Voters in District 5 will choose between two candidates – one content with the status quo and another open to fundamental changes – to represent them on the Portland Charter Commission, which will spend the next year examining and possibly recommending changes to the basic structure of city government.

Ryan Lizanecz, a 23-year-old full-time student pursuing his law degree at the University of Maine School of Law, said he’s open to charter changes that give the elected mayor some additional power, strengthen the voices of neighborhoods in city decision-making and create a public financing program for municipal candidates.

His opponent, Mony Hang, a 45-year-old real estate agent, said he’s generally happy with the current structure of municipal government, but would keep an open mind to ideas brought before the commission.

District 5 includes the North Deering, Deering Center and Riverton neighborhoods. It’s also where residents have launched a petition drive aimed at upending the city’s plan to build a new 200-bed homeless shelter on Riverside Street.

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.

The 12-member commission will include four at-large members and one member from each of the five City Council districts. Those nine elected members will join three already appointed by the council. The 12-member panel will spend the next year reviewing the charter, essentially the city’s constitution, which governs the organization and power structure of city government, including the composition and authority granted to the mayor, council, school board, city manager and more. Any recommended changes would have to be approved by city voters.

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

MONY HANG 

Hang, who said he’s not enrolled in a political party, is not advocating for any specific changes in the charter. He said he took out nomination papers shortly before the deadline primarily to give district voters a choice since up to that point only one candidate was running.

“I’m running with an open mind,” Hang said. “I don’t have an agenda. I want to get into this to better understand the system.”

At this point, he doesn’t see a need for major changes to either the elected mayor or city manager positions. He thinks the existing system strikes a good balance, with the city manager overseeing daily operations and the mayor being the policy leader for the council.

“I feel like the mayor’s position is good where it is,” he said. “I don’t think it should be more powerful. I like having the city manager in place. He’s very qualified for the position. I don’t see giving the mayor more power than she has right now.”

While other candidates want to expand the council or create community boards to issue recommendations to the council, he also doesn’t support increasing the size of the City Council, saying “councilors are doing a good job representing the districts they’re in.”

He added, “I don’t see how increasing that number would benefit the city.”

He doesn’t support giving the school board more budget autonomy and would maintain the council’s role in approving the school budget before it’s sent to voters.

Generally, he supports the concept of clean elections, but he doesn’t support using local property taxes to provide public funds for municipal campaigns.

He also does not support giving noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections. He said his family came to Portland in the 1980s from Cambodia and became citizens, thereby earning the right to vote.

“If you’re not a U.S. citizen you should go through the process,” he said. “My mom did, just like a lot of other immigrants that came to this country.”

RYAN LIZANECZ 

Lizanecz, a Democrat, said he is running to strengthen the voice of neighborhoods in the city’s decision-making process. He said many residents, especially those in District 5, often feel unheard and overlooked, since so much focus and attention is paid to issues important to the peninsula and downtown areas.

He’s interested in exploring the creation of community boards, which would be empowered to make formal policy and spending recommendations to the City Council. Those boards would be like neighborhood associations, only their structure and membership would be formalized in the charter, rather than ebbing and flowing depending on the issue. Board members could either be appointed or elected, he said.

“I’m still navigating what that would look like,” he said. 

He thinks the city manager currently has too much discretion in developing the budget and implementing policy, so he would like to clarify in the charter that the manager works beneath the council and mayor.

He believes the elected mayor should have more power, though he didn’t say exactly how much. However, he supports keeping some sort of city manager or administrator onboard to help run the city’s daily operations. He vowed to proceed “very cautiously” when contemplating additional mayoral powers.

“I’m hesitant to say executive mayor,” he said. “I really fear one person with too much power and I feel that can be corrupted, like a city manager can be corrupted.”

He believes the mayor and council should have their own staff to advise them of policy development, rather than relying solely on city department heads, who have full workloads.

He also supports converting at-large seats on the council into district seats, and then creating smaller council districts that better align with neighborhoods, including designating one council seat to represent the islands.

He supports eliminating the need for the school budget to be approved by the council before it goes to voters.

He supports creating a public financing program for municipal races, calling it “a no-brainer.” He holds the same view of extending voting rights to noncitizens in municipal elections, which he supports because they live in and pay taxes in the city.

“This is a no-brainer for me,” he said. “Other cities around the country do this, it’s not a radical idea.”

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