The Portland charter commission will take up a key aspect of reforms to city government Wednesday when it considers two proposals that could change the leadership structure and role of the city’s mayor.

Three of four members of the commission’s governance committee have endorsed a proposal that would give the mayor more say in budget development and the right to form policy task forces; create a new chief of staff position to report directly to city councilors; and allow councilors to introduce policy proposals without first going through a committee review. The governance committee proposal does not spell out any changes in the city manager position.

A second proposal being brought forward by the fourth member, Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, goes further by giving the mayor more oversight over the budget, staff and policy, including the ability to veto council legislation and nominate department heads. It also calls for other changes such as the creation of a public advocate to serve as an independent ombudsman and eliminates the requirement that the council approve the school budget.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal includes a fiscal analysis that refers to the elimination of the city manager position, which now reports to the council, and the creation of a city administrator post that would report to the mayor.

Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede said the two proposals will be discussed in a workshop Wednesday, but it’s too soon to say when the commission might settle on a final recommendation.

“The goal (for Wednesday) is to increase everyone’s understanding of the two proposals and not make a decision,” he said. “The goal is to ask questions and reach a higher level of understanding so when the time comes for public comment and voting we will all be operating on a higher level of understanding.”

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The commission is scheduled to deliver preliminary recommendations to the City Council for proposed changes to the charter in March. Kebede said that’s still the plan, although he and other members of the commission’s executive committee may consider asking the council for more time.

“My goal is to have it as soon as possible because that’s the most important proposal,” Kebede said of the issue of leadership models. “The sooner we act on it the better, but I also don’t want to rush it because it is so important.”

The commission, which was proposed in 2019 in response to a citizen petition calling for a clean elections program, is charged with reviewing and recommending changes to the charter, which lays out the basic governmental structure of the city. The balance of power between the elected mayor and the appointed city manager is a key focus of the commission.

The work also comes as the city is in the process of hiring a new city manager, a position that could be significantly altered depending on what changes the commission decides to make. On Friday, the city announced it has put out a formal request seeking professional consulting services to assist in its search for the next city manager.

In the two proposals the commission will look at, the biggest difference is that Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal clearly lays out plans for an executive mayor who is not a member of the City Council and who would have the power to hire and fire department heads, said Robert O’Brien, chair of the governance committee.

O’Brien said the full committee also weighed giving that kind of oversight to the mayor but was concerned it could result in high staff turnover when a new mayor is elected. “That would be a tremendous cost to the city both in institutional memory and the momentum of city initiatives if every four years leadership is starting over,” he said.

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Sheikh-Yousef did not respond to phone messages and emails asking for an interview to talk about her proposal.

O’Brien said there are two proposals going to the full commission because Sheikh-Yousef was absent from the Dec. 8 meeting when the other three commissioners agreed on a proposal. Those commissioners were later presented with Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal.

“We ultimately agreed we didn’t have time to vet the seven-page proposal appropriately in the same way we had vetted our own recommendations,” O’Brien said. “We spent four months meeting eight times and interviewing 17 different individuals. … We didn’t feel we had the time or capacity to apply those same methods to this proposal. So we decided to recommend it go directly to the full commission.”

The proposal from the committee seeks to give the mayor and councilors more avenues for bringing up policy proposals by giving the mayor the right to form a staffed public task force around any policy endeavor not taken up by a council committee and by giving individual councilors the ability to introduce a policy proposal at a workshop or public hearing without going through the committee structure. Councilors could also sponsor policy initiatives on behalf of a constituent for an item that has not been assigned to a committee.

Currently, the council decides through goal setting what its priorities are and then the committees divide up those initiatives and work to form recommendations to achieve them. Those recommendations are then presented to the full council for consideration and action, said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

O’Brien said, under the current process, the committee structure is “more or less the only way” to get a policy proposal taken up unless residents initiate a referendum.

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“We heard from recent Portland mayors that they run on a platform and then they get elected and if the council doesn’t take up any of the issues they ran on, what do they do with those issues?” he said. “We’ve just enumerated a number of ways by which the mayor, individual citizens and councilors can raise up policy proposals at the City Council by right.”

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal also says councilors and the mayor have the ability to submit policy proposals to the council but includes additional policy-related changes for the mayor. The mayor would no longer be a member of the council and would no longer vote on council issues, but would have the power to sign into law or veto all legislation approved by the council.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal also would have the mayor, as opposed to the city manager, develop the budget for council consideration and would have the mayor work with the school district on development of a school budget, which would no longer need council approval.

The committee proposal says the mayor would have a “prominent role” in development of the budget with access to department heads and staff, but O’Brien said they’ve tried to avoid weighing the position down with any language that ties the mayor to having to handle the minutiae of budgeting when that could be done by staff. “Right now the charter says the city manager will prepare a budget in consultation with the mayor; we want to flip that emphasis,” he said.

There is some overlap in the proposals. The committee proposal calls for adding a new “chief of staff” position that would coordinate council staffing needs and requests for direct access to staff, fulfill public records requests and notice meetings. That’s similar to Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal for a new public advocate position, O’Brien said, although the public advocate would be elected while the chief of staff would be appointed.

Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal says the changes would be revenue-neutral and would save the city about $200,000 by eliminating the city manager position and pulling the salary for the proposed city administrator from the chief of staff position in the city manager’s office. The public advocate’s salary would be covered by shifting funds from the deputy city manager’s salary.

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The committee proposal does not have an estimated cost. O’Brien said it is unknown whether the chief of staff salary would have a fiscal impact since it’s possible the position could result in a reallocating of duties, and thus savings in other areas.

The leadership model proposals are among a handful of proposed revisions to the charter the commission will take up Wednesday. Also on the agenda are proposals for a clean elections program, which would provide public campaign funds to qualified candidates for municipal office; a police oversight board; and a policy governing communications between city staff and elected officials.

The commission is not requiring committees to provide fiscal notes or cost estimates with their proposals, although the elections committee voluntarily included a cost estimate for its clean elections proposal. That initiative is expected to cost about $290,000 per year and includes one additional staff member in the city clerk’s office as well as the funds for running the program itself.

Marpheen Chann, chair of the elections committee, said the proposal has a clear price tag that was easy to ascertain, while that is not the case for everything the commission will look at. “If other chairs and commissioners want to do the number crunching to give an idea to the council what this would cost, that’s good, but ultimately it will be the job of the council and mayor when we give them our report to figure out how this fits in the budget,” he said.

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