PORTLAND, Maine — The governance committee of the city’s newly elected Charter Commission is several steps along with a plan to critically review municipal leadership, which could result in the city ditching the strong city manager position in favor of an executive mayor to lead the city.
Specific language of the governance committee’s recommendation to the charter commission likely won’t be ready until after the holidays, according to Ryan Lizanecz, one of the committee’s four members.
Beginning Wednesday night with public-facing interviews with key officials, it’s going to become clear pretty quickly which direction the group wants to move in.
“I think we’re going to know what our desired outcome is fairly soon — at least I will,” Lizanecz said.
The city’s governing model currently includes a professional city manager hired by the council that oversees civic operations and an elected council-mayor that serves as the city’s political leader.
But spurred by a progressive wave, voters elected commissioners who may challenge that existing order, which could result in an eliminated or demoted city manager and a strong mayor, along with other changes, such as instituting a clean elections program.
The commission’s governance committee is tasked with overseeing charter provisions about leadership structure, including elected and appointed boards and officials. On Sept. 22, with the help of a public policy facilitator, the group spitballed ways that an ideal city government might improve in five years.
The committee — consisting of Lizanecz, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, Robert O’Brien and Shay Stewart-Bouley — said they wanted more accountability among city leadership, easier access to information, greater diversity in municipal leadership and “to build a structure where money is not the driver of voice” in city politics.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we actually had big dreams and aspirations as a city and we could start to move those through City Hall,” Committee Chair Robert O’Brien said.
The governance committee will make recommendations to the 12-member commission. If passed by the commission, those changes will appear before voters in an election.
The majority of the committee’s nine elected commissioners ran on limiting the city manager’s power, indicating the political will to move to a strong-mayor model is there.
The city seems poised for the change as well, with longtime City Manager Jon Jennings leaving to fill a similar post in Clearwater, Florida. The city’s corporation counsel Danielle West, will step down from her role to assume city manager duties on an interim basis on Nov. 2.
Realizing change may require reimagining the city’s leadership structure, not just reforming it.
“I’m thinking that we might try a system that we have never had here in Portland, to try a new system,” Sheikh-Yousef said.
The commission’s recommendations are expected to be finalized by next summer. Voters will need to approve them, with a required voter turnout of at least 30 percent of the most recent gubernatorial election.
Portland presently has an elected mayor, but the mayor isn’t empowered to run the city like, for instance, Boston’s mayor. Instead, the mayor appoints committees, sets the council agenda and intermediates with other government agencies.
The committee’s Oct. 13 meeting is the first of several the group plans to use gathering information about the mayor-city manager relationship, talking to former mayors, city managers and experts in the field. On Wednesday night, the committee will interview Kate Snyder, Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling, the city’s three popularly elected mayors to hold office since the position was restored in 2010, and three appointed mayors who held office before the change.
At later meetings, they will interview others who can help inform the process, including Jennings; Catherine Conlow, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association and former Bangor city manager; and Chryl N. Laird, a former Bowdoin professor and assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, who studies race and ethnic politics in state and municipal governments.
The recent progressive wave to reopen the charter and restructure municipal government has put Portland’s old guard on the defensive, charging the political atmosphere with combative perspectives on the direction of the city.
But if changes are to be made to Portland’s government, they should be guided by information, not strong feelings, Sheikh-Yousef said.
“We need information,” Sheikh-Yousef said during a September meeting. “We really are trying to change the charter, which is very, very important. We cannot go on based on feelings. We should go on based on what is best for our community.”