PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Ethan Strimling said Monday that he will not veto the $240 million municipal budget in response to the city council eliminating the job of his assistant and called for a public review of the city charter.
In a press conference on the steps of city hall Strimling repeated his criticism of the council’s vote last week, saying that eliminating the year-old position of his assistant “undermines the ability of the independent office of the mayor to do the work the voters expect it to do.”
But he said that issuing a veto would only draw out “maneuvering, grandstanding and infighting” on the council, which voted 8-1 to approve the budget last week.
Strimling backed off the suggested veto in the face of a council that appeared prepared to override him, but is now seeking to create a citizen task force to resolve city hall tensions that he blames on differing interpretations of the legal document that defines the powers of his office.
“If we follow the true intent and letter of [the charter], we will be able to divert our current unsustainable course and move towards a more functional government,” said Strimling.
Several city councilors, however, expressed deep skepticism at the mayor’s proposal, saying the charter is clear.
“The only person who doesn’t understand the role of the mayor is the mayor,” said Councilor David Brenerman. “I don’t know how many legal opinions he needs.”
The city charter was revised in 2010 to create a popularly elected, full time mayor, of which Strimling is the second to hold the office. On Monday he said that he will seek to create a task force to develop an “official interpretation” of the charter and offer recommendations on how to “operationalize that meaning.”
Last year, after the mayor was dissatisfied with the city attorney’s reading of the charter, the city spent more than $21,000 to have an independent lawyer offer an interpretation of the document and try to arbitrate ongoing tensions between Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings, who handles day-to-day city operations.
Although Strimling said Monday that he agrees with how the charter was interpreted by late lawyer Peter DeTroy, he remains unhappy that he does not have direct access to the city staff and expressed frustration with the vague language that defines his role.
“What does it mean for the mayor to ‘facilitate the implementation of city goals through the city manager’s office?’” said Strimling, quoting the charter.
Last week, before voting to cut the job of his assistant, city councilors chastised the mayor, saying he’s done too little to work with them and isolated himself from the rest of city government. And on Monday several councilors said that they feel the mayor should instead focus issues beyond his own power.
“This question, in my mind, has been asked and answered,” said Councilor Spencer Thibodeau. “We’ve just gotta move past this.”
But on Monday, the mayor suggested that it was not his approach but the charter structure that is driving tensions with the council, which he noted had also existed under the last mayor, Michael Brennan.
While the mayor would appoint members of the proposed charter review task force, the full council would need to vote to create it and could override his appointments, Strimling said.
The mayor said that he had not reached out to his colleagues on the council before announcing the idea to the media on Monday, but intends to work to build support for the plan. Councilor Nicholas Mavodones suggested that he’s unlikely to find it.
“We’ve had two different analyses from two lawyers,” said Mavodones. “The mayor seems to be the only one that doesn’t agree.”