March 31, 2020
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Portland mayor threatens to veto city budget after council cuts funding for his assistant

Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Mayor Ethan Strimling listens as the Portland city council debates eliminating the job of his assistant.

PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Ethan Strimling said that he is “very seriously considering” vetoing the city’s $240 million annual budget because of the city council’s decision to eliminate the job of his assistant.

Strimling was the only council member to vote against the annual city budget Monday night, following a 6-to-3 council vote to cut his assistant’s job. The mayor said Tuesday that he may feel forced to exercise his veto power if the city council doesn’t show that it plans to provide him with staff and policy support he feels he needs.

“The council made a decision to undermine my office,” said Strimling. “I need to have people who can support the policy positions we’re trying to bring forward.”

The mayor has until the end of the day next Monday to decide whether to veto the budget.

The city council would need six votes to override a veto and could vote again on the budget at its June 5 meeting. The budget was approved 8-to-1 on Monday.

Councilor Justin Costa said that he was not surprised that the mayor might veto the budget, but said that doing so would be unproductive.

“If the mayor is going to force the issue he’s probably not going to like the immediate response from the council,” said Costa. “The mayor need to understand how to appropriately interact with the rest of the organization.”

Under the city charter, the mayor’s veto would not affect the roughly $105 million schools budget.

Most city staff report to City Manager Jon Jennings, who has full authority over day-to-day city operations. Over the last year, as Jennings and Strimling have clashed, the mayor has been frustrated with the need to route his requests through the manager’s office. Now, with the job of his aide eliminated, Strimling said that the arraignment will become untenable.

“It’s not a system that works for me to serve the city,” said the mayor.

Strimling said that he hopes to hear from city councilors and Jennings about how his position will be supported during a previously scheduled Friday meeting. The mayor said he wants “unimpeded information and analysis” from city department heads, like the police chief and director of urban planning and development.

But on Monday several city councilors said they felt there was support available to the mayor, noting his predecessor, Michael Brennan, the city’s first popularly elected, full-time mayor since the city charter was changed 2010, did not have an assistant.

“That mayor wrote his own speeches,” Councilor David Brenerman said Monday.

Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson, who joined Strimling in voting against cutting the mayor’s assistant on Monday, said that his access to staff is something the council will need to discuss. But they both decried the suggestion of a veto, with Ali saying that “creating a nonexistent ‘crisis’” would serve only to distract from the many real issues that need to be addressed.

“Vetoing the budget would be a very poor decision on the mayor’s part,” said Batson. “It would not accomplish anything other than further distancing himself from his colleagues”

Costa said Tuesday that he’d likely vote to override a veto. Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jill Duson said that they intend wait and see what the mayor does.

The other city councilors did not respond to requests for comment. Jennings declined to comment through a city spokeswoman.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got a more than $300 million budget and we disagree on $70,000 plus benefits,” said Costa, referring to the salary of the mayor’s aid. “I hope that he doesn’t prolong the process unnecessarily.”


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