Portland needs a strong mayor

In 2010, Portland voters were asked whether they wanted an elected mayor.

Voters said yes — they wanted a chief executive accountable to voters. But so far, that’s not what we’ve gotten.

Right now, the most powerful person in Portland government is the city manager, Jon Jennings. The city manager is not elected and not accountable to voters. And Jennings has made it clear he doesn’t give a darn what voters think. He was quoted by the Portland Press Herald, brushing off voters’ policy preferences outlined in a poll conducted by the Portland Democratic Committee.

“I really could care less about this poll or any poll,” Jennings said. “Any true leader is not going to make decisions based on a poll.”

This is the problem. The most powerful person, the one making all the decisions, absolutely should care how voters want their city to be run. It’s called democracy. Political pressure from voters should be what drives our policy, not the whims of an unelected bureaucrat.

An unelected chief executive is an affront to the spirit of voter intent when Portlanders chose to elect their mayor. The city manager right now has only to keep a majority of councilors happy, and that’s just not conducive to an open and responsive city government.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

This is because the Charter Commission, tasked with implementing the structure of the voter-approved elected mayor, created an untenable, ambiguous power dynamic between the city council, city manager, and mayor. This caused major conflict through the term of Portland’s first elected mayor, Michael Brennan, and is threatening to cause an even bigger uproar with current Mayor Ethan Strimling.

In a nutshell, the charter is way too vague. Rather than clearly delineating duties between the various branches of city government, the charter creates a tangled web of shared responsibility. It’s within this web that the democratic will of the voters of Portland gets lost.

For example, the charter wants the mayor to provide “guidance” to the city manager on budget issues. This is all well and good, but what happens when the mayor and the city manager don’t agree on the myriad pieces of the $240 million city budget? What if the city manager doesn’t agree with the mayor’s “guidance”?

The charter does not answer these questions.

Another vague term used frequently in the charter’s definition of the elected mayor’s duties is “facilitate.” Once again, this term doesn’t help determine who is responsible for what — “facilitate” can mean “make happen” or it can mean “help make happen.”

This is an important discrepancy. The charter says the mayor “Facilitates implementation of city policies through office of the city manager.”

This could mean that the mayor is in charge of implementing policies, and uses the city manager as the vehicle to do so, putting the mayor squarely in charge.

But it could also mean the mayor merely helps the city manager implement policy, a very different scenario.

It seems from reading the Charter Commission’s report that they gave very little thought to the most critical aspects of governance — what happens when there is conflict, and who ultimately is in charge of what. The commission apparently envisioned a happy, tension-free land where the branches of government hold hands and work together to run our amazing city.

That’s not how the real world works. And it’s certainly not what’s happening in Portland right now.

There is sharp conflict right now between the elected mayor and the city council regarding the mayor’s authority. Many on the council are backing the city manager’s contention that the mayor shouldn’t have direct access to city employees, a position that severely limits the mayor’s ability to handle policy development or constituent issues.

Conflicts like these have driven a great deal of discussion about what exactly we’re doing with this elected mayor idea. The city hired lawyers to read the charter and try to interpret what the balance of power is supposed to be, but this didn’t seem to help. Now Mayor Strimling is talking about forming a task force to make all of this more clear.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

When Portland voters approved the concept of an elected mayor, they weren’t thinking they were hiring a $71,000-a-year “facilitator” to provide “guidance” to the $166,500-a-year city manager.

Voters expected a direct line of democracy between them and the person running the city.

If people don’t like what the person running the city is doing, they should be able to vote for someone else. That’s what the concept of a mayor is to the average person, not the strange pseudo-executive outlined by the Charter Commission.

To best represent the will of the people, Portland needs to amend its charter to give full executive control to the mayor. Let’s have a strong mayor, accountable to the voters, with the authority to run the city, and clearly-delineated checks and balances from the city council.

Our current system is undemocratic by nature, and ineffective in practice. It’s time to give the people of Portland the government they expect, and let democracy determine the direction of our city.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.