February 23, 2018
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The mayor of what?

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Michael Brennan

After watching a spirited mayoral election in Portland last fall, Bangor City Councilor Charles Longo says he’d like to see his city consider a turn toward an elected mayor, too. There are lots of benefits, as well as a few shortcomings to such a change, but before Bangor decides how its mayor takes office, it should identify what it wants the mayor to do.

Portland’s mayor previous to the 2011 election was, like Bangor’s now, largely a chairmanship position, appointed by fellow council members. With a city manager overseeing the day-to-day chores of city government, that’s not a bad thing, and while some ceremonial Bangor mayors have treated the job as if they were suddenly prince of the city, most have taken a calm and practical approach to working with fellow councilors.

An elected mayoral position changes things. Portland’s mayor is full time while the council is part time. The mayor can create or eliminate committees — under Mayor Michael Brennan, the number in Portland has dropped from nine to six — and veto a budget. Typically, a mayor sets the strategy for a city — an emphasis on schools, a housing program, a new approach for attracting businesses, etc. But, most important, an elected mayor is the face of the city and the person driving (or stopping) reform.

Councilor Longo imagines a Bangor mayor with many of the same powers as the one in Portland, though he cautions that he is most interested in getting the discussion going about the position rather than determining any specific roles. And he says the cost of a mayor ($66,000 plus benefits annually in Portland) gives him pause.

Determining what a mayor would do in Bangor should come before deciding whether the job is popularly elected or appointed because there is no sense asking candidates to run for office — to risk their reputations — and then so limit their abilities to function in the role that they are sure to look weak. Just as a mayor gets credit for the competency of their staffs, they are blamed when expenses exceed revenues, no matter what the source of the problem. They need to the power to force the budget to balance.

Bangor has considered and rejected the question of a popularly elected mayor during the 80 years it has had a council form of government.
But it hasn’t seen the enthusiasm and focus on city government that Portland experienced during its recent race that included 15 candidates. It was refreshing to watch, and gave Portland residents a much better understanding of the challenges their city faced.

Councilor Longo says he would like to see a public forum to get the public involved in the election question, and, if the public is supportive, a vote on changing the city charter in November. Before that happens, residents should decide if there are powers the mayor should have that he currently doesn’t. That may or may not lead to the question of whether the mayor is elected or appointed.

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