Two names will appear on the ballot for the District 2 seat on the Portland Charter Commission, but only one candidate – Robert O’Brien – is still in the race.

Robert O’Brien

Em Burnett, who uses they/them pronouns, announced on May 2 that they were dropping out of the race for personal and professional reasons. Burnett noted that they and their opponent agree on many issues.

“After two candidate forums, it became clear that he and I agree on many of the biggest issues that this 12-person, unpaid commission will look at,” Burnett said. “He’s thinking about the charter and city process deeply and seems open to new ideas. He’s volunteered to do the job and has the time and space to do it. I will maintain an open line of communication with him, and hope to be able to connect him with perspectives he can learn from and benefit from hearing.”

The District 2 seat represents the West End and Parkside.

O’Brien, a 41-year-old Democrat and program director at the Maine Development Foundation, said he has come to support a strong mayor who would prepare the initial city budget for council review and oversee the daily operations of the city. He said Mayor Kate Snyder has proven the current system can work, but it’s not designed to handle “big personalities.” In short, he said, “it failed the stress test,” alluding to the conflict that permeated Mayor Ethan Strimling’s tenure.

The charter commission was originally proposed in response to a citizen effort to create a public financing, or clean elections, program for municipal candidates. But confusion over the authority of the elected mayor, coupled with inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and rising calls for racial justice, have many residents and candidates interested in sweeping changes to local government.

Absentee voting is already underway. Election Day is June 8.

O’Brien said he would like to insulate City Hall from political interference by having the council draft and approve job descriptions for department heads, and then confirm or reject nominations. The city could require employment contracts for top officials, who could only be removed for cause.

He’s open to discussing the future of the city manager position, whether it should be renamed chief of staff or chief operating officer, or whether those duties should be broken down into different leadership positions.

He’d also support reducing the mayor’s term from four years to three years. “If a mayor gets in hot water in the first year, four years is a long time to hold them accountable,” he said. 

He’s interested in creating a public advocate or ombudsman position to field questions from residents and perhaps process public records requests.

He supports converting the four at-large seats on the council into district seats and creating smaller districts that better align with the neighborhoods. He supports increasing council pay – perhaps making it a certain percentage of the mayor’s salary – but he doesn’t think it should be a full-time salary.

O’Brien, who served a three-year term on the school board and served on the charter commission a decade ago, is open to the idea of eliminating the council’s role in the school budget process and allowing the elected school board to send its budget directly to voters.


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