Remember the food truck fiasco? Complaints prompted the Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department to present three solutions to the Transportation & Sustainability Committee: A, B and C. Three elected councilors voted unanimously for option A. But the city manager instead chose option C, which became city policy.

The details matter less than the system. Here, as in countless decisions for almost a century, an appointed official ran Portland. Eight of the Charter Commission’s members, including Governance Committee Chair Robert O’Brien, all agree: It’s time to return power to the people.

This November, Question 2 offers Portland voters and their elected representatives on the City Council more power over the chief executive. Under Question 2, an elected mayor – not the city manager – would be the city’s chief executive. The mayor will direct the city’s policy implementation while the chief administrator directs the department heads, finance and administrative operations. The new mayor could be removed through:

• A supermajority council vote.

• A council-initiated recall election.

• A voter-initiated recall election.


• An election loss.

The council could also formally censure the mayor for unseemly conduct. That’s four more methods than we have today of removing the city’s chief executive or holding them accountable. Mayoral elections would also be synced with presidential elections, guaranteeing maximum voter voice in choosing city leadership.

Unlike Westbrook’s strong mayor, the proposed mayor would have no unilateral powers – including hiring and firing. The mayor would appoint the department heads, but the council would confirm them. If the mayor makes a policy enforcement decision that lasts longer than 30 days, the council could block it.

Information is power, and the current system gives the city manager power to restrict the council’s access to information – to keep elected representatives in the dark and keep voters out of the process. Question 2 would give the council more power to understand and reform the city’s inner workings by empowering the mayor to propose rules governing communications between appointed and elected officials, and the council to amend and approve them.

Thanks to Marpheen Chann’s council-expansion proposal, Question 2 would also give Portland four more councilors: nine elected district-wide, and three at large. Smaller districts would mean cheaper elections, better voter access to councilors, more chances to serve and more ideas in City Hall. Question 2 would double councilors’ stipends, allowing more working people to run and serve, and Question 3 would give candidates the option to run in publicly financed elections. The council would gain the power to elect its own chair, giving their leader majority support.

Thanks to Dory Waxman’s participatory budgeting proposal, Question 2 would give voters themselves a direct voice in city spending. And Question 2’s capital improvement proposal, penned by Peter Eglinton, would ensure that our city’s five-year capital spending plan will always include input from our public schools.


I am a condo owner. I pay property taxes. I produce trash, and I like that the city collects it every Wednesday morning. I pay vehicle excise taxes. I do not want my desire for accountable and transparent government to produce inefficient and ineffective government. The chief administrator solves that problem.

Question 2’s new office of the chief administrator would ensure that the city is managed by a professional with financial and managerial expertise. This office has analogues in every successful council-mayor system the commission studied. Burlington, Vermont, has one. Westbrook has one. Jerre Bryant, its city administrator, has worked under five mayors.

To most people, “mayor” means someone who makes meaningful executive decisions. Every four years, Portland mayoral candidates run on ambitious platforms and meet their opponents in forums that resemble gubernatorial debates. News media help sustain the illusion that “mayor” indeed means mayor.

Then the winner takes office and comes face to face with the reality of powerlessness. Before the last charter changes, the mayorship was essentially a resume-builder. Now it is a $90,000-per-year resume-builder. Its occupant, regardless of their talent or vision, is a ribbon-cutter whose biggest duty is chairing meetings. Real power rests with the city manager. Thanks to this morass, every mayor elected under the current system has either lost reelection or refused to reapply for the job.

Portland is not a corporation to be managed. We are a human community to be governed. Democratic governance retreated in Portland a century ago, and the essence of that retreat is still baked into our charter. A vote for Question 2 is a vote for voter power, council power, and accountable executives. Vote “yes” for democracy; vote “yes” on Questions 2 and 3.

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