councilors, she said, are “woefully underpaid” and increasing the pay would make public service more attractive to younger and working class people.

“I don’t want people who are making important decisions for us to be focused on a million other things,” she said. “At the very least, we need to make it so that people are getting paid a little bit more than the token amount we’re giving people.”

She believes the school budget process, which includes review and approval of the school board and council before going to voters for approval, needs to be streamlined, ideally by eliminating the council’s role, though she acknowledged that the issue will likely generate a lot of discussion on the commission.

She supports a public financing – or a clean elections – program for municipal races. And she supports extending voting rights to noncitizens.

“As radical as it may sound on the surface, it’s not that radical,” she said of noncitizen voting. “Clearly this is going on in other cities and it’s not a problem. It’s just a matter of research.”

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