September 15, 2019
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Is Portland’s new elected mayor position the right direction for the city?

Joel Page | BDN
Joel Page | BDN
Then-Portland Mayor Candidate Michael Brennan looks over a breakdown of election results Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011.

PORTLAND, Maine — Having a full-time elected mayor in Portland City Hall for the first time since 1923 has provided a boost of momentum to a range of city initiatives, such as supporting local agriculture and streamlining the city’s permitting process, and has helped mend backroom divisions among city leaders.

Those are some of the sentiments coming from Portland officials and community members as the first year of Mayor Michael Brennan’s four-year term nears an end.

Brennan was sworn in on Dec. 5, 2011, less than a month after winning a crowded 15-way race to become Portland’s first popularly elected, full-time mayor in 88 years.

In 2010, Portland voters narrowly approved a slate of charter changes that, among other things, installed a popularly elected full-time mayor position in city hall for the first time since 1923. Prior to the charter changes, the mayor was the chairman of the city council; one councilor appointed to the post by his or her fellow councilors.

With benefits and an annual salary of $66,000 attached to the new job, some opposed spending more tax dollars on a position they believed wouldn’t be much more effective than the city council chairmen had been.

“I was a skeptic of [having] an elected city mayor when I was on the charter commission, but now that it’s in place, I feel much better about it, and I think it’s working well,” said Thomas Valleau, a member of the city charter commission which recommended the recasting of the position.

Valleau was in the minority on the commission as an initial opponent of the elected mayor position.

“[Brennan] has not tried to function as a chief executive and meddle in the daily workings of the city departments. Instead he’s trying to set the right tone, set the right direction, work with broad constituencies all across the city and build a vision for the city,” Valleau said. “[Charter commission members] debated this issue [of how powerful the mayor should be] energetically, meeting after meeting, month after month. And we came down on the side that the mayor would not be a chief executive. Had we done otherwise, we would not be a ‘city manager city,’ but a ‘strong mayor city,’ and that would have been too much for me.”

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones was the last council member to hold the appointed mayor post, and, like Valleau, originally opposed the change.

“I think we’ve got a good person in the job,” Mavodones, who ran to reclaim the mayor seat last November and finished third. “He’s a good collaborator and a good communicator. I think it’s been successful over the past year.”

Mavodones said that spending an initial $66,000 annually for salary on the position is “worthwhile.” He said it was a challenge to work a full-time job — he’s the operations officer at Casco Bay Lines — and also respond to all the demands of the mayoral position, even when it was a council chairmanship.

“I’d get many, many calls and emails every day [regarding city business],” Mavodones said.

But while Valleau and Mavodones have come around to seeing the benefit of a full-time, salaried mayor position, the mayor said he knows there are some skeptics out there.

“I wouldn’t be as presumptuous as to say that I’ve satisfied everybody who has been critical of having an elected mayor, and that they now have all been converted into believing that having an elected mayor brings some fairly significant added value to the city,” Brennan said. “But I will say a year later what I said a year ago, that the biggest single advantage of the position is having a four-year term of office.”

The continuity allows Brennan to follow through with a wide range of initiatives he has launched in 2012, he said. He has started a local food initiative, to drive the amount of local produce used in Portland schools from 7 percent to 50 percent over the next five years; and a business outreach program aimed to glean ideas for an overhaul of the city’s permitting processes, which long have been criticized as cumbersome.

Brennan has played a key role in establishing a coalition of mayors of the state’s largest cities, and on Tuesday he brought together representatives of University of Southern Maine, University of New England, Maine Medical Center, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Maine College of Art to talk about forming a “research triangle” in Greater Portland, a main objective of his 2011 campaign. Brennan said he’s taken part in 600-700 events or meetings during his first year in office.

“I have been involved in a number of different initiatives where, if I had to step down now as mayor and have a new mayor come in, the momentum around many of those initiatives would be lost,” he said. “If I didn’t have another two or three years, that initiative [to increase the use of local produce] would start to wane. … We recently got a report [from a task force on homelessness in the city], and I’m very committed over the next year to making progress on that report, and that would be less likely if we had a brand new mayor coming in who maybe had different priorities.”

James Cohen, vice chairman of the city’s charter commission and a former council-appointed mayor, agreed.

“The position is already showing that with time and with the authority to lead, he’s been able to start and move ahead with a range of initiatives, from economic development, to getting involved with education policy, to creating a platform for mayors around the state to advocate for their needs in Augusta,” Cohen said.

City Councilor David Marshall, who vocally supported the restoration of the elected mayor position and finished fourth in the 2011 mayoral race, said the four-year term also is important because it renders moot any backroom jockeying among councilors for the chairmanship.

“The council isn’t going through its annual caucus fight over which five people will be in control for the coming year,” Marshall said. “Before when we were in the caucuses, it was all a game of who could get the five votes necessary to be mayor for the coming year. Then all the close votes throughout the year would tend to land on that same division — whether the public was conscious of that division or not, it was a reality. Now the council doesn’t do that annual caucus. The mayor’s seat was settled by the voters, and that position has more authority.”

Ethan Strimling, former state senator and another candidate in the 2011 mayoral race, said he thinks the position doesn’t have enough authority.

“You want to have the mayor be the CEO of the city, and you want to have the city manager be the chief operating officer,” said Strimling, who finished as the runner-up to Brennan and now writes about politics for the Bangor Daily News. “Let’s have it be a real chief executive, like the governor. You have the Legislature and those checks and balances, but the governor is the chief executive.”

Leading into the 2010 vote on the charter changes, the Portland Community Chamber was a strong advocate for the return of the popularly elected mayor post. A year into the term, Chamber consultant Christopher O’Neil said the organization still believes creating the new position was the right path.

“The Chamber has enjoyed the results of the new mayoral structure,” he said. “We have a go-to person in city hall with the energy, aptitude and time to really grapple with the issues of the day.”

O’Neil said business leaders in Portland appreciate Brennan’s efforts to visit at least one business every two weeks and discuss ways in which the city can be more helpful.

“If you’re going to make reforms to any government structure, you have to start with a conversation,” he said. “He’s done the right thing, which is sit down at the table and listen.”

O’Neil described the full-time mayor as a “moderator of a citywide discussion.”

“He’s brought a better focus to any number of issues — whether it’s homelessness, business needs, this research triangle idea — and he brings order to those discussions,” he said. “He can bring together a wide range of perspectives that he has the time and ability to collect across the city and synthesize those perspectives in policy decisions.”

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