Ethan Strimling, left, and Michael Brennan, right, appear in a mayoral debate at the University of Southern Maine in 2015. Now, each former mayor, the first two to be directly elected by Porland voters, since the 1920s, are on opposing sides of an effort to expand the powers of Porland's mayor. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In a state where unelected city and town managers hold vast power, Portland could take a drastically different approach if voters approve a proposal that would give executive power to its mayor in a strong-mayor format in November.

In most of Maine, city and town managers wield vast influence over day-to-day operations, effectively working as the head of the local government.

Portland’s charter amendment would step away from that model, providing the mayor increased power in city government, including the ability to veto legislation, propose the city’s budget and enact executive orders.

Of Maine’s 23 cities, only two have mayors with veto powers — Westbrook and Waterville, which have the strong mayor model of government. Several other cities, including Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford, Saco, Augusta, Belfast and Hallowell, allow the mayor to vote to break a tie among other council members.

Still, not everybody believes the change is imperative or even necessary.

Rep. Michael F. Brennan, D-Portland, the first directly elected mayor in Portland since the 1920s, is one of 15 former Portland mayors who have publicly opposed the changes. While he testified to Portland’s Charter Commision in support of giving the mayor power to propose the city budget, he feels the commission went too far.

Removing the mayor from the City Council and making the city manager position accountable to the mayor instead of the council is “problematic,” he said.

“What’s being proposed at this point almost automatically sets up a situation where you’re going to have conflict between the mayor and the City Council,” Brennan said.

Brennan isn’t alone with being concerned. Orlando E. Delogu, a professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law, fears concentrating too much power in one individual. He said the recent action of progressive voices in Portland had been the result of a “committed minority” successfully organizing in municipal elections that often see low turnouts.

“I think the strong-mayor approach is a solution in search of a problem,” Delogu said.

But several others see positives in the proposed change. Former mayor Ethan Strimling, who succeeded Brennan, said the commission’s changes would expand democracy in Portland and create a system of checks and balances between the mayor and City Council that would divert power away from a city manager not directly chosen by voters.

A mayor with strong executive power is the norm for most of the largest cities in the country. Portland is the only community among the most populous cities in the nine Northeastern states that does not allow the mayor to veto all legislation.

While that change has frequently been called a strong-mayor system, Strimling said it also expands the power of the council vis-a-vis the city manager. The council would have the power to amend and set budgets, ratify nominations to city positions appointed by the mayor and remove or censure the mayor with a supermajority vote, among other powers.

Even if Portland does change to the strong-mayor model, it’s unlikely it will cause reverberations for other Maine cities.

Portland is an outlier rather than a model in Maine, said Delogu. He doubted that passage would influence most of the state.

“I think most Mainers simply regard what happens in Portland as Portland being Portland,” Delogu said.

Maine is a dispersed, rural state, and a majority of residents live in roughly 480 cities, towns, plantations, unorganized townships and other entities that have an average population of around 1,400. Delogu didn’t think passage of the Charter Commission proposal would change the minds of people in those communities, or even in the half-dozen other Maine cities.

But in Westbrook, where the strong-mayor system has been in place for a while, it’s worked well, said Colleen Hilton, who served as mayor there from 2009 to 2016.

Hilton said she thought the Charter Commission’s proposal would make for a more effective government in Portland. Still, the success of the system is often contingent on who was elected — those with past administrative experience see more success, Hilton said.

“Portland can put that structure in place, but I think a lot of its success will be dependent upon who they elect,” Hilton said.

However, Brennan doesn’t think that just because the system has seen success in Westbrook, it will succeed in Portland. The state’s largest city has more than three times as many people as its western suburb and also contains Maine’s largest airport and medical center, he said.