Portland charter commissioners are considering changes to a proposal that would redefine the roles of the mayor and city manager as they prepare to issue their final report.

The commission has just a handful of scheduled meetings left before the report is due to the City Council on July 11, and is likely to take up Commissioner Robert O’Brien’s amended proposal either at its June 22 or June 29 meeting.

O’Brien’s proposal includes significant changes to the leadership proposal in the commission’s preliminary report. It would eliminate the proposed executive committee tasked with nominating key city government officials, and completely detach the mayor from the City Council, removing the mayor’s role in presiding over City Council meetings and setting agendas. It also would allow the council to remove the mayor by a three-quarters majority vote.

O’Brien told fellow commissioners at a meeting Wednesday that his proposal would allow for mayoral leadership while also “putting a serious check on someone who’s a nefarious actor or someone who is simply overwhelmed by the job.”

“The biggest concern I’ve had throughout this process with an executive mayor has been around what if we get the wrong personality or the wrong skill set in the mayor’s role?” O’Brien said in an interview Thursday. “I think we will have enough professional expertise in City Hall, but I’m concerned about someone providing the wrong diplomatic messaging or getting in the way of operations.”

He said the commission has heard concerns that if the wrong person is elected executive mayor, four years in office is a long time to “let them languish and upset the populace” without many options for removal.


“The amendments I’ve proposed strip out micromanaging language of the mayor can do this and can’t do that and leaves it broad and clean, ensuring the council has what it needs to be the city’s watchdog on the mayor’s executive functions,” O’Brien said.


The commission’s current leadership proposal, which calls for an executive mayor and replacing the city manager job with a new chief operating officer who would report directly to the mayor, was narrowly approved 7-5 in late April. At a subsequent meeting, the proposal passed 8-4.

O’Brien voted for the current proposal both times, though he said when the preliminary report was issued that he hoped there would be discussions to further hone it.

Under his proposal, the mayor would remain the chief executive tasked with articulating the city’s vision and goals, acting as an official city spokesperson and representative, and directing the chief operating officer in preparing the city budget and capital improvement plan.

Under the current proposal, the mayor would no longer have a vote on the council, but would continue to preside over meetings and set agendas. O’Brien’s proposal would end those two roles.


“In order for the council to be the watchdog, the mayor can’t be part of the watchdog,” he said. “It’s only logical the mayor has to be separate for one to check the other.”

The amendments also would eliminate the executive committee called for in the current proposal. That committee, made up of the mayor and two councilors, would nominate candidates for department head jobs as well as chief operating officer, city clerk and corporation counsel.

With a strengthened council, O’Brien said, such a committee would no longer be necessary. Instead, city administration would advertise for chief operating officer and department head candidates at the mayor’s behest, and the mayor would send nominations to the full council. The council would hire the city clerk and corporation counsel, as it does now.

O’Brien’s plan also would alter the structure and power of the council. It would create a position of council chair to preside at meetings and ensure agendas are published correctly, and allow the council to remove the mayor for cause with a 75 percent majority. A separate commission proposal would increase the council from nine members to 12, meaning it would take nine votes to remove a mayor.

The process for removing a mayor is based on a similar provision in Westbrook, O’Brien said. He believes it would push the mayor to work with the council – or risk losing the job.

“While it would almost never be used, it would require the mayor to be mindful of their bully pulpit and what they’re saying publicly and require them to include the council in their management,” O’Brien said.


He said he isn’t concerned about potential power struggles between the council chair and the mayor because the chair would be mostly responsible for procedural tasks such as presiding over meetings. “It’s really a service job rather than one that holds individualized power,” O’Brien said.


The commission has just three meetings left before its final recommendations must go to the City Council. The June 22 meeting will include a public hearing on the draft report. All the commission’s recommended changes would require voter approval, likely in November.

In addition to tweaks and amendments, the commission is considering how it might bundle proposals – either as a single item or separately in groups of one or two – on the ballot.

Commission Chair Michael Kebede, who voted for the current leadership proposal, said he supports O’Brien’s changes. “I think this is the ideal proposal,” Kebede said.

But Commissioner Pat Washburn, who also voted for the current proposal, said she wasn’t sure she’d support the changes. “I think it’s a lot of change very late in the process,” said Washburn, who plans to analyze it further.


Washburn, who supports giving a stronger mayor more influence over policy, said she is leaning toward supporting the current proposal. “But I haven’t firmly made up my mind and maybe upon reviewing (O’Brien’s proposal), I may change my mind,” she said.

On Wednesday, commissioners also rejected by a 7-4 vote a competing amendment from Commissioner Marpheen Chann to restore some provisions in the existing charter, keeping the mayor as a voting member of the council and retaining the city manager position.

Chann said Thursday he has been trying to come up with a proposal that would get solid majority support, and he doesn’t plan to back O’Brien’s proposal.

“I think we disagree fundamentally on the idea of an executive mayor,” Chann said. “I was willing to compromise a little bit earlier in the process on the idea of an executive mayor, but I think both Commissioner O’Brien’s proposal and the governance proposal (in the preliminary report) just go too far for a city like Portland.”

He said he supports O’Brien’s provision for removing the mayor, but “ultimately it’s not an absolute check on the mayor.”

“It’s a nuclear option, an extreme option that people won’t resort to unless the stars align or councilors feel there’s something that rises to that level,” Chann said. “I think even a wackadoodle mayor would know where to push the boundaries up until that point of just before triggering the impeachment process.”

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