Congratulations to the newly seated members of the Portland Charter Commission, who are, no doubt, in for quite an experience as they begin their task. While they campaigned in poetry, their work must be done in prose.

On the journey, they will learn more about Portland’s city government, a $250 million operation, delivering services that citizens need and are willing to pay for with their taxes. Portland’s government is large, complicated, expensive and generally well managed.

I served on the 2009 Charter Commission, which was chaired by Pamela Plumb and is remembered for recommending a full-time elected mayor, which I opposed unsuccessfully, and for introducing ranked-choice voting to Maine.

At the start, we learned about what the current charter said, what it did, what it covered and how it covered it. That was our homework. The charter does not set policy; it is the framework through which the City Council and city manager are chosen and do their work.

The occupation of city management in America arose one hundred years ago as an attempt to end the practice of political patronage, and make local governments more efficient and responsive. America’s first city managers came from the ranks of engineers, thought to have the right skills for the job. Many American cities today use the city manager form of government, still preferred for its focus on value and efficiency.

John Menario, one of our past city managers, used to tell his staff that their job was to bring forward the facts and the City Council’s job was to make the judgments. This concept is still correct today.

Many city governments, including Portland’s, are nonpartisan, meaning that candidates for City Council do not run under the banner of any political ideology. They run as citizens, bringing their life experiences and good judgment to the task of guiding a city forward. The direction that a majority of city councilors can agree on generally has been right for the city of Portland, as national accolades and a growing reputation show.

Portland has been blessed with many wonderful city councilors over the years, everyday citizens willing to come forward and serve as their civic duty. None went on to higher elective office. They were compensated with a stipend, and thanked for their service.

As you begin your work as charter commissioners, you should choose as a chairperson someone without a preset or ideological agenda, someone who can respect all of the members of the commission and help them to reach consensus. This may take patience, but there is plenty of time. The city will assign a lawyer to the commission and give it a budget. Smaller budgets are probably more effective than large, as this will help to keep things more focused.

Our Charter Commission of 10 years ago discussed and debated a long list of topics, and yours likely will also. We tried to avoid going down rabbit holes, tried to help each other to think clearly and wanted only the best for Portland.

Now we find ourselves at a moment in history when civic and political temperatures are running high, which means this is a time for caution, a time to be skeptical of shiny objects, a time to value thoughtfulness and insight as the work begins.

So, commissioners, take the long view. Look beyond the ridgeline. Imagine life in Portland in the year 2050. Charters should not be changed very often, and Portland’s future is placing its trust in you.


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