PORTLAND, Maine — A lengthy airing of grievances by Portland city leaders ended Monday night without a clear path to resolving the long-simmering tensions between Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings.
The City Council workshop brought into full public view the degree to which the two men’s enmity and distrust has occupied city government over the last year — a distraction that Councilor Nicholas Mavodones decried as taking up “more time … than any of you have any idea.”
The four-hour meeting was preceded by competing demonstrations from supporters and detractors of the mayor. It saw the manager and councilors upbraid Strimling, who in turn exchanged heated comments with Jennings even as he sought to more regularly meet with him and get more support from city staff.
The mayor and manager, who have not met one-on-one in months, appeared willing to again sit down together. But the meeting culminated with Jennings saying he would resign if the City Council ordered him to grant the mayor direct, unmitigated access to city staff.
“If I’m going to be directed by the council to violate the charter you will have my resignation immediately,” Jennings said. “I am very distressed, certainly, about my future with the city,” he added later.
Council members’ requests of staff must be routed through the city manager’s office. Throughout the meeting councilors said they do not feel the mayor should have any more access than the rest of them — though Strimling contended he has less.
Following Jennings’ pronouncement about resignation several councilors praised the manager and emphasized it is the mayor alone who cannot get along with him. The council recently gave Jennings a nearly $18,500 raise.
“The council is telling you, Mr. Mayor, that you need to get it together,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said. “This cannot continue.”
For his part, Strimling said he was disappointed the councilors were not open to his requests to have additional resources dedicated to his office and the opportunity to see all city press releases before they go out.
Having to channel staff requests through Jennings and the City Council’s recent decision to eliminate the position of his aide are stymieing his efforts to serve Portlanders, Strimling said.
“I’ll keep doing my job the way I’m doing my job, but I have got to get information,” he said. “I’m not going to give up my responsibility to develop policy that the people of the city ask me to develop and I tell them I will.”
Councilors countered that much of the information the mayor wanted has been included in meeting briefings or could be found with a simple Google search.
“Sometimes work needs to be done by an individual,” Councilor Belinda Ray said. “Not everything can be given to you.”
While the mayor frequently turned on the council dais to address Jennings directly, the city manager rarely looked at Strimling during the meeting.
During some of the mayor’s comments Jennings could be seen slowly working his jaw muscles. He said the meeting was the “most demeaning thing I have ever done in my professional career.”
Jennings also said he wanted to share other details of why staff are concerned about meeting directly with Strimling but would only do so in a closed session. Several councilors agreed to do this at a later date.
Before the meeting, a gathering of former elected officials denounced the mayor’s behavior from the City Hall rotunda, while supporters of Strimling rallied outside.
“We are calling on the council to hold the city manager accountable for his refusal to work with the elected mayor so we can all get back to focusing on the issues that really matter,” Michael Langenmayr, an organizer of Progressive Portland, a citizens’ group that is aligned with Strimling, said.
Langenmayr and a handful of other supporters of the mayor stood in front of City Hall with signs depicting Jennings and councilors Thibodeau and Ray as infants. The baby labeled Jennings was wearing a crown and saying “No! No! No!” on the signs. The one labeled Thibodeau was saying “Why does he get to be mayor and not me? Whaaaaa,” and Ray was saying “You’re so smart Mr. Jennings.”
The group had placed packs of Huggies diapers on the City Hall steps.
Even as Progressive Portland members demonstrated outside, inside City Hall former Mayor Cheryl Leeman and a dozen other former officials criticized the group as being manipulative and said that Strimling had fallen short of his campaign promise of collaboration.
“Many of us here today supported the mayor,” Leeman said. “We are quite frankly disappointed that the mayor has not delivered on his promise of ‘Portland Together.’ … There is absolutely no excuse for the rift that has spilled out in the public arena.”
Leeman served as mayor before 2010, when the city charter was changed to make the office popularly elected and full time rather than chosen from among the part-time city councilors. The current charter describes the mayor as the spokesman and policy leader of the city but leaves executive functions and daily operations, including overseeing staff, to the city manager.
The central issue that emerged during the meeting was a lack of trust between Jennings and the councilors on one hand and Strimling on the other. Several councilors accused the mayor of publicly mischaracterizing things they told him in private. Jennings accused him of lying.
Councilor Jill Duson said she would not meet privately with Strimling until after the November election, in which her seat is up for the vote. And Jennings said he’d want the deputy city manager to attend all his meetings with Strimling.
Strimling countered some of these claims and recounted numerous instances in which the city manager had ignored his requests for information or staff help or only answered after long delays. Jennings said he at one point raised the mayor’s lack of trust in city staff with Strimling.
“‘That is right, I do not trust anyone who works in government because all you do is cover your ass,’” Strimling replied according to Jennings. The mayor did not deny making this comment.
Jennings challenged the “narrative that the city is not moving forward” and praised the work of city staff. Several councilors, however, said they were frustrated with the amount of time they have devoted to the tensions between the mayor and the manager and regretted that the infighting has spilled out into public.
“This has been arguably the single most talked about topic among us as a group … for two years,” Councilor Justin Costa said.