During its first round of public comment, the Portland Charter Commission heard a variety of suggestions to guide its work, with some advocating for bold sweeping changes such as defunding the police and establishing a labor department, while others encouraged the commission to approach its work more broadly, maintaining flexibility in terms of policy and an open mind toward dissenting views.

Heading into Wednesday’s hearing, the battle lines were clearly drawn as two prominent opposing forces urged members to speak up. The Democratic Socialists of America urged supporters to help make “Portland’s charter the most radical socialist charter in the country,” while the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce warned its supporters that the commission was dominated by ideologues who don’t understand the purpose of the charter, personally attack city officials and do not tolerate dissenting opinions.

The city charter is essentially the city’s constitution. It lays out the basic structure of city governance. But several charter members campaigned on enshrining certain policy goals within that founding document.

The virtual hearing  was attended by over 120 people, with about 50 people speaking over the course of nearly two and a half hours.

Chairman Michael Kebede said residents would be given other opportunities to comment, even though Wednesday was the only hearing required under state statute, which guides the commission process.

“This will almost certainly not be the only opportunity to give us public comment,” Kebede said. “You can email us ([email protected]) as well.

A city spokesperson said about 41 emails had been sent to the commission ahead of the hearing Wednesday.

MAYORAL POWER A FOCUS

Many of the comments made during the meeting focused on the debate about whether the city should have a stronger elected mayor and either eliminate or demote the professional city manager, who is hired and overseen by the full council. Some urged the commission to prioritizing creating a municipal financing program for municipal candidates, noting that’s the reason for the commission in the first place. And others urged changes to the City Council that included eliminating at-large seats, shrinking district sizes or expanding the number of district councilors.

Anthony Emerson, who ran unsuccessfully for the commission, urged the commission to recommend empowering the elected mayor to have more control over daily operations, saying that a professional city manager is insulated from the public they serve.

“The time has come for us to put our trust in the voters of the city,” Emerson said.

Resident Crystal Canney, however, urged the commission to listen to all viewpoints, without demonizing people with different views. She said oversight of the budget should be done by a professional, not a politician. And she criticized the DSA’s calls to enact a “radical socialist charter.”

“Those kinds of statements are about advancing one set of ideas, one agenda, one political ideology and not listening (to other viewpoints),” she said. “I’m concerned about people whispering about a powerful mayoral position with one person in mind.”

Deborah Keenan said near the end of the hearing that she appreciated all of the comments and that there appeared to be a divide between “new progressives and old progressives.”

“A lot of us have the same goals, but I don’t know the charter is the means by which we achieve those goals,” Keenan said.

REMOTE POLICY ADOPTED

Prior to the public hearing, the committee spent an hour discussing and adopting a remote meeting policy that would allow members of the public to participate in commission meetings via phone or video conferencing whenever technologically feasible.

The 12-member commission will have a year to draft recommendations to present to voters for final approval. The commission is comprised of three council appointees and nine elected members, including one from each council district and four at-large.

A charter commission was first proposed in 2019 in response to a citizen initiative to create a public financing program for municipal election candidates. However, racial and economic disparities brought to light during the pandemic, plus increased calls for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, energized progressive voters looking for systemic change.

Five of the nine elected commission members campaigned on progressive platforms and were endorsed by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. Their victories came after four of five citizen initiatives pushed by the DSA were approved by city voters in November, strengthening the city’s ban on facial recognition technology, instituting rent control, creating a green new deal for Portland and establishing a $15-hour minimum wage plus hazard pay during emergencies.

Nearly all the elected commissioners campaigned on strengthening the city’s elected mayor position, which currently comes with a full-time salary and four-year term, but no executive authority over city affairs. A majority also expressed support for either eliminating or demoting the city manager position, which oversees daily operations and reports to the full City Council, and expanding the number of district councilors and increasing their pay.

Other topics that came up during the campaign included defunding the police, enshrining diversity and inclusion efforts in the charter, giving the school board more budget autonomy and less council oversight, and creating neighborhood advisory councils.

‘PLEASE, KEEP AN OPEN MIND’

But several speakers urged commissioners, many of whom expressed similar views during the election, be open to other points of view.

“Please, keep an open mind,” Ellen Murphy said.

The chamber of commerce urged its members to put forward a similar message.

“Several commissioners have already used their platforms on social media and in the community to try and silence public debate about very real discussions in the city regarding the appropriate allocation of duties and responsibilities of municipal officials,” the chamber said in an email Tuesday to members. “These commissioners are attempting to create a narrative of inevitability around the sweeping changes they seek to make in our city government that will have very real impacts on Portlanders’ day-to-day lives, and that, if adopted, will be difficult to alter or undo.”

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder also provided written comment to the commission on Tuesday, urging it to thoroughly explore a clean election program for municipal officials; to consider changes to how the city elects at-large candidates in multi-seat races, which currently makes it easier for slates of candidates to be elected; review the citizens referendum process, possibly adding a revisor function to clarify referendum language; and look at the relationship between the council and school board.

Snyder also offered to speak with the commission about her experience as one of Portland’s three mayors elected under the current system, following Ethan Strimling and Michael Brennan. Snyder also offered to provide insight about what works and what doesn’t under the current system.

“Many in the community have asked me what role former Mayors Brennan and Strimling, and I, may serve in your work to consider options for change,” she wrote. “That’s up to you all, of course. But please know I am receptive to working with you all to offer insights, observations and ideas.”

CALL FOR CREATING LABOR DEPARTMENT

Jason Shedlock, a South Portland resident and a regional organizer with the Laborer’s Union International, urged the commission to write into the charter a requirement for a community benefits agreement with contractors that accept taxpayer money for construction projects, ensuring adequate wages, representation of people of color and women, and safe working conditions. He also called for the city to create a Labor Department to enforce new labor requirements contained in the Green New Deal for Portland and others.

We want to make sure the women and men who are building our buildings are seeing the benefits of that,” Shedlock said. “That’s something we can build into our charter document.”

Sampson Spadafore urged the commission to reallocate funding from the police to social service programs and alternative response models. He noted that on a hot day recently, seven men – police officers, firefighters and medics – responded to a report of a woman sleeping on a doorstep and tried to “coerce her into an ambulance.”

“This needs to end,” Spadafore said.

Brendan McQuade, an assistant criminology professor at the University of Southern Maine, agreed, saying the commission has “a unique opportunity to change the mission of the police department.” Limiting the role of police to only criminal investigations would free them up to clear more cases, he said. 

Others, like Jeff Levine, urged the commission to be less prescriptive, since governments and policies need to remain flexible to addressing new issues as they arise.

“Keeping the charter as broad as possible while honing down on specific values of the community is important to keep in mind,” Levine said.

During the first 90 minutes of the hearing, more speakers urged the committee to carefully deliberate how much power to grant to an elected mayor. Several were concerned about an elected mayor lacking the skills to manage a complex budget and making political decisions, rather than practical ones.

“Power is best held in many hands,” Tom MacMillan said.

The commission’s recommendations would have to be approved by city voters to take effect, and the total voter turnout would have to be at least 30 percent of the previous gubernatorial election. City Clerk Katherine Jones has said that would require a turnout of at least 10,224.


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