June 17, 2018
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Big turnover at Portland City Hall: Problem or opportunity?

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Mark Rees started his job as Portland city manager in July 2011. Less than 14 months later, he has racked up more experience at his post than the people holding at least seven of the most visible leadership positions in Maine’s largest city government.

Since Rees started, Portland has either replaced or hopes to soon hire a new fire chief, police chief, superintendent of schools, mayor, director of planning, attorney and deputy city manager.

The questions city officials face now is: Why has that happened? And do those changes offer Portland more challenges or more opportunities?

“The opportunity is you have new people coming in with new ways of looking at things and new ideas,” said Mayor Michael Brennan. “But the downside is that sometimes it’s hard to keep things moving forward … when you have a lot of leadership changes.”

In addition to there simply being new faces in City Hall, there have been changes in some of the positions themselves. The mayor job famously changed last November in accordance with a slate of city charter reforms voters approved the previous fall that made the post popularly elected at the polls for the first time since 1923, rather than a default position linked to the chairmanship of the City Council.

During the most recent budget cycle, Rees combined two assistant city manager positions — one of which had remained unfilled since Pat Finnegan left to become Camden’s town manager in late August 2011 — into one deputy city manager job.

“Every week we’re navigating new waters,” Brennan said. Rees “and I am constantly talking about what [responsibility] falls on his side of the fence and what falls on mine. I feel very fortunate that the city manager and I have a great working relationship.”

District 2 City Councilor David Marshall said he “thinks all the changes in staff at City Hall really indicate that the city is in a transition phase.”

So where is everybody going? Former mayor and veteran City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said the massive turnover is not a case of institutional housecleaning by the council or new city manager. Rather, a lot of retirements and new job opportunities popped up for several Portland leaders around the same time, he said.

“Any time more than one or two people leave an organization, people ask questions, and they’re reasonable questions,” Mavodones said. “One can say a lot of people have left, but I don’t think there’s one smoking gun causing everybody to leave. It’s a big organization with more than 1,000 employees, and there’s going to be turnover.

“I think it’s worth looking at [the positions] more at the individual level than by saying, ‘Oh, there are a lot of people leaving,’” he continued. “I think it would be inaccurate to say, ‘A lot of people are leaving City Hall, there must be something wrong.’ To me, it’s kind of important to break it up and talk about why each person left.”

Previous City Manager Joe Gray, Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne and Corporation Counsel Gary Wood — each with decades of experience — respectively reached retirement age and stepped down.

“Joe Gray was over 65, Gary Wood, 63; that’s when people retire,” said at-large City Councilor John Anton. “The average employment span for a city manager is somewhere around five years. The nature of these things is that you typically don’t have someone occupy the position forever.”

Finnegan, who had been passed over for the Portland city manager job in favor of Rees, was given an opportunity to take the top administrator job in Camden, and prior Police Chief James Craig was lured away from Maine by an offer to head an even larger force in Cincinnati.

Craig has since starred in a widely aired commercial for the University of Phoenix, in case any Portlanders had forgotten their short-term police chief.

Previous Portland Public Schools Superintendent James Morse announced last October he would not seek an extension of his initial three-year contract when it expired at the end of June this year. Morse, who has since accepted a job as superintendent of the Durham, N.H.-based Oyster River School System, explained his decision by saying the administrator to bring dramatic change to a district — as he did in Portland in the aftermath of 2007’s $2.5 million school budget overrun crisis — should not be the same one to maintain the reformed system moving forward.

Former Director of Planning and Urban Development Penny St. Louis, who had worked in the city’s legal department, left municipal government work for the private — and generally more lucrative — sector about two weeks after Morse made his intentions known. That was also the path of former city attorney Mary Costigan, who left her public job to take a post with the Portland law firm Bernstein Shur.

“I wouldn’t say that any of the changes were moved through hostility,” Marshall said. “I can say that I’ve had a desire to see changes in City Hall since I was elected … so I’m excited to see new leadership in City Hall. We’ve had a lot of great people working for us in the past, but we have a lot of new challenges facing the city now and it’s good to have fresh sets of eyes to look at them.”

Those eyes belong to folks such as Emmanuel Caulk, former Philadelphia public schools administrator who took over as the new Portland superintendent on Aug. 20 after a lengthy nationwide search, and Jeffrey Levine, who jumps in as former development director St. Louis’ permanent replacement after previously heading the planning staff in Brookline, Mass.

Former longtime state lawmaker Michael Brennan won a crowded 15-person race to be elected as the city’s new mayor last November, and department veteran Michael Sauschuck was promoted to become Portland’s latest chief of police.

“I think this presents a tremendous opportunity, largely because I think the hires we’ve made have been great,” Anton said. “The planning director hire is great, the city manager hire was great, the police chief hire was great. Any time you have this type of change, it’s an opportunity for culture change, which is healthy.”

Permanent hires to fill the deputy city manager, corporation counsel and fire chief posts have yet to be made. The city search committee’s top choice for the fire chief job pulled out of the running last month, and the group has had to advertise for a new batch of candidates.

“I very seldom, if ever, come in with a preconceived candidate, or somebody I have in mind ahead of time for a job,” said City Manager Mark Rees. “I always want to hire the best candidate for the job, the best candidate [being] somebody who will work for Portland.

“You don’t want to have such turnover that things become chaotic or unorganized, but if you have certain positions where people retire or move on, it’s a great opportunity to see who else is out there in those positions and what new perspectives we can add,” he continued. “One of the nice things about Portland is that it’s a very nice place for people to come and work, so we tend to attract the top tier of candidates for these positions.”

And even with the regular announcements of retirements and departures over the last year, Rees said the city has the luxury of having time to be patient and making the right hire.

“I don’t think the turnover has been as dramatic as someone might think,” he said. “Right now I have about a dozen department heads who report to me directly, and a lot of those people still have years and years of experience in the city. And obviously, as a newcomer coming in, I’ve relied on those people for their experience in learning about the city.”

Rees said he still has City Hall veterans such as Finance Director Ellen Sanborn and Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance, as well as Sauschuck — relatively new to his current job, but not to the force — to lean on. He said the mixture of fresh perspectives and in-house experience has provided his office with a happy balance.

“There’s immense pressure to do more with less,” Rees said. “The demand for services is always going up, but at the same time, people are always concerned about paying more taxes. The major change is you’ve got to bring in managers who are thinking outside of the box in terms of delivering services.

“Having people come in who have worked in different operations and organizations, and having their insights has been beneficial, but on the other side of that, we have an experienced finance director who understands how things have worked here for a long time,” he continued. “We have a $220 million annual budget and there are a lot of moving parts in it. So we need that combination of having new ideas and fresh viewpoints, but also the availability of someone who can say, ‘Well, wait a minute, if we do this over here, it may have unintended consequences over there.’”

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