The Portland Charter Commission will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a proposal for city leadership that would shift more power to the elected mayor and create a new position of “chief operating officer,” replacing the city manager and reducing the authority that position has held.

The hearing Wednesday comes as the commission is approaching its deadline for a preliminary report on recommended changes to city government. The report, which must be completed by May 9, will include the proposals the commission intends to send to voters, whose approval will be needed to enact any changes to the charter.

Chair Michael Kebede said the commission is also hoping to vote Wednesday on the leadership model proposal, which has already been drafted into charter language. A vote, however, is contingent on what and how many amendments commissioners may seek to make.

“If we get through everyone’s proposed amendments, yes (we will vote),” Kebede said. “The executive committee wants there to be a vote and we want to be done with that part of the governance model by (Wednesday).”

The balance of power between the elected mayor and the city manager, who is appointed by and reports to the City Council, has been a key issue before the Charter Commission. The commission originally was convened in response to a citizens effort to implement clean elections, but which has taken on a range of proposed changes to the key document outlining city government.

The proposal that will be looked at Wednesday is based on a series of informal “straw poll” votes the commission took during a series of meetings held to gather consensus around key elements of city leadership. According to a memo from the commission’s attorney, Jim Katsiaficas, dated April 8, one of the main points that gained majority support during the straw poll voting was for the mayor to serve as chief executive officer of the city.


The mayor would be spokesperson for the city and could form public task forces with staff support for any issue not taken up by the City Council. The mayor would serve as chair of the council and facilitate council meetings, but would no longer have a vote on the council – a change intended to balance out some of the other enhancements to the mayor’s authority.

Instead of a city manager, a chief operating officer would carry out day-to-day operations, oversee department heads and report to the mayor, though the chief operating officer would not appoint department heads as the current city manager does. Rather, an executive committee made up of the mayor and two city councilors would name department heads, whose appointments would also be subject to approval by the full council.

While the city manager now prepares the city budget in consultation with the mayor and presents the budget to the council, the proposal calls for the mayor to direct the chief operating officer in preparing the budget, and to present it to the council.

Kebede said the decision to use the term “chief operating officer” for the city’s top civilian job, rather than city manager, is intended to reduce confusion about who is the chief executive of the city. He said the term “city manager” is closely associated with a council-manager form of government, in which the manager is the chief executive.

“To have both a mayor and a city manager is likely to create the same confusion around who is the chief executive of the city that has existed for the last few years,” he said.

Some commissioners said Tuesday that while months of work and debate have gone into the proposal, there remain differences of opinion on city leadership. Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who is wary of giving the mayor too much power in city administration, said commissioners are divided between those who have taken a more tempered approach to the mayor’s powers and others who are eager to give the mayor more leeway.


“Either we start out in the process Wednesday and both sides feel good and like they can sign up for this, or if things come out contentious right away and people feel like they can’t sign on to it because of the direction it’s going, it’s possible we start getting to a point where it’s irreconcilable,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know what would happen at that point.”

The proposed changes to the charter come as the city is starting a search for a new city manager to replace Jon Jennings, who left in November for a similar job in Clearwater, Florida. Corporation Counsel Danielle West is serving as interim city manager.

At a city manager search subcommittee meeting last week, members discussed how to move forward with the firms they’re looking at to assist with the job search, and expressed interest in getting feedback regarding the impact of the charter commission process.

“I think with the top two (firms) it’s a really good question to ask them, given the landscape,” said City Councilor April Fournier. “If the job description were to change, how would you handle that?”

Councilor Mark Dion said he also would welcome a conversation with the search firms about the Charter Commission’s work.

“I really would appreciate their insight as an outside third party on that problem and how they might address it,” Dion said. “It might inform the timeline of this committee and when we want to get certain tasks accomplished. In my ideal world that candidate probably wouldn’t be asked to accept a final offer until the day after the election.”

The Charter Commission meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday and can be attended virtually.

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