PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors on Monday night called for a more user-friendly city government during a wide-ranging workshop in which they set goals for their first year under a popularly elected mayor.
Councilors discussed streamlined electronic permitting, constituent complaint tracking, a revamped city website and consolidated council subcommittees as ways to accomplish that goal.
“Clearly, with permitting, something has to happen,” said Councilor Cheryl Leeman. “It’s totally unacceptable that somebody who wants to put a deck on the back of their house has to wait, six, seven weeks to get that approved.”
Each councilor was given an opportunity during the workshop to list his or her general priorities for 2012, the first year since 1923 to begin with a publicly elected mayor on staff — Michael Brennan won the November election a year after city voters approved charter changes that included the reinstatement of the popularly elected mayor.
Leeman was one of a number of councilors to highlight the need for a reassessment of the city’s regulatory environment, calling for a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time for the city’s initial response to permit requests.
“Time is money for developers,” Leeman said. “The longer they have to wait for approval to get one thing or another, it’s costing them money.”
Councilor John Anton asked for a revamped website to “make it much more user-friendly” and “transparent” for constituents seeking city information and following complaints they’ve filed with the city.
Councilor Jill Duson echoed Anton’s call for a more predictable constituent complaint program in which not only constituents, but councilors can check in on the progress of the city’s response to complaints that have been logged.
Mayor Brennan discussed how the city could pursue more positive public outreach, using the example of last week’s announcement of new economic development grants as “significant” news that went widely unnoticed.
“The overwhelming majority of the public isn’t aware of what we’re doing that’s good,” he said.
Councilor Ed Suslovic was among many councilors to express interest in “fewer standing committees with more councilors on each one” as a step toward focusing the city’s efforts on housing, economic development, transportation and other specific issues.
“On our website, there’s this superlong list of work groups and committees, and some of those are long defunct,” said Councilor John Anton.
“I think what we end up doing is creating a lot of parallel processes competing for staff” attention, agreed Councilor Kevin Donoghue.
Brennan, who as mayor has the formal authority to make committee appointments, said he’s considering consolidating the subpanels, combining the housing committee with community development or the transportation committee with the alternative energy and sustainability committee, for instance.
In the workshop setting, the council made no official decisions about policy changes or specific goals.
Brennan directed City Manager Mark Rees to draft a list of council goals as stated during the workshop and said he plans to return at a later meeting — potentially Jan. 4, 2012 — with an officially proposed committee structure.