The Portland Charter Commission has issued a preliminary report on 15 recommended changes to the structure of city government, including proposals for an executive mayor, a bigger City Council and clean elections.

The report is expected to be presented to the council at its May 16 meeting. Commissioners will have the next two months to make final adjustments to the language that will be sent to voters, whose approval is required in order to enact any of their proposals. The commission will also consider how to group and order the proposals as ballot questions for the November election.

“I’m very proud of my fellow commissioners,” Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede said Monday. “We’ve put together quite a long list of reforms that I’m sure if enacted will improve democracy in Portland.”

The 97-page preliminary report comes after nearly a year of work by the commission, which was authorized by voters in 2020 in order to address the question of whether to create a clean elections program to fund qualified candidates in municipal races. But the commission has since examined a host of other possible reforms to the key document outlining the structure of city government, and many have made it into the preliminary report.


The most significant reform the commission is proposing would make the mayor the “chief executive” of the city, strengthening the role of the mayor in developing the budget and giving the mayor supervisory oversight of the chief operating officer – a new position that would replace the city manager. The mayor would no longer be a member of the council but would preside over meetings and set council agendas.


The proposal also creates an “executive committee,” made up of the mayor and two councilors elected by the council, to nominate key officials in city government: department heads, the city clerk, the corporation counsel and the chief operating officer. The city manager currently nominates department heads, who are then approved by the council, while the council appoints the city clerk, corporation council and city manager.

“Under this plan, most decision-making is centered in the hands of elected officials – the mayor and city councilors – who are directly responsible to the ultimate source of governing power: the voters,” the report says of the proposed leadership model. “At the root of the reforms proposed here is a desire to establish effective and transparent citywide policy leadership that is directly accountable to voters.”

The commission voted 8-4 in support of the leadership proposal last month, after a preliminary 7-5 vote and feedback from Mayor Kate Snyder and 15 former mayors who said it would put too much power in one person. Snyder is only the third mayor in recent history elected by city residents following a 2010 charter change from the practice of councilors appointing a mayor from their own ranks.

In an email Monday, Snyder said she hadn’t yet had a chance to read the commission’s preliminary report and may weigh in on it at a later time.

At their last meeting, some charter commissioners voiced lingering questions and concerns with the leadership proposal, including Commissioner Ryan Lizanecz, who ultimately voted in favor of the proposal after suggesting an amendment, which failed, stating explicitly that the mayor should not interfere in daily operations of the city. Lizanecz later tried to get the commission to reconsider the leadership proposal in an effort that initially gained support at the meeting but which ultimately was not acted upon.



Lizanecz said Monday that he plans to work with other commissioners to try to pass an amendment that would rein in some of the mayor’s authority before the commission’s final report, due July 11. He said he didn’t have specific details yet and they would depend in part on what the commission is legally allowed to do between the preliminary and final reports.

“I’m open to changing it as much as people want to,” Lizanecz said. “What’s legal I guess is the other side of that. Hopefully we can answer some of those questions (at our next meeting) on Wednesday.”

Jim Katsiaficas, the commission’s attorney, said in an email Monday that state statute, which defines the charter revision process, does not limit the changes that can be made to proposals between preliminary and final reports.

“That these reports are labeled ‘preliminary’ and ‘final’ in the state law and that there’s a 2-3 month period between the filing of each suggests strongly that the commission may review and revise the proposals during the interim, based upon public comment and the commissioners’ own consideration,” Katsiaficas wrote.

The commission will hold a series of workshops on topics related to the mayor’s authority this month, according to Commissioner Robert O’Brien, who said he obtained approval to organize the sessions from the commission’s executive committee. He said the workshops will give commissioners a chance to talk freely about lingering questions without any votes scheduled.

“There are folks like me … who were willing to keep (the leadership proposal) alive because of conversations to further hone it,” said O’Brien, who is worried that the proposal doesn’t clearly spell out how much the mayor can be involved in day-to-day operations.


Workshop topics will include the executive mayor’s power to direct staff, the language defining the mayor’s involvement in drafting the budget and an amendment Commissioner Marpheen Chann proposed at the commission’s last meeting. Chann’s proposal would keep the mayor as a member of the council, keep a city manager instead of a chief operating officer and eliminate the executive committee to nominate key officials.


The report issued Monday contains other recommended changes to city government. Some are big, like the one to grow the council from nine members to 12. Others, like a proposal to formally recognize the Peaks Island Council in the city charter, are relatively minor.

Legal questions also remain about two of the proposals. One would remove a City Council vote on the school budget from the budget development process and the other would grant voting rights to noncitizen residents of voting age in municipal elections.

“As of now, both of those items we intend to send to voters, although there does exist some legal ambiguity around both and we haven’t completely resolved the legal ambiguity,” Kebede said.

The commission could try to resolve the questions by seeking more legal opinions or by rewriting some of the proposals’ language, he said. The commission got differing opinions from two legal firms – Drummond Woodsum and Perkins Thompson – on whether the school budget proposal could, under state statute, reassign the ability to determine the total school budget amount to an authority other than the council.


In a December memo, attorneys from Perkins Thompson said it was “of questionable validity” whether the council approval of the budget could be transferred to the school board, while a January memo from Drummond Woodsum said “there appears to exist a strong legal basis” for tasking the school board with determining the total amount of the school budget.

As for the noncitizen voting proposal, Katsiaficas, of Perkins Thompson, has advised the commission that it would likely be found illegal under state law.

“Absent another opinion saying it’s legal under state law, we may be forced to not send that to voters,” Kebede said. “But there’s still time to continue the legal analysis around that question – and if there are changes in the language that can address the concerns of our attorney, then that might be a path forward as well.”


The report includes a cost estimate for only one of the proposed reforms – clean elections. That proposal would establish a mechanism for public financing of qualified candidates in municipal races. The report says that it would cost about $290,000 annually to create and administer a clean elections fund within the city clerk’s office. Kebede said Katsiaficas told commissioners that the state doesn’t require a fiscal analysis and that previous charter commissions in Maine have not included cost estimates with their proposals.

Kebede said it’s possible that the commission could include more cost estimates in the final report but there “isn’t a strong appetite for it.”


Some proposals, such as the Peaks Island Council one and a rewritten charter preamble, are expected to be cost neutral, Kebede said. Others leave funding amounts up to the City Council or don’t mention funding.

Making the council bigger would require pay and benefits for four more councilors, assuming the mayor is no longer a member of the council. Councilors currently earn stipends of $6,947 annually, plus health insurance and other benefits.

Meanwhile, a proposal for a civilian police review board aimed at improving police oversight says the board would be “funded as needed by the City Council through the annual budget.”

A public hearing on the preliminary report is scheduled for May 25 at 6 p.m. The draft final report will also get a public hearing on June 22 at 6 p.m. Both meetings will be held remotely via Zoom. The preliminary report will be posted online on the charter commission’s webpage. Copies are also available at the Portland Public Library and Room 211 of Portland City Hall.

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