Portland city councilors grappled Monday over the best path for selecting a new city manager.

Although councilors didn’t make any decisions Monday and plan to revisit the discussion in two weeks, a majority expressed support for beginning the search for a new permanent manager, rather than relying on an interim manager until fall 2022.

The discussion comes amid great uncertainty for Maine’s largest city. Jon Jennings, the current city manager, is one of four finalists interviewing for a similar job in Clearwater, Florida, this week. If he is hired, he could provide the council with as little as 90 days notice under his contract, which is otherwise set to expire in July.

It also comes as the newly elected Charter Commission begins its work. One issue teed up for commissioners is reconsidering the roles and responsibilities of the manager, and of the elected mayor, who is the only full time member of the council but has no executive responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the city continues to battle a surging pandemic and is coming up with a plan to distribute the bulk of $46 million in federal COVID-19 aid.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the council will likely meet again in two weeks, once they know more about Jennings’ plans.

“We’re going to have to come back and have this conversation with a little more information after we learn what’s going on in Florida,” Snyder said.

If Jennings gives 90 days notice, the council would likely be forced to selected an interim manager, either from inside City Hall or someone new. Independent of that, councilors are debating whether it makes sense to launch a search for a permanent manager while the Charter Commission process plays out.

While open to a search for a permanent replacement for Jennings, City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he is leaning toward relying on an interim manager until the commission finishes work and voters weigh in on any proposed changes to the City Charter. He worried that the uncertainty would limit the pool of candidates.

Councilors Andrew Zarro and Pious Ali also supported searching for an interim manager. Ali said that with three council seats up for grabs in November, the council should allow new councilors to weigh in on the search process and that any search for a permanent manager should be done after voters weigh in on changes proposed by the Charter Commission. 

“I think it would be best to have an interim,” Ali said. “The interim will come in knowing (they) are hired specifically to be a placeholder for when the Charter Commission is over and we know what the job description looks like.”

He added, “An interim gives us space for the new councilors who will be joining us.”

That drew opposition from other councilors, who argued that it would be unwise to try to predict what the commission will recommend in terms of the manager position, and what voters would approve.

“I personally refuse to be handcuffed by ifs,” Councilor Mark Dion said, adding that he was confident that a strong interim manager could be found among existing staff, if necessary. “We have to deal with what is in front of us.”

Councilor Belinda Ray said the city cannot afford to be in a holding pattern with an interim manager, citing the pandemic and the need for infrastructure investments. She took umbrage with the idea that she and the other two departing councilors – Mavodones and Spencer Thibodeau – should defer to a future council.

“I do not intend to pull my votes because a new council might want to do something else,” Ray said. “I’m hired for a three-year term and I’m serving a three-year term.”

Councilor Tae Chong said conducting a full search for a permanent city manager would allow the council to educate the public about the role a manager plays in running a city as large and complex as Portland.

Portland currently has a $268 million budget, including $212 million in general funding spending, and employs more than 1,400 people. Jennings’ salary in 2020 was $179,790.

Chong said the manager essentially conducts economic development for the entire state, and must understand the city’s myriad social services, as well as have a strong understanding of municipal, state and federal government and programs.

“Let’s not compromise the city,” Chong said of choosing an interim. “Let’s make sure we have the staff we need to do the job. If the (charter) vote comes out where we need to pivot, then we will pivot.”

Thibodeau also supported a search for a permanent manager. Councilor April Fournier did not attend the meeting for personal reasons.

Snyder said she believes the council will have plenty of time to find a permanent replacement who could start work next summer should Jennings stay that long. And if needed, she said, the council could select an interim to fill a potential gap.

However, Snyder acknowledged that only a slim majority of the council preferred starting the search for a permanent manager, and added that councilors could still change their minds.

“This is a really big deal,” Snyder said, suggesting that a possible early departure by Jennings has been keeping her up at night.

“I’m trying to prepare for all eventualities and I want you all to lose a little bit of sleep as well,” she said later with a chuckle. 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.