During its first meeting, the Portland Charter Commission elected Michael Kebede and Shay Stewart-Bouley to lead a yearlong review of city government, signaling that criminal justice and racial equity would be among the issues the group will seek to address over the coming year.

Kebede, a policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, and Stewart-Bouley, a writer and executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based anti-racism nonprofit, were each elected Monday by 9-3 votes as chair and vice chair, respectively. They each won their leadership positions over Peter Eglinton, a former school board chair and deputy director of Efficiency Maine, who was elected as secretary in 7-5 vote.

The election of officers was part of the inaugural meeting of the commission, which is undertaking a review of the basic structure of city government. The initial meeting was largely organizational and included training on Maine’s open meetings and public records laws.

The commission also set a public hearing for July 28 to receive input from residents about about what they’d like to see changed in city government – if anything. Public comments may be submitted in writing to [email protected].

The elected members of the charter commission are Stewart-Bouley in District 1, Robert O’Brien in District 2, Zachary Barowitz in District 3, Marcques Houston in District 4, Ryan Lizanecz in District 5, and Marpheen Chann, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Catherine Buxton and Patricia Washburn serving at-large.

Three members were appointed by the council: Eglinton, Kebede and former City Councilor Dory Waxman, who also is founder of Common Threads of Maine and owner of Old Port Wool and Textile Co.

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The commission was formed in response to a citizen initiative to create a public financing program for municipal candidates, but it is not confined to that subject. The group is expected to discuss giving more executive power to the elected mayor and diminishing the city manager’s power in City Hall and getting rid of at large councilors and creating new, smaller council districts. Several candidates have said they will make racial justice and equity a centerpiece of their work.

The commission was told Monday that any recommended changes would not only need to be approved by voters – the total voter turnout would also have to be at least 30 percent of the previous gubernatorial election. City Clerk Katherine Jones said that would require a turnout of at least 10,224.

State law requires the commission elect a chair, vice chair and a secretary, though commissioners expressed a desire to adopt rules that would share leadership among the chair and vice chair.

Kebede was nominated to lead the committee by Washburn, while Eglinton was nominated by Waxman. Both stressed they’d be collaborative leaders.

During debate, Kebede noted that he successfully brought law enforcement and activists together last session to pass a statewide law banning facial recognition technology. He’s also advocated for the removal of police officers from Portland schools, a proposal that failed in 2019 but was passed last year amid calls for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Floyd, a black man, was killed by former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.

Kebede noted that he also has experience facilitating  book clubs through the Maine Humanities Council, including one with veterans charged with sex crimes who were awaiting trial. He said that calls for criminal justice reform across the nation could be addressed through the charter review. And his legal background in constitutional law would help guide the commission’s work.

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“That’s what we’re doing here – municipal constitutional law,” he said. “We have to harmonize it with state and federal constitutional law.”

Eglinton, meanwhile, noted his prior experience working in the White House office of management and budget as helping to hone his facilitation skills, for which he has received formal training. He also noted his leadership on the Portland school board in the late 2000s, when the district was struggling to recover from budget shortfalls and an ensuring recession.

The commission voted 9-3 in favor Kebede, with O’Brien, Waxman and Eglinton dissenting.

Stewart-Bouley was nominated as vice chair by Houston, and Eglinton was nominated by Waxman.

Stewart-Bouley noted her experience running nonprofits and overseeing staff for the last 26 years, most recently as Community Change Inc. As the head of the nation’s oldest anti-racist nonprofit, she said she had to “face down white nationalists,” while maintaining open lines of communication with people who share different beliefs and opinions.

“As a leader you cant not listen to people,” she said. “You have to listen top them and bring their voices into the process otherwise they wont be committed to the cause.”

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Stewart-Bouley was elected vice chair in a 9-3 vote, with O’Brien, Waxman and Eglinton dissenting.

Eglinton was initially the only person nominated to serve as secretary. He edged Washburn, who nominated herself, in a 7-5 vote with Stewart-Bouley, Houston, Sheikh-Yousef, Kebede and Washburn dissenting.

The commission will meet again on July 15 at 6 p.m. to set ground rules for itself and for public engagement. That will be followed by a public hearing via Zoom on July 28.

Kebede said that commissioners are bound to disagree, but he felt a “spiritual obligation” to hear people out and understand everyone’s interconnectedness.

“My love for you is deeper than the political disagreements I know we will have,” Kebede said, noting he had met each commissioner in person. “Our disagreements will strengthen our relationships, not strain them.”

The group’s deadlines would be March 8, 2022, for the nine-month report and June 8, 2022, for the 12-month report to the City Council. The recommended revisions could go to voters in November 2022.


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