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Portland Residents To Vote To Fill Seats On New Charter Commission

Elizabeth Gross
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Elizabeth Gross votes on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Voting starts this week in Portland for several seats on a newly created charter commission.

The commission was formed by a citizen referendum and will be tasked with reviewing the city's charter and making recommendations that could dramatically alter its governance structure. Some candidates are already pushing for major changes to the city manager and mayoral positions, which they say could create a more accountable local government in the wake of racial justice protests.

All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg spoke with Randy Billings, a reporter with the Portland Press-Herald who's been covering the issue.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: These charter commissions don't normally seem to get huge attention. But this commission has definitely been different, especially if you look at all the lawn signs along all the street corners in Portland. Why has this commission gotten so much outsize attention this year?

Billings: Even before the pandemic and the nationwide calls for racial justice and addressing inequities, Portland's just undergone so many changes in recent years, with the amount of development and the amount of pressure that's generating on working class people in the city. And there was this growing sense that the council wasn't always listening or responsive to citizen concerns. So that was bubbling beneath the surface before the last year even happened. And then, of course, in between the time the council decided to ask voters if they wanted to have a charter commission, the pandemic hit, and that really sort of exacerbated all the structural inequities that we have. And then there was the George Floyd killing, and many others, at the hands of police. So calls for police oversight started to grow. And this charter commission came at the right time. I mean, it was viewed as a perfect opportunity to try to make some of that systemic change in Portland that people had been calling for nationally for the last year.

How are supporters of the move toward the charter commission and different candidates hoping that this local city charter change could impact racial equity and justice in Portland?

Oversight of the police — there are some candidates who really want to have a system where citizens have some real authority and some oversight over policing. There's one candidate who's calling to defund the police within the charter, and reallocate some of those resources to community-based groups. There are other candidates talking about writing into the basic structure of city government a diversity, equity and inclusion expert, even an equity council to ensure that this work is ongoing. Just even more broadly, some folks think switching to a strong elected mayor system will bring more accountability to city government, generally, because they have a popularly elected mayor who serves four years but doesn't have any real hard power in that position. They don't control city operations, they don't hire, they don't fire — it's just led to a lot of conflict. So folks think if we go to this strong mayor system, then the person who's running, they'll set their agenda, they'll be able to have a better shot at enacting their priorities through the budget. And there'll be a better way to hold the city's top executive accountable at the ballot box. Whereas right now, the city manager runs those day-to-day operations. And the manager reports to the full council. And there's only a couple council seats up at a time, so it's really hard for folks to get that one big say to hold someone accountable for something.

You've been really reviewing a lot of the different platforms from what the nearly two dozen candidates that are running right now. Is it that manager mayoral race issue? Is that the biggest issue that you're seeing that's dividing folks, or what do you see right now?

It's definitely the issue that people are talking about the most. It seems like a lot of the candidates are running on a platform of shifting more of the executive authority in the city to the mayor. And you know, there are maybe just a handful of candidates out there that say they have a little more pause about throwing the city manager out and switching to the strong mayor. They're worried that it's just gonna bring a lot of partisanship inside City Hall. And there's some folks out there, they don't believe that city services, paving streets and sidewalks, should be necessarily partisan issues. So that really does seem to be animating a lot of this. And I'm also hearing a lot of discussion about the city council, whether or not they should expand the number. Right now there are nine city councilors, including four at-large that represent the entire city. Folks are talking about getting rid of the at-large, making those into new districts and sort of making smaller districts throughout the city. You know, some folks are talking about doubling the size of the city council. Some folks want to pay the city council a full-time salary so they can devote their whole time to handling constituent issues. So those were the really big issues that people are out there talking about, it seems like.

So ultimately, what sort of result will come out of the work of this commission? And what sort of real power does it have going forward?

Once the commission is formed, I think they have a timeline that they have to work under. So I think after a year, they'll be looking at certain proposals. They'll be studying the charter, getting advice on what exactly they can put in the charter as opposed to what's more of a policy thing. At the end of their work, they'll draft up a report with any recommended changes. So any changes they want to make, those will go out again to the city voters and nothing will be changed unless it's approved at the ballot box. And this, of course, all happened just over 10 years ago, when they changed the charter to have the elected mayor.