In Maine, 297 local governments hire professional managers to run their daily operations. Fifty-four percent of these managers belong to the Maine Town, City and County Management Association and adhere to a code of ethics stricter than Maine law. Part of this code requires managers to refrain from political activities, including running for office or engaging in campaigning for candidates at any level of government. This helps engender public trust, knowing that streets will be maintained without worry of whether or not powerful interests live there, or that staff will be hired without regard to political allegiance but rather for competence. 

As Portlanders consider their position regarding ballot Question 2 and the proposed changes to their form of government, we wish to offer some clarity based on our experience as public administrators. 

Question 2 is rooted in the belief that the mayor should have full executive authority over the operation of government. This would return Portland to a similar structure it had prior to the 1920s, which was characterized, according to one 1980s assessment, by “corruption and maladministration.” (Such maladies are exactly why the city management profession was created in the early 1900s during the Progressive Era.) If approved, the mayor and council would be separated and granted full autonomy over their separate domains of government – the mayor with executive power and the council with legislative power.   

Question 2 proponents claim the city manager is the “most powerful position in City Hall,” and that the change to mayor-council simply makes that position elected instead of appointed. If this were true, they would have a strong point. However, the reality is that these are very different positions, as evidenced by the numerous powers granted to the mayor that a city manager simply does not have.  

For example, under a council-manager form, the city manager offers a recommended budget based on the council’s adopted goals and priorities. Once presented, the council can change any part of the budget it wishes. However, a mayor need not consider the council’s wishes. As long as the mayor maintains support from more than one-third of the council (a veto-proof minority), they can put anything they wish into the budget and the council has no ability to change it. This is a power that a city manager does not possess. And since the mayor is ultimately elected based on their ability to maintain support of their voters, every decision regarding the administration of government has the likelihood of being made with an eye toward how it may affect the mayor’s ability to raise campaign funds or secure voting blocs. 

Additionally, under the proposed form of government, the mayor has the power to propose legislation and veto any legislation the council passes. These are both powers a city manager does not possess. A city manager may be asked by the council to present a recommendation for how to achieve one of the council’s goals or objectives, but they cannot present their own personal legislative agenda to the council and cannot veto a decision of council simply because they disagree with it. 

Ultimately, individuals have the capacity to do good or harm under any form of government. Neither form is “right” or “wrong,” per se. Thus, we are left to consider which form provides the greatest protections to the people in holding their government accountable to meeting their needs.  

From our perspective and experience, the council-manager form provides greater representation to the people in all matters before government – legislative and administrative. The council-manager form reduces potential for corruption; guards against populist leaders with authoritarian worldviews, and increases the likelihood that programs and services are delivered effectively, efficiently and equitably to all members of the community regardless of how they vote.  

Voters in other progressive communities have reached this same conclusion. The people of Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, California, rejected the strong mayor form of government in 2021 and 2020, respectively. Portland voters must now choose which is best for them. 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.