Three candidates are competing to represent District 3 on Portland’s charter commission, which will spend the next year examining the basic structure of city government, including whether the city should switch to a strong mayor with executive authority over city operations.

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.

Issues raised by candidates include extending voting rights to noncitizens, eliminating City Council oversight of the school budget, expanding the number of and compensation of city councilors, and adding racial equity staff to the charter. And some candidates, including one in District 3, would like to create elected neighborhood boards to help recommend improvements and appointments to standing committees.

District 3 includes Libbytown, Stroudwater, Nason’s Corner, Oakdale, part of Woodfords Corner and the University of Southern Maine.

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, and any recommended changes would have to be approved by city voters.

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

ZACHARY BAROWITZ 

Barowitz, a 52-year-old writer and residential property manager, said he decided to run for the commission to address structural tensions at City Hall over the mayor’s position, and to find a way for residents to have a more direct voice in city issues.

He supports adopting a strong mayor who would not be part of the council, to develop the budget and hire key city staff positions, provided there are checks and balances with the council though a confirmation process. The executive department staff, which currently reports to the city manager, would report to the mayor, he said.

The council should elect its own speaker to lead them, Barowitz said. He’d like to see the charter allow for elected officials to communicate with department heads, rather than having to go through the manager. He’d increase pay for councilors, though he didn’t say by how much, and give them their own policy adviser.

While open to expanding the council, he’d rather form community boards to help councilors solicit input on policy decisions. He envisions perhaps three community boards, elected by residents, in each district. Those boards could provide recommendations to the council, including suggesting appointees for the Planning Board, Historic Preservation Board and the like. And each community board would have its own city-funded budget.

Even under a strong mayor, he believes a professional manager or administrator would be needed, as is the case in Westbrook. The administrator, as well as the city attorney and clerk, could be chosen by the mayor and confirmed by the council, which could also have some power to remove an administrator who isn’t meeting expectations.

“You need somebody with a background in public administration or biz administration who can take care of all the things that an elected official is likely to be terrible at,” he said. “You want some checks and balances in case you elect the wrong person – a la Trump – so they don’t ruin everything. At the same time, you don’t want to have too many checks and balances so government freezes up and you don’t get anything done.”

He supports creating an ombudsman or public advocate, either elected or appointed, with a legal background to help residents, especially those with lower incomes, address any issues they’re having at City Hall, including representing them in lawsuits.

He said the school budget process needs to change, but he is still collecting ideas, such as allowing the schools to issue bonds and send separate tax bills; having the mayor present the school budget; setting school spending at a specific amount plus inflation, and then having the board ask for additional funds; and giving the schools their own pool of money for capital investments.

He supports creating a public financing program for municipal elections.

He supports extending voting rights to noncitizens, but wants to make sure immigration concerns are addressed. However, he’s aware that the proposal could be controversial and possibly upend other reforms.

“I hope there wouldn’t be some major blowback, or the whole charter would get voted down on this one wedge issue,” he said. 

BRIAN BATSON 

Batson, a 30-year-old registered nurse and community relations professional at Maine Medical Center, said he believes his three years of service on the council during Mayor Ethan Strimling’s tenure can inform the charter review process. That period was rife with infighting between the mayor, council and city manager.

“I’m not running on the platform that I have all of the answers, because I don’t,” he said. “It’s going to be a year-plus long, collaborative discussion citywide where we’ll determine the direction our city wants to go in together. I’m committed to keeping an open mind and empathizing with other perspectives.”

He would like the commission to initially focus on the “low-hanging fruit,” such as creating a local public financing, or clean elections, program for municipal races, and clarifying the roles of the city manager and the mayor to ensure the mayor and councilors are the policy makers.

Based on his experience, he believes the council and mayor need some staff support to create good policy. That could come by creating something similar to the state’s office of policy and legal analysis, an independent, nonpartisan office that conducts research for state legislators.

He’d also like to codify a system where individual councilors can propose a policy and have it show up on a public meeting agenda. “Whether it receives no support or unanimous support – that gives every councilor the opportunity for their ideas to see the light of day,” he said. “They’re the people who are elected to lead and explore policy.”

He’s open to discussing whether the mayor should have more executive authority, including drafting and presenting the initial budget. But he’s not convinced the mayor can be a full-time policy mayor while also running the daily operations of the city. He’s undecided about whether the mayor should continue to be part of the council.

“I firmly believe the mayor and the City Council are elected to be the policymakers and the city manager’s role is an important one, and it’s intended to carry out the day-to-day operations in the city,” he said.

He’s open to the idea of expanding the council and creating smaller districts, but not eliminating at large seats on the council. And he sees value in giving the school board more budget autonomy, but isn’t sure what that would look like.

Noncitizens should be granted the right to vote in municipal elections, he said, as long as they’re protected against immigration enforcement. And he’s interested in hearing ideas about ways to address equity in the charter. To start, he thinks racial impact statements for policy proposals should be required in the charter.

CHARLES BRYON 

Bryon, a 45-year-old project accountant and controller for a local environmental engineering firm in Portland, said he’s running to represent the voice of people in his district, though he does have some of his own ideas. He described himself as a “moderate independent who appreciates social progress coupled with fiscal accountability.”

“My ideas and thoughts will evolve as I learn, but they won’t align with everyone,” he said. “My goal, if elected, would be to put aside my own agenda and really focus on what the community I’m representing thinks is the right thing. That should be the goal of any political candidate. I don’t think that happens as much as it should.”

He supports the concept of clean elections, but doesn’t support using tax dollars to fund municipal races. He’d rather see limits on campaign spending instead.

He’s not advocating for any major changes with the elected mayor and city manager positions, though he’d like to find a way to create more of a partnership between those two offices. He supports having a professional manager oversee city staff and daily operations. However, he’d like the mayor to be more involved in the development of the initial budget.

“The role of the mayor in city administration should be to guide and expedite approved policy, leaving the minutia to the city manager and various departments to execute,” he said. “It would be a waste of city revenue to pay the mayor to oversee these activities and, as mentioned previously, there is no guarantee that any elected mayor will have the experience to manage these operations.”

He supports expanding the size of the City Council, including designating a councilor to represent the islands. However, he cautioned, expanding the size of government inevitably increases the costs. “Increasing the City Council should be done very modestly,” he said. 

He’s still figuring out whether to support expanding voting rights to noncitizens. Ideally, he said, changes would be made to make it easier to become a citizen.

“You need to have some limits on who is voting in the community and who isn’t,” he said. “You want people who are vested in your community for the long term.”

Correction: This story was updated at 9:41 a.m. on May 13, 2021 to clarify Brian Batson’s position on the composition of Portland City Council.

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