November 08, 2019
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Portland’s new mayor should ease tension. Does that give more power to the city manager?

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Portland Mayor-elect Kate Snyder shakes hands outside the Grace Baptist Church on Summit Street where residents were casting their ballots on Tuesday.

PORTLAND, Maine — Kate Snyder won a commanding victory in Portland’s mayoral election this week in part by denouncing the friction in City Hall. But some may wonder what does a frictionless City Hall look like — and who it serves.

With some exceptions, Snyder’s campaign was less notable for distinct planks. While outgoing Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilor Spencer Thibodeau went hard on notable issues and harder on one another, the former school board chair carved out a middle road, emphasizing process over policy and civility over dissent.

“I know some people will say, ‘Why isn’t she coming out strong on a particular issue?’” Snyder told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “The mystery isn’t so much in the issues. The work is in finding solutions, because there’s no one silver bullet that’s going to address all our issues.”

Snyder’s election calcifies her narrow interpretation of the mayor’s power as a facilitator rather than a Strimling-type movement-builder. But power must reside somewhere, and under the city’s charter, a mayor who doesn’t lean into it could effectively hand it over to Jon Jennings, the assertive city manager.

As of now, Snyder doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Municipal power ultimately belongs to the City Council. Her job, she says, is to equip them with as much information as possible.

Citing a close read of the city charter — Snyder describes herself as “a wonk” — the mayor-elect said the role offers “early-and-often budget guidance” that informs the city manager’s tasks, like the creation of the annual budget and capital improvement plan.

“There isn’t a ceding of power one way or another,” she said. “I think that what we have seen is that many members of the council have aligned more closely with the city manager over the last several years, and therefore the manager’s proposals carry more weight.

“That’s not mysterious, that’s the way this goes.”

This stands in contrast with Strimling, who saw his role as a “policy mayor” who listened to the city’s most vulnerable citizens, and kept city councilors in line when their votes and work in committee reflected the interests of their campaign donors than citizens.

Strimling struck a populist chord during the campaign, saying in an October debate “the voice that isn’t in City Hall is the people of the city” and that he wouldn’t represent “moneyed interests” and describing the city manager as someone “who kept the trains running on time.”

In practice, Jennings has been much more dynamic. His plans have included recommendations for cuts — to the India Street Clinic, the city’s homeless shelter and Portland Community Support Fund, which was designed in 2015 to help immigrants deemed ineligible for state assistance because they had not yet formally filed an application for asylum — that have received pushback.

A city spokeswoman said Jennings declined comment for this story. In an interview with WGAN days before the election, Jennings said that reducing the property tax burden is a primary issue, and that “city government is one of the contributing factors of the city being unaffordable.”

Stopping short of endorsing a candidate outright but skirting close to politicking, Jennings said he hoped for a more collaborative mayor.

“We’re fairly worn out from all the divisive rhetoric that’s come out of the last four years,” Jennings said. “So we’ll see what happens [in the election] and hopefully we can move the city in a much better direction and a more positive direction going forward.”

In Snyder’s view, hitting the reset button on the mayor’s relationship with the city manager is a good start, saying “there’s a problem in thinking that it’s a power struggle between two individuals” and noting the manager is overseen by councilors accountable to the public.

Time will tell how the Snyder-Jennings relationship will work, but the mayor-elect is excited to get started. A 25-year Portland resident with deep connections in the school system and nonprofits, she said she’s buzzing with how to get different perspectives before city councilors.

“I think there’s a real opportunity here because you have somebody whose work it is to actually think through those things, start to map it out and say, ‘What am I missing here? Who should I ask what I’m missing?’”

Watch Portland’s mayoral candidates answer questions while riding around in a motorcycle sidecar

 



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