Portland Corporation Counsel and acting City Manager Danielle West. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

As Portland begins the search for a new city manager, the city is considering a change that could radically alter its governance structure — rendering the position fundamentally downgraded in a matter of months.

After nine months of work, the Portland Charter Commission is finalizing proposals to send to voters in November. Among them is one that would create an executive mayor position stronger than the current role in Portland but weaker than in other major Northeast cities like Boston and New York. If approved, the city manager would no longer be the administrative head of the city government.

The commission’s recommendation has the potential to sow confusion among city manager applicants about what their role might be. It comes at a time when the city has already had some difficulty filling staffing positions, with many staff vacancies including a permanent police chief.

“There’s no denying that there’s a lot of trepidation right now about where things are going to land in a variety of ways once the voters have their say in November,” Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said in a City Manager Search Subcommittee meeting on April 7.

On March 16, the commission took a non-binding 7-4 vote to create an elected, executive mayor for the city of Portland. The vote shows that the majority of the commision is in favor of sending the recommendation to voters later this year. Under the change, the mayor would become the implementer of council policy — a role currently undertaken by the city manager. However, a city manager-type position, potentially under a new name, would continue to handle day-to-day operations in Portland under the mayor’s supervision.

Though the charter commission wants to give the mayor position to have a stronger role in city operations, they don’t want the mayor to have too much power. For instance, in nearby Westbrook, the mayor has the authority to hire and fire city employees. That is something charter commission chair Michael Kebede noted as being too much.

The revised mayor position would retain veto power over the city budget, according to a provision approved in a non-binding vote, but wouldn’t have broader veto power over other items passed by the council.

What the changes would mean for the city manager position aren’t yet certain.

The city manager’s role had not changed significantly since Danielle West, the city’s corporation counsel, took on the role of interim city manager, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. West replaced Jon Jennings, who vacated Portland’s city manager position on Nov. 1. He had indicated he would leave when his contract expired in 2022 but cited Portland’s political climate and its effect on his family in his decision to leave the position early for a city manager job in Clearwater, Florida.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A change to the charter would significantly alter the powers of the position. Despite a potentially changing role, the general consensus among the city manager subcommittee is that it needed to proceed with filling the city manager role, Councilor Mark Dion said.

“We can’t ignore what the charter commission is doing, but it’s not final. It remains speculation until the voters weigh in,” Dion said. “We have to do the job we have in front of us right now.”

It’s also unclear when the change in government would occur if the charter change is approved by voters.

The committee is looking into hiring a consultant to help find a new city manager but hasn’t made a final decision on a timeline for when to fill the position, Dion said.

Making a decision closer to the November election, which he said had been suggested by Councilor Pious Ali, was a potential solution to uncertainties about what the city manager’s role will be.

Doing so would put a potential change earlier in the tenure of the new city manager, allowing whoever is chosen to be more adequately prepared for the altered role. However, it could also delay the search process because the election is seven months away.

Filling other city roles recently hasn’t been easy. Dion noted that the applicants that had come in for the recently listed city clerk position had been “underwhelming” – many seemed to have little relevant experience in a role that plays a significant role in Portland’s elections.

It’s surprising how difficult it had been for municipalities, including Portland, to fill city positions in recent years, Dion said. It’s something that may be attributable to pandemic employment trends as well as the rising cost of housing in Portland, Dion said. There are around 200 vacancies in the city right now, he said, with a majority of department head roles being held by interim leaders.

The city should tell applicants for the city manager position that their role could change substantially with the November election, Ali said Thursday

“I don’t want someone to apply hoping that this is what they are going to get and then not getting it,” Ali said.

Portland City Councilor At-Large, Pious Ali. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Charter commission proposals are not foregone conclusions, Councilor April Fournier said. She was skeptical that Portland residents would support “radical changes” in November, especially during a time of uncertainty for the city due to the pandemic and what it has faced during the ongoing budget process.

Those budget problems have caused a two-week delay in West submitting the Fiscal Year 2023 budget proposal to the council. West said in a letter on Friday that the delay was necessary as the city figured out how to handle the growing number of asylum seekers and homeless individuals seeking emergency shelter in Portland without increasing property taxes or cutting services.

Portland returned to directly electing its mayor in 2011 after having abolished the process in the 1920s. However, this would be the first time since that change that voters would get a say in electing a mayor with executive power.

During last week’s meeting, City Manager Search Subcommittee members said they planned to meet this week to continue discussing the city manager search.

An expanded role for the mayor is one of several sizable changes proposed by the charter commission, which could have voters weigh-in on allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to vote in municipal elections, letting the school board pass a budget without city council approval, and to publicly fund Portland elections.