When it comes to the operation and administration of government, the International City/County Management Association believes that programs and services should be delivered efficiently, effectively and, above all, equitably for all people in the community. And so, we were disheartened to learn that the Portland Charter Review Commission recommended implementing a strong mayor system, with unfettered authority over the administration of City Hall.

The current council-manager system in place in Portland maintains the power of the people over how their government is managed and operated. Through the council-manager form of government, the people’s representatives on the council (which includes the mayor) pass legislation and may fire the city manager at any time with a simple majority vote if they believe the manager is not meeting the needs of the people. In this way, the council-manager form of government is designed to provide all neighborhoods and all people with equal power in both the administration and policy-making facets of their government.

Those who argue that the city manager is “the most powerful position in city hall” ignore the fact that the city manager works for the council, which assures the council, not the city manager, has the ultimate power in determining the goals and outcomes of city government. Having served in both a strong mayor system and a council-manager system, I can attest to the fact the mayor, in both systems, remains the most powerful individual in City Hall.

In a council-manager system, the mayor sets the agenda, builds consensus and serves as the figurehead for the city. This provides a bully-pulpit from which the mayor can garner support for their agenda and bring forth matters before the council. The city manager offers recommendations but has no power to advance their own agenda or initiatives. Nor can the city manager ignore the will of council or prevent it from establishing the goals and outcomes that government must strive to attain.

The key distinction in the Charter Commission’s proposed “executive mayor system” is that their proposal allows the mayor to dictate how government operates, provides the mayor direct influence over the hiring and firing of non-partisan staff members, and grants the mayor unilateral authority to decide what policies adopted by council will be advanced in the administration of government. This executive mayor system erects a wall of separation between the people’s representatives on the council and the operation of government. Clearly, if there is concern that the city manager (whom the City Council oversees) might ignore the will of the council in a council-manager system, it is unclear how an elected mayor (whom the City Council has no authority or power over) can be reined in if the mayor chooses to ignore public interest.

Whereas strong mayor systems rely on the ability of a mayor to advance their agenda through political might, the council-manager system relies on public engagement and collaboration to build consensus. The underlying premise of the council-manager form is that all people and businesses within the community deserve equal representation in all government matters. The council-manager form holds that systemic oppression is minimized when the administration of government operates without special consideration given to political interests.

ICMA recommends a council-manager form of government because it provides the greatest opportunity for effective, efficient and equitable governance. This is not to say that it is the only form of government that can work. Certainly, individuals operating within any form of government have the potential to do good or to do harm. The key distinction, however, is that strong mayor systems increase the risk of greater authoritarian governance, systemic oppression and marginalization of those who politically oppose the mayor. Council-manager systems increase the likelihood of community engagement, inclusion and responsiveness to the needs of the people.

At ICMA, we believe good government requires applying an equity lens in all matters. Through that lens, the council-manager form stands out as the only form of government that provides all people an equal voice in matters affecting both policy and administration of government. For that reason, we strongly recommend the people of Portland retain the council-manager form of government.

— Special to the Press Herald

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