A panel of experts on municipal government told the Portland Charter Commission Monday night that there’s no one answer to the best model for city leadership and the commission should keep in mind local context when weighing changes to the charter.

The commission is looking at whether to strengthen the role of the mayor and to what degree the mayor should have control over the city budget and the hiring and firing of city staff – both of which currently fall primarily to the city manager – as a key part of its review of the document outlining the structure of city government.

“There’s no correct answer to the question of is one system better,” said Andrea Benjamin, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and one of three experts who spoke to the commission during a virtual meeting. “It’s more of what is right for our community?”

Panelists told the commission there are benefits and drawbacks to both a strong mayor system and a system that relies more on an appointed city manager. “Each form of government has its benefits and its burdens,” said Anthony Crowell, dean and president of New York Law School and a former counselor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Many of them are influenced by the policies and personalities of the day,” he said, “and today, as we emerge from the pandemic and confront America’s racial reckoning, efforts to evaluate form of government, especially in a politically progressive jurisdiction, should take into account a variety of ideals and values likely demanded by citizens.”

Monday’s discussion came as the commission has been finalizing proposals to send to the City Council and voters, and as it also has asked for more time to complete the process. The commission has submitted a request to the City Council asking that the date for a preliminary report to be handed in be pushed from March 8 to May 9 and that the date for a final report be pushed from June 8 to July 11. The council is expected to take up the request Feb. 28.


Jered Carr, a professor and head of the Department of Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advised the commission to start from a point not of thinking about which form of government – a strong mayor or a city manager and council system – is better, but rather to ask what changes should be made to the current system. “The question we often are really focused on is do we make adaptations to the form we have?” he said.

He said there’s a lot of variety across municipalities in adopting aspects from each system. There’s also limited data on the effectiveness of each form of government, but some topics that have been studied by experts that the commission also could think about include government responsiveness, policy making, voter turnout and public participation.


“It’s going to turn out to be: what do you need it to do? What are you concerned about? And the reality is a council/manager structure has some benefits that are different than the mayor/council. So in different settings, depending on what your community’s needs are, you may trade off one for the other,” Carr said, noting that it’s common for small cities to have manager/council structures.

“With a smaller population there’s less likelihood someone is willing to be the mayor that is actually capable and interested and available to do the work,” Carr said.

On the other hand, he said advocates of a strong mayor have argued that there’s more responsiveness to the public or voters since the executive is subject to election and re-election. Some cities recently have trended toward a strong mayor form of government as they seek a clear leader on policy, Carr said.


“As a city gets larger and more complex, not just more populous but also more diverse, I think often people are looking for somebody who can drive through changes, who will lead on issues, who will run for office making commitments to change things,” Carr said.

Commissioners spent most of their time with the panel asking questions, and some asked about what level of accountability is allowed for in each model.

Crowell, who spoke to the commission about his experience in New York City government, noted that while it operates on a different level than most due to its size and scale, the city has a number of checks and balances in place to provide for accountability of its strong mayor.

They include a legislative body with investigative authority that works with the mayor to establish and implement the budget; a comptroller who is the city’s chief financial officer; a public advocate who serves as a watchdog on city government; an independent budget office; and a broad array of annual reporting requirements.

But he said there are also options for accountability in a system that doesn’t have so many independent branches of government. “Many governments consider a chief compliance officer for example or a chief accountability officer where that person is designated to develop accountability measures and to both publish, educate and enforce on those measures,” Crowell said.



Commissioner Pat Washburn asked the panel whether there is any data that would help the commission decide which structure is best to move the city in an anti-racist direction.

Benjamin said research shows that city councils are historically “very dismissive” of Black and brown people and suggested the commission not look just at who gets elected, but other things the city can do to make government more accessible, such as the times they are holding meetings and ensuring city documents are accessible in multiple languages.

In New York, Crowell said a city charter commission in the late 1980s expanded the number of council districts from 35 to 51 to open up opportunities for more members of minority communities to serve and that offering services in a variety of languages has been an important effort in fighting racism. He also said the addition of the public advocate position was intended as a stepping-stone to higher office.

“Rather than eliminating the city council president, what was important to that charter revision commission was the preservation of a citywide office to use as a stepping-stone to the highest office and have minority office holders in the council and other branches to have that opportunity to rise through the political ranks,” Crowell said.

Ultimately, the panel said it will be up to the commission to look at Portland’s unique attributes and decide what is best to move the city forward.

“I want to caution around the idea that what another city has done can inform you,” Benjamin said. “I think it can, but I think it shouldn’t direct you. It can inform you to say, ‘They were this big. This was their budget. These were some challenges they were facing. They did this.’ I think it’s good to be informed, but I think you all have to decide for yourselves what will be best for Portland, Maine.”

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