It’s been more than four months since former Portland City Manager Jon Jennings left for Florida, and filling the job could help the city as the next budget cycle approaches and it continues to navigate the pandemic and respond to an influx of asylum seekers in need of housing.

City councilors are beginning to narrow down a list of search firms to assist them in the process of finding Jennings’ replacement. The City Manager Search Subcommittee is reviewing proposals from five firms and met Thursday to discuss next steps.

The hope is to conduct a broad search, Mayor Kate Snyder said.

“It will be nationwide and it will require lots of input from the council, from the community and from city staff,” Snyder said. “We want to do this well and as thoughtfully as possible.”

The search comes at an awkward time, however, as an elected panel reviewing the power structure at City Hall is considering changes to the roles and responsibilities of the city manager that could significantly weaken the position’s authority.

The Portland Charter Commission is set to finalize its recommendations by July with the aim of putting them before voters in November.


The commission is looking at a handful of proposed structural changes to the city’s leadership, including one that would create a strong executive mayor and eliminate the city manager but create a new “city administrator” who would oversee day-to-day operations. Another proposal, presented to the commission Wednesday, shifts preparation of the city budget from the city manager to the mayor and takes the power to nominate department heads away from the city manager, putting it instead in the hands of a committee likely made up of the mayor, or a mayoral appointee, and members of the City Council.

Snyder said the charter commission’s work will be important context for the search and is something the council discussed before launching the search.

“Some people had the opinion, ‘Let’s not do this at all and we’ll just wait until the charter commission is done with its work and the voters have had their say,'” she said in an interview after Thursday’s meeting. “Other people, and obviously a majority of the council, said, ‘No, we can’t just pause everything for a year. Ultimately, we believe we need some sort of city management – so we have to get the ball rolling.'”

The search process could take a long time, Snyder said. But even if trepidation about the charter commission keeps the best applicants from applying, at least the city can post the job and get feedback sooner rather than later.


“If we have to go back out (and look for applicants) because of what happens with the charter commission or the community’s vote, we will at least have all that groundwork laid,” Snyder said.


Councilor Pious Ali, who is a member of the search subcommittee, said it is right for the city to move ahead with the search as the charter commission does its work.

“Individuals that will apply to be city manager are professional – and I hope that whoever applies has the ability to operate in whatever structure the charter commission puts in place,” Ali said. “I don’t think there’s any reason for them to be worried or for people not to apply.”

One charter commissioner, Marpheen Chann, who worked on the proposal presented to the commission Wednesday, is optimistic the commission will retain a city manager or administrator in leadership. “I think it’s smart to keep some sort of consistency … but I think they do have to be honest with any city manager candidate that we are having a charter commission and things might change so (they should) just be aware of that,” Chann said.

Danielle West, the city’s lead attorney, has been serving as interim city manager since October. She has been able to keep the city running smoothly, Snyder said.

“If you have someone coming in new as an interim or a brand new hire, let’s say a brand new hire who flies in from Minnesota, it would take them a while to get to know everyone, know the community and the issues,” the mayor said. “Danielle … knows the history. She knows the players. She knows city staff. It really hasn’t been a situation where things have gotten held up.”



West was in meetings Thursday afternoon and was not available to answer a question about whether she is interested in the permanent job, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said.

She has some time to think about it. The subcommittee is planning to review and score the proposals from each of the five firms and will meet later this month before deciding which firms to interview. The full council will be invited to attend and engage in the interviews and then vote on a recommended search firm. The city hopes to choose a firm by May 17.

Snyder and Ali said the search firm will play a key role in helping the city define the characteristics it is looking for in a new city manager. “Some of the capabilities and strengths and experience that we’ll be looking for, those are the things we’re going to want to get a lot of input on in order to finalize a new job description,” Snyder said.

Ali would like a city manager who appreciates the city’s growing diversity, is able to work with the council to translate policy into action and will ensure that opportunities are shared equitably across the city. Most of all, he said, he wants to see a city manager who fits the needs city residents and stakeholders voice during the search process.

“It doesn’t matter per se what I want to see,” Ali said. “I think what the city and community members and all stakeholders want is what I want. I will gladly embrace whatever feedback I get from the larger community.”

The groundwork for the search was laid in September, when Jennings got hired as the next city manager of Clearwater, Florida. The next month, Snyder named the subcommittee, which also includes Councilors April Fournier and Mark Dion. In January, the city issued a request for proposals, which produced the five search firms now in the running.



Cost estimates for the search range from $23,500 to $52,500. One search firm, Inclusion Maine, is local. The others are from out of state. Inclusion Maine, based in Auburn, said it could conduct the search for $38,000 and close the search process by Sept. 30 if it began March 1.

USPRO, based in Boston, said it could do the search  for $52,500; TransPro, in Florida, for $30,000; GovHR, in Northbrook, Illinois, for $23,500; and Baker Tilly, headquartered in Chicago, for $26,500.

At Thursday’s meeting, Fournier said she liked Inclusion Maine’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, but also could see a benefit to having outside perspective. “We did want to open it up as a national search, so I think that’s also important,” she said.

Dion indicated a preference for Baker Tilly and GovHR because he said they had the most relevant experience. “I looked at the money but I also looked at … do they hire town and city managers?” Dion said. “I think that’s important. That’s a unique position.”

Ali also indicated support for Baker Tilly or GovHR. “I think the first two have in-depth experience in hiring and they have listed tons and tons of actual hiring they have done elsewhere,” he said.


Snyder said she was interested in Inclusion Maine’s response, but thought maybe it was “too local.”

“It left me wondering whether they would have the reach or the access we would get from a more national firm with maybe longer experience and deeper roots,” she said.

She will be looking closely at other proposals. “GovHR and Baker Tilly were the two that felt most interesting to me, but of course we’ll get deeper when we do our scoring and come back together and see where we land,” Snyder said.

The city manager position is one of 235 vacancies across city government. The city manager, city clerk and city attorney positions are all appointed by the council while the city manager – at least for now – appoints and manages all other department heads.

Jennings, who was named city manager in 2015, was earning a salary of $181,079 when he left.

The city clerk position will come open in July when the current city clerk retires, and Deputy Human Resources Director Tom Caiazzo told the subcommittee Thursday that the position has been posted. The city also needs to hire a new police chief, but Grondin said West has decided to wait to let the new city manager make that appointment.

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