"It left me pondering whether Jon Jennings understood who works for whom."
In this March 4, 20202, file photo, then-City Manager Jon Jennings takes questions from reporters at a press conference at a fire station on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.

Phil: You have been remarkably quiet about the recent dismissal by the Clearwater, Florida, City Council of Jon Jennings, the former city manager of Portland, who, shall we say, was a pebble in your shoe when you were mayor. Not to be too intrusive, but I think people are curious to know your reactions.

Ethan: Sadly, based on my experience, I’m not surprised by what happened in Florida. It was a repeat of what happened in Portland, except our council did not hold him accountable. It makes me angry, because we could have gotten so much more done on housing, wages and health care for working-class Portlanders had Jennings honored the role of the mayor in the new city charter. 

Phil: What really raised my eyebrows was how Jennings told Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard that he was going to give councilors feedback on their performance if they tried to give him negative feedback as the city’s manager. And how Hibbard rightly responded, “this is not a peer review. These are your five bosses.” It left me pondering whether Jennings understood who works for whom. 

Ethan: Deja vu. You may recall the public circus the Portland City Council had because I tried to get him to provide my office with the basic information to do my job. Instead of accepting feedback and looking for solutions, he unleashed a 10-minute speech attacking me and my performance as mayor and threatening to quit if we asked him to do his job any differently.

Phil: Sounds eerily familiar to what Hibbard said when he told his colleagues that Jennings threatened to resign when he was informed his performance needed improvement, “I have to tell you folks, that’s somebody that’s not reflecting on how to improve.”

Ethan: An understatement, if ever there was one.

Phil: I remember your “colleagues” siding with Jennings and using the opportunity to what appeared from the outside as piling on you. Most morphed into your opponents at one point or another in your reelection, perhaps this explains more clearly what motivated their behavior.

Ethan: I’m having PTSD just thinking about it.

Phil: I hope you feel some solace with the news from Clearwater. People reading this will lift you up now. I am sure you have risen in the eyes of those who believed you masterminded the conflict.

Ethan: Much appreciated. The personal attacks were rough, but I always understood the fundamental battle was about ideology. I worked to continue funding in support of immigrants. He wanted to end that funding. I worked to rebuild our elementary schools and increase funding for education. He opposed both. I wanted to keep our public health clinic open where it was. He wanted to transfer ownership and allow them to close our clinic. I wanted to ensure that workers were paid more. He said that would cost too much. Thankfully, we won those battles, and many more, but framing me as the villain in a battle for power was a way to distract from what we achieved on the policy front. 

Phil: Yet the bigger picture for our readers really is what we can do to avoid power-hungry city managers — unelected by voters — from driving the agendas of our elected officials when it should be city managers implementing decisions by elected representatives by the citizens. 

Ethan: Well, you know I feel that a city manager form of government is never going to work as well as directly electing the chief executive. But we lost that fight (this round), so now it is incumbent on our city councilors to make sure they are clear about who works for whom as they prepare to hire a new city manager.

Phil: And once they hire that person, assure they know they work for us.