Fifteen former Portland mayors and the present mayor came out in opposition Tuesday to a proposal before the city’s charter commission that would shift more power to future elected mayors and reduce the authority of the city’s top appointed official, currently the city manager.

“We respectfully urge the charter commission to vote against the final ratification of this proposal,” the former mayors wrote in a letter addressed to the commission. “We recognize that while our current system of government may not be perfect and can be improved, creating such a powerful mayor is a risky gamble that will inevitably result in a more political, divisive and less inclusive form of city government.”

The former mayors who signed the letter are Michael Brennan, Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson, Ed Suslovic, Jim Cohen, Nathan Smith, Jim Cloutier, Karen Geraghty, Cheryl Leeman, George Campbell, Jack Dawson, Anne Pringle, Tom Allen, David Brenerman and Pam Plumb. Brennan is the only mayor in the group who was elected by city residents. The others were named mayor by their colleagues on the city council prior to the change to a popularly elected mayor in 2010.

Mayor Kate Snyder did not sign the letter but said in an interview that she agrees with the former mayors’ position and also encourages the commission not to move forward with the proposal.

“I think there’s a really healthy opportunity (in the current system) to raise hands and question operational decisions and see whether or not there needs to be council intervention or even a change in policy or changes that can be made through city code,” Snyder said, referring to the way the council and mayor weigh in on the city manager’s work. “I think there’s a lot of value to having that built-in check and balance and to lose that and put too much power in one person who’s elected, I think, would be an error.”

Snyder’s comments and the letter from the former mayors came almost a week after the commission, which is tasked with recommending changes to the structure of city government, voted 7-5 to approve proposing a new model for city leadership.



Charter commissioners are expected to vote Wednesday on the proposal’s final language. It would require voter approval to be enacted. The proposal would give Portland an “executive” mayor who would exercise general supervision and control over the city and would serve as its official spokesperson. The mayor could form a public task force with staff support for any issue not taken up by the City Council.

The mayor would preside over meetings of the council, but would no longer have a vote on most items before the council – a change intended to balance out some of the other enhancements to the mayor’s authority.

The appointee currently known as the city manager would be called the chief operating officer and would carry out day-to-day operations and oversight of departments, but would report to the mayor rather than the council. And 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 both direct the chief operating officer in preparing the budget and present it to the council.

The proposal also removes additional authority from the city’s top non-elected post. Under the current charter, the city manager nominates department heads, who then must be approved by the council. But the proposal before the commission creates a new executive committee, made up of the mayor and two councilors, that would recommend department heads to the full council for approval.



Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede, who voted in favor of the new model last week, said he hadn’t yet seen the letter when contacted about it Tuesday. But Kebede defended the proposal, saying that under it the mayor would have less power than the city manager does now and would be accountable to voters.

“The proposal reduces the most powerful person’s power,” Kebede said. “It also makes the most powerful person accountable to voters. I don’t see why people would be against that. This is an advance for democracy in Portland.”

Currently, Kebede said, the city manager is the most powerful person in City Hall, with the ability to name department heads and take the lead on the budget. The city manager also makes numerous day-to-day decisions, such as one expected soon on the location of food trucks on the Eastern Promenade, an issue that has drawn significant public interest and debate.

“That’s essentially a political issue, but the city manager is going to make the final decision on that,” Kebede said. “Is that a democratic way of making important decisions? I don’t think so, and I think other cities have this better.”

But Snyder said that while there are numerous “operational decisions” on matters like the food trucks that fall to the city manager, the manager doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum.

“Our managers are astute enough to know a variety of input is important,” Snyder said, adding that on food trucks, staff have presented a proposal to two council committees and the parks commission to gain feedback and the manager has discussed the issue with individual councilors.


Snyder said the council serves as a check on the manager’s power whereas there would be less opportunity for a check on the power of an executive mayor, who would only be accountable to voters every four years. She said the model the city operates under now allows for good collaboration between the mayor, manager and council.

“I think the community is advantaged when people are working together,” Snyder said. “If an individual has too much authority and doesn’t need to work with other people to advance initiatives and policy ideas, then we could run the risk of having a very minority opinion prevail.”

Several of the former mayors echoed those concerns in interviews and at a news conference outside City Hall on Tuesday.

“I have a concern about vesting so much power in one individual,” said Nick Mavodones, who served more than 24 years on the council and was appointed mayor for four one-year terms. Mavodones believes a city council and manager form of government is the “cleanest way you can govern a municipality.”

“It tries to keep as much politics as possible out of the decisions that impact people,” he said.

Both supporters and opponents of the charter commission’s proposal have pointed to government models in other places as reasons to support their views. In a media advisory Monday, the group of former Portland mayors said an analysis of 50 cities across the country most similar in size to Portland found that the vast majority – almost 75 percent – have city council and manager forms of government.


But Kebede said a chief executive accountable to voters, like the one the commission is recommending, is the practice in “thousands of cities across the country and across the world.”

“Imagine if the president was appointed by Congress and wasn’t even a member of the elected body but was chosen from a list of applicants,” he said. “We would have a revolution in the country.”


The mayors said they believe there are improvements that could be made to the current structure, but the charter commission’s proposal is not the solution.

Brennan, who served from 2011 to 2015, agrees, for example, that it would be beneficial for the mayor to have more say in the development and presentation of the city budget. But Brennan said the proposal’s call for an “executive committee” made up of the mayor and two city councilors to nominate department heads and key positions such as the city clerk and corporation counsel seems “unnecessarily bureaucratic.”

And he said making the mayor the chief executive officer raises concerns about how much power one person should have. “When you start having the mayor be involved in directly supervising the city manager and also being involved in the selection of department heads, I think that puts the mayor’s position too much into the day-to-day operations of City Hall,” Brennan said.


At least one former mayor who didn’t sign the letter supports the commission’s proposal.

“I think it’s an important step forward,” said Ethan Strimling, who served as elected mayor from 2015 to 2019. “They’ve done very good work trying to find balance. It’s very hard work, and the forces of the status quo are powerful. They don’t like change. That was reflected today in the letter and the press conference.”

Strimling agrees with commissioners who support the proposal because the current system puts too much power in the hands of an unelected person — the city manager — and he pointed to the overwhelming support voters showed for the charter revision process in 2020.

He said there are additional changes he would suggest, such as removing the mayor from the council and having the mayor be able to hire and fire staff with a check and balance from the council – but overall sees the proposal as a compromise and a step in the right direction.

“Compromise always involves choices, and I think the commission has done a good job to balance the things some people want and the things other people want …” Strimling said. “The trade-offs in this one, I think there’s no doubt they make for a stronger, more democratic government.”

The commission has until May 9 to issue a preliminary report on its proposed changes, which are expected to appear before voters in November.


Commission Vice Chair Shay Stewart-Bouley, who voted against the proposal, said it’s come after months and months of work.

“I feel like people are probably fairly wedded to their positions,” Stewart-Bouley said. “It’s great if (the former mayors) want to speak out and use their voices, but I’m not certain if it will impact that final ratification.”

Ultimately, Stewart-Bouley said, it will be up to voters to make decisions not only on the leadership proposal but also on other potential charter reforms.

“There’s a lot to be said for this direct form of democracy, but I think it’s also important to look at what we have,” Stewart-Bouley said of the executive mayor proposal. “It will be interesting to see where voters land on these proposals.”

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