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A member of Portland's Charter Commission explains the recommendation to give the mayor more power

Portland City Hall
Wally Gobetz via Flickr
Portland City Hall

The Portland Charter Commission has approved a proposal that would expand the powers of the mayor in Maine's largest city.

At a meeting on Wednesday, the commission voted to finalize the plan, which would create an executive mayor position. That person would also serve on an executive committee with two councilors, which would nominate department heads, among other duties. Instead of a city manager, Portland would have a chief operating officer who would supervise day-to-day operations and develop budgets at the mayor's direction.

Several former mayors pushed back on the proposal this week, but some commissioners say the plan offers accountability and transparency.

At Wednesday night's meeting, commissioner Marpheen Chann introduced an alternative plan that would give the mayor more power, but still maintain a city manager.

"So this gives the mayor a little bit more power over the budget than is currently in the city charter," Chann said.

However, that plan failed to move forward after the group split on the proposal, 6-6. Charter Commission Chair Michael Kebede said the group could still amend its proposal in the months ahead.

"[The vote split] suggests there are ideas people like, which can be moved as amendments. That can happen now. It can happen in May. It can happen in June. And I think we have that prerogative," Kebede said.

In an interview with Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz, Kebede defended a key recommendation for strengthening the city's elected mayor.

The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity.

Kebede: The executive of the city right now has the power to unilaterally appoint the heads of departments. In our model, that power would rest with an executive committee, an executive committee made up of the mayor and two councilors to be elected by the council. But the core reason why giving the mayor more executive powers is that we believe the most powerful person in city government should be directly accountable to voters, just like the most powerful person in national government is directly accountable to voters, and the most powerful person in the state government is directly accountable to voters.

Gratz: As you probably know, some former mayors were saying this is not a good idea. They really worry about things like patronage and the possibilities investing too much power in an elected mayor. Do you have any particular response to their criticisms?

Yes, so one of these former mayors, Mike Brennan, the first popularly elected mayor in Portland in the last century, actually testified to the Charter Commission, and lobbied me personally to strengthen the mayor's power, to give the mayor the power to propose the budget. That's one of the powers that we propose to give to the mayor. Now, we have stopped short of giving the mayor the powers that mayors in cities like Westbrook and Burlington, Vermont have. In Westbrook, for instance, the mayor has the power to unilaterally fire department heads. A couple of mayors ago, a Westbrook mayor, was within I think just a few weeks of taking office, fired three department heads immediately. That power would not be granted to this mayor that we're proposing. The mayor would appoint only with the approval of the executive committee, with two counselors. And the mayor cannot unilaterally hire anyone. Any of the nominees for city offices, for department heads and for constitutional officers, have to be approved by the city council. And so there's ample oversight, both upstream when the list of names are being generated and chosen, and downstream, when the department heads and other officials are being confirmed and appointed. And so the patronage concern, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the model that we've approved by 8-4, or two-thirds, majority vote.

Of course, the question of mayoral powers is not the only significant recommendation that you're making. What are some of the other things that voters will be asked to approve?

If the reform passes, Portland would be required to set up a Clean Elections fund for candidates to be publicly financed, by 2024. Portland would ban corporate contributions to certain elections, and would require disclosures to be posted on the city's website. We've also proposed to increase the number of city council seats from the current nine to 12, by adding four more districts.

With a 12-person council, who will break ties?

Ties will be considered a failed vote.

So what's next now for your recommendations?

What's next is that we submit a preliminary report outlining our 13 or so recommendations and appending explanations for each intended reform. And then we will have at least four meetings in May and June for us to decide how these questions should be presented to the voters. Whether any tweaks need to be made to the language and for us to hold at least one public hearing as well. And then our final report is due on July 11.