‘The city got what it wanted in Mark Rees’: Portlanders consider the past, future of their city manager position

Posted Aug. 19, 2014, at 6:23 p.m.

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Portland City Manager Mark Rees abruptly announced his resignation Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.
Seth Koenig | BDN
Portland City Manager Mark Rees abruptly announced his resignation Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — Mark Rees’ predecessors as Portland city manager were well-known, high-profile men who had local histories.

Following city managers who include Joe Gray and the late Robert Ganley, Rees was working under long shadows. But as Portlanders who helped reform the city’s government in recent years say it’s unfair to compare Rees to previous — and more outspoken — administrators.

Rees’ abrupt Monday night announcement of his resignation from the job after three years left many in the city Tuesday evaluating his legacy and starting to think about what qualities Portland should seek in his successor.

Unlike several previous administrators, a quieter taskmaster of a city manager was exactly what many had in mind when Portland voters approved a slate of 2010 charter change, which in part established a popularly elected mayor for the first time in 88 years.

But that move complicated the leadership structure at Portland City Hall and may ultimately have undermined the tenure of Rees, who ceded the spotlight to newly elected Mayor Michael Brennan, a former state lawmaker and U.S. House candidate, just months after he started as city manager in 2011.

“To the extent the manager possesses effervescence, charisma, people skills, sales skills, those are all for the good. But baseline skillset? He has to be a good manager,” said Christopher O’Neil, a government liaison for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, which in 2009 recommended many of the charter revisions that were later enacted.

“It’s a big operation. You’re talking about a quarter of a billion-dollar company. That puts the city of Portland among the top corporate operations of the state,” he continued. “That was our vision [for the city manager position]: somebody who could make the gears turn while the mayor was out there leading a high-profile conversation on the political side.”

In terms of their public profiles, O’Neil said, Rees and Brennan played their roles exactly how the chamber and other reformers had in mind.

“The city got what it wanted in Mark Rees,” he said. “There are people who agree or disagree with Mayor Brennan’s politics, but he’s doing the job that the charter commission wanted him to do.”

Thomas Valleau was a member of the charter commission that recommended changing the mayor from simply being the chairperson of the City Council to a popularly elected position.

“I think, no doubt, the first job of the city manager is the internal affairs of the city, making sure everything is run properly,” Valleau said. “Smart city managers don’t go grandstanding; they let the politicians handle the external affairs. … I have not heard anyone complain to me that Mark was too much in the background, and I talk to a lot of people about city affairs.”

‘Challenging for everyone involved’

But while Brennan and Rees seemed to settle in as Portland’s outspoken and behind-the-scenes leaders, respectively, they otherwise struggled to pin down the boundaries between their two newly reformed offices.

“The two of them had to figure out a way to make this work. At times, it was challenging for everyone involved,” City Councilor Ed Suslovic told The Forecaster after Rees announced his resignation.

“I have a better sense of where those lines are between the city manager’s office and the mayor’s office now than three years ago, but it’s still a work in progress,” Brennan admitted Monday night.

James Cohen, a Portland attorney and former council chairman mayor who helped lead the charter commission, said the quality he most wants to see in the city’s next manager is an ability to collaborate and seek input from many diverse groups.

“The person needs to be collaborative and able to work with a variety of groups and neighbors, residents, businesses, as well as [within] city government,” he said.

Valleau said the city should focus its search on candidates from the Portland area, where a string of previous city managers — Gray, Ganley, Tim Honey and John Menario, going back to the 1970s — were recruited.

Unlike his predecessors dating back four decades, Rees arrived from out of state, without having come up through the ranks at Portland City Hall or having led one of the neighboring cities. Parting to some extent with past practices, the council picked Reese over the local candidate, Assistant City Manager Patricia Finnigan, who took the top job in Camden after being passed over in Portland.

“We’ve always had great city managers here,” said Valleau, who serves on the Portland Housing Authority commission and Portland Fish Exchange board. “As we go around looking for a new city manager, no doubt we’re going to hear, ‘Oh, national search — the best and the brightest.’ But if you look at our history, you see there’s real value in looking local.”

He said an in-house candidate or someone from a nearby municipality likely would already be familiar with Portland’s different neighborhoods, community policing style and diverse school system, among other things.

“If you hire from away, it’s going to take that person two years to figure all that out,” Valleau said.

Should Portland offer more money?

Cohen said the city will need to offer a competitive salary in order to draw top talent, wherever the candidates are coming from. Rees was hired on a salary of $143,000 per year, an amount that inched up to approximately $146,000 over a series of small annual raises.

“The amount of the salary in the last round may have been a factor in the number of applicants,” Cohen said. “What I don’t know is what that salary level might need to be in order to be more attractive to more applicants.”

Rees follows a line of experienced city administrators out the door in recent years, with Finance Director Ellen Sanborn and Health and Human Services Director Douglas Gardner among the most recent department heads to announce their departures.

In a three-year wave of turnover, in which Rees’ arrival was involved in early, Portland has replaced its mayor, school superintendent, police chief, fire chief, assistant city manager, planning director, communications director and three lawyers, in addition to the aforementioned vacancies in the finance and human services departments.

With Rees facing the rapidly approaching end to his initial three-year contract this spring, the City Council stopped short of offering him another multi-year deal and instead agreed to a one-year extension that would have kept him in Portland until July of 2015.

In each of the last two years, the City Council has put off voting on annual pay raises for Rees until deep into the next fiscal years — in December of 2012 and October of 2013.

Councilors both times ultimately made the 1 percent to 1.5 percent raises retroactive to the beginnings of the respective fiscal years and insisted the modest sizes and delays of the pay hikes should not be construed as disapproval of the job Rees was doing.

On Monday night, he announced he would resign effective Sept. 3 in order to seek “other personal and professional opportunities.” The City Council is expected to name an interim city manager at its Sept. 3 meeting and would immediately launch a search for his successor.

The new manager will inherit a city that is finding itself on snowballing superlative and top 10 lists. Nationwide publications have lauded Portland for everything, from its food scene and its family friendliness to its environment and economy. But the successful job candidate could also face stubbornly high homeless numbers and an ongoing legal spat with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration over whether general assistance aid should be given to undocumented immigrants.

“People shouldn’t mourn the loss of a city manager,” O’Neil said. “They’re like baseball managers. They take the job knowing they’ll one day be gone, and they’ll get a job somewhere else. They take the job knowing they’re in a political situation that one day may not be a match for their managerial skills, much like a baseball manager.”

 

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