The Portland Charter Commission will look Wednesday at several proposed changes to city government, including increasing the number of City Council seats, implementing a clean elections program, creating a code of ethics and participatory budgeting.

The proposals – all of which are scheduled for public hearings and votes – are being looked at as the commission also is expected to continue debating leadership models and the balance of power between the elected mayor and appointed city manager. The commission is working on a May 9 deadline for a preliminary report on its recommendations, which will ultimately need to go before voters in order to be enacted.

At its last meeting March 16, the commission took non-binding “straw poll” votes on aspects of leadership models, including whether Portland should have an elected mayor as the chief executive of the city who would work with the assistance of a “chief administrative officer.” That motion was informally approved 7-4 with Commissioners Peter Eglinton, Robert O’Brien, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Dory Waxman opposed and Commissioner Catherine Buxton absent.

Commission Chair Michael Kebede said Tuesday he’s expecting discussion of leadership models to continue Wednesday under the guidance of two facilitators, Samaa Abdurraquib and Hilary North-Ellasante, that the commission has hired to guide their discussion.

The commission also voiced informal support last week for not giving the mayor the power to unilaterally hire and fire department heads and the city manager, for putting an executive mayor in charge of drafting the city budget and for holding mayoral elections during presidential years.

“It was a way to get people to express their opinions about these things that are important in a final governance model,” Kebede said of the straw poll votes. “It was intended to spur discussion and to make it clear what our overall direction will be before we start voting on specific language in a more formal way.”


Wednesday’s meeting comes a few days after the commission’s vice chair expressed frustration with the politics of serving on the commission, particularly as a person of color, in a blog post that another commissioner took issue with Tuesday.


“I never had any doubt that politics were messy and chaotic,” commission Vice Chair Shay Stewart-Bouley wrote in her blog Black Girl in Maine over the weekend. “But I did expect that as adults, we would be able to manage our passions and work for the good of the entire city. Instead, I feel like I have fallen into an upside-down world where the very people who supported my run didn’t want a thinking and thoughtful person – they wanted what they hoped was a pliable person. Bonus points for being Black.”

Stewart-Bouley said she feels many “local primarily white progressive groups only supported a person like me for the desire that I would bulldoze through and implement their agenda.” Reached by phone Tuesday, Stewart-Bouley declined to name any specific groups. She said the feedback commissioners have been getting, often emotional and vitriolic, combined with the fact many commissioners are political newcomers, has created a stressful situation.

“There are a lot of concerns around what will happen and it’s just created a climate that I don’t think is really productive,” Stewart-Bouley said. “It’s not good for voters and it’s not good for us making the decisions to feel this level of intensity.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef posted a thread on Twitter Tuesday saying Stewart-Bouley’s post has caused her harm by implying that Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal for a city leadership model was the product of a white progressive agenda and not something Sheikh-Yousef would have brought forward on her own.


Sheikh-Yousef did not respond to phone messages Tuesday. In her thread she said Stewart-Bouley should name the progressive groups she referred to, but also called on those groups to not send Stewart-Bouley hateful messages.

Stewart-Bouley said her post was not about Sheikh-Yousef. “It was about my own feelings and my own experience on the commission,” Stewart-Bouley said. “I’m sorry if she feels my post was an attack on her. I certainly don’t want people attacking her.”

The items scheduled to be voted on Wednesday include proposals to increase the size of the City Council, clean elections, participatory budgeting and a code of ethics.


Commissioner Marpheen Chann, who chairs the elections committee, worked on the proposal to increase the size of the council from its current nine members to 13. He said increasing the size of the council is something that came up as commissioners were campaigning last year, and that commissioners heard concerns particularly from island residents about wanting to have more say within their districts.

“It was something that came up frequently during forums and debates. … It wasn’t just a sentiment that we want a lot more councilors, it was more generally that the neighborhoods needed more of a voice,” Chann said.


The proposal calls for 10 district councilors and three at-large. Currently, there are five district councilors, three at-large and the mayor on the council. Two councilors reached Tuesday said they didn’t have strong feelings on the proposal, but there are advantages and disadvantages to think about.

“If that’s what the charter commission wants to do that’s fine with me, but I think the question people need to ask is, ‘How is it the current system is not meeting the needs of constituents?'” Councilor Tae Chong said. “As a councilor, if they want to split my district in half and I get half as many calls and emails that’s fine, but I feel I’ve been responsive to constituent needs as far as what’s happening in my district.”

Chong said decision making also could become more complicated with more voices at the table. “When you have 13 people at a table it’s that much more difficult,” Chong said. “That democratic process gets really messy and sometimes it’s just easier to have nine people rather than 13 or 15.”

Councilor Andrew Zarro, who represents District 4, said that as a district councilor he sometimes hears concerns from constituents about a need to balance the work the council does between issues on and off the Portland peninsula. “I try my best to represent the varying neighborhoods of my district,” said Zarro, who said he is interested to learn more about the commission’s proposal. “I’m not sure what smaller districts might accomplish in the context of District 4.”


Zarro also chairs the council’s Rules Committee, which is working on developing a code of ethics in council rules at the same time as the charter commission is proposing a code of ethics. He said what the commission is looking at appears to be broader than what the council’s rules committee is looking at.


“I think we still have to do our job right now and our job right now in the Rules Committee is we’re working on a code of ethics,” Zarro said. “If the charter commission moves forward in November and voters pass what would be a code of ethics then that’s great and it can be part of the charter but we don’t want to stop the work we’re doing now and wait for November. We’re still moving forward with it.”

The code of ethics proposal the commission is looking at would require the council to establish an ordinance defining ethical conduct and conflict of interest, establish a seven-member ethics commission to consider ethical questions and issue advisory opinions, and would require elected officials and senior staff to complete disclosure forms indicating their primary sources of income.

Commissioner Zack Barowitz, who worked on the proposal, said it wasn’t developed in response to any specific concern with current officials or employees but is something he believes will add to the transparency of government. “I don’t want to say there is waste, fraud and abuse, but in any organization there is some level of waste, fraud and abuse and any resources to mitigate that I think is money well spent,” Barowitz said.

Kebede, who worked on the participatory budgeting proposal that will go before the commission Wednesday, said there was a general interest in adopting participatory budgeting but it was not possible given the commission’s time constraints to come up with an in-depth proposal. Participatory budgeting allows residents to directly propose uses of city funds or vote on the use of city funds.

Instead, the proposal the commission will consider would direct the council to develop and implement a participatory budgeting system. “We set out very, very broad and simple parameters for that and we empowered the City Council to establish whatever task forces and committees are necessary to create a participatory budgeting system,” Kebede said.

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