Portland’s charter commission has a long way to go before recommending reforms in the way the city governs itself. However, one subject at the center of a push for reform is the balance of power between the elected mayor and the city manager.

The commission began discussing the topic this week by inviting former mayors to share their experiences and insights, and it plans to invite city managers to do the same in the future.

Robert O’Brien

Although a majority of the elected commissioners campaigned for a strong mayor, Governance Committee Chairman Robert O’Brien stressed that they are in the fact-finding stage of their work and approaching the issue with open minds.

“I will reiterate this several times tonight. Neither this committee nor the full commission is committed to any model now until we start our work sessions several months from now,” O’Brien told the former mayors at Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re not looking to build a new model tonight. We’re looking to understand the functionality of how your job has played out.”

Any changes to the charter the commission eventually recommends would have to be approved by voters.

Portland has had three elected mayors since the last time the charter was changed, when mayors went from being appointed to elected. Each had vastly different experiences and areas of focus, but on Wednesday they all seemed to agree that the success of the elected mayor depends primarily on relationships with the city manager and the City Council.

Under the current charter, of particular importance is the mayor’s relationship with the city manager, who is overseen by the nine-member council, since the manager is the gatekeeper to city staff who have the knowledge and expertise to help elected officials draft and implement policy.

“If there’s one thing I would change about the most recent charter, I would undo a portion of that, so councilors can do the policy work they need to do and get information,” said Jim Cohen, who served on the previous charter commission and spoke to commissioners on a panel of council-appointed mayors that also included Jill Duson and Karen Geraghty.

Michael Brennan, who was the first elected mayor to serve under the current system, said that he served with four different city managers during his four-year term, which started in 2011. He said he initially had unfettered access to city staff to discuss policy issues, but that access was tightened up over the course of his term.

“I think some staff found that uncomfortable at times,” Brennan said. “Typically when staff wanted to talk to me about something, they liked having the access. And when it was an issue that might be more difficult or controversial, they were less likely to want to have that access with me.”

Brennan said having a full-time elected mayor gives the city “equal footing” with elected officials like the governor and members of the congressional delegation on local, state and regional issues.

COMPETING EXPECTATIONS

But inside City Hall, the mayor is in a difficult position of trying to meet competing expectations. Residents expect the mayor to be able get potholes filled and trash picked up. Councilors are looking for a chairperson. And the mayor is trying to deliver on campaign promises.

Michael Brennan became Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in nearly 90 years in 2011. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“I didn’t feel I should have to sacrifice those issues or what I campaign on because they didn’t exactly exactly mesh with the city council ‘agenda,’” Brennan said. “That creates an ongoing tension between the City Council and the mayor.”

Brennan said he would tweak the current system to empower the elected mayor to present a unified budget of school and city spending to the council and school board. But he believes that city operations should be in the hands of a professional staff, which should be overseen by the council, not an elected mayor.

“I do think again by making the switch on the budgeting, this would allow the mayor to have direct access to city staff in a structured way,” he said. “And it would also give a clear signal to staff about how they can work with the mayor and respect the fact they may have a city manager or a city administrator who may be responsible for their day-to-day performance.”

Ethan Strimling, who defeated Brennan in 2014, said that he never had any access to city staff during his term, which made it more difficult to develop policy. To move his agenda forward, he worked with outside groups and advocates to draft policies and then used public pressure to get them passed.

That approach led to a very public falling out with both City Manager Jon Jennings and numerous city councilors. But he said it achieved certain policy goals, like passing a $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools and an anti-pesticide ordinance and preventing the closing of the India Street Health clinic.

“I feel very good about the success of the policies we passed,” Strimling said. “The system we had in place made it much more difficult than it should have been.”

‘FAKE DEMOCRACY’

Strimling characterized the current system as “a kind of fake democracy,” since the mayor does not have the powers that people expect of the job. He urged the commission to “go big” and recommend a system in which the elected mayor would head up the executive branch, though with less power than the current manager, while the City Council would head up the legislative branch.

Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, right, and City Manager Jon Jennings, seen during a workshop in 2017, had a public falling out over policy issues and access to city staff. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“The mayor should be proposing and the council should be disposing,” Strimling said.

Mayor Kate Snyder, meanwhile, said she came into office  knowing the limitations of the role and has tried to remain in her lane, acting primarily as a council chairperson. Snyder said that she has a great relationship with city staff and city councilors. And only through collaboration and shared goals can the position be successful, she said.

“There’s no individual mandate or individual agenda that can reign in this position, because any agenda requires five or seven votes depending on the issue,” she said. “This job was very much structured to be part of that nine-person body.”

After unseating Strimling in 2019 with a message of collaboration, Snyder has led mostly during the pandemic, which has prevented the council from meeting in person. Her term has been punctuated by a series of progressive referendums and candidates being elected into office.

Snyder didn’t suggest any tweaks to the current position other than that the mayor’s office should have some staffing.

“I understood at the time the reason (the mayor’s job) was built the way it was built and the values that folks were looking for,” Snyder said. “I fully understand and appreciate that might be changing now. It’s 10 years later and the world is changing and that’s fine.”


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