Ethan: Biased? You and I get paid to be biased.
Phil: Good point.
Ethan: Honestly, I was blown away by the response. Before Black Lives Matter got behind the push to eliminate the City Manager position, I never thought this thing would pass.
Phil: In my opinion Strim, I think your four years as mayor did more to convince people the current system needs tossing out than anything BLM did.
Ethan: That may be true. But hey, if my battling with entrenched interests leads to a more democratic government in Portland, I will rest peacefully.
Phil: Now that the Charter Commission has been authorized and the current system will likely be scrapped, here are my two cents. And what I am outlining here is not simply Portland specific. Like Thomas Jefferson taught us, every government could use a little revolution every few years and I encourage all Maine cities to think about doing the same.
Ethan: Amen to that.
Phil: The new system should look like what I believe people said they wanted from the beginning, an elected chief executive accountable to the people. And I say that as someone who knows it will be at least two decades before your fair city ever chooses to elect a Republican.
Ethan: Two decades? Try half a century.
Phil: Sad, but probably true. The system I see is pretty simple. Model Portland with the same checks and balances you see all over the country. You have an executive branch (the mayor) and a legislative branch (the council). The executive branch proposes policy, the council votes on the policy, and then the executive branch executes the policy with oversight from the council. Right now both of these branches are merged into one, with the most powerful position in the middle being a highly protected and unelected bureaucrat — a city manager.
Ethan: Yup. It’s a system that works great if you are an insider like the Chamber of Commerce, or the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Both of those groups supported the initial shift to a council-city manager system in 1923. But part of what I really like in what you describe is empowering the council with more authority. To that end, there must be independent staff dedicated to the council to help them serve their constituents, research policy, provide proper oversight, and draft ordinances for the body to consider.
Phil: Likewise, the mayor should be able to sign/veto legislation (with council authority for an override) but should not be a voting member of their body. The council should elect their own leadership and create their own committees, and they should fully vet and confirm all department heads.
Ethan: Not to mention, all staff that works for the mayor should be available to the council for questions and inquiries. No one should be able to block elected officials from speaking with anyone they choose.
Phil: Be careful on this one. Employees should answer to one boss, not 10.
Ethan: “Answer to” and “access” are separate things. In order for a democracy to flourish, information must flow freely.
Phil: Another idea I have heard tossed around is going to a two-year budget cycle, to give more consistency for services and taxpayers. I think that makes sense for long-term planning.
Ethan: In that same vein, I’d shift council elections to every two years and I’d simply have seven district seats across the city. I would compensate councilors much better ( they make less than $600 a month!) and have committees meet regularly, since now they barely meet once a month.
Phil: Did you know that besides Maine, there is no other state in New England where the largest city of that state doesn’t have an elected mayor with executive authority? The bottom line is that you can’t have a city government where people elect a mayor to lead, and not give that mayor the tools to do the job.
Ethan: The bottom line for me is that the people asked for an elected mayor to lead their City ten years ago. The Charter Commission tried to cut the baby in half instead of meeting the challenge. Unsurprisingly, I think we’ve seen that system fail, and it is time to finally get the job done.
Phil: Well, hey. The U.S. started with the Articles of Confederation before they tossed that out for our Constitution, so don’t be too hard on the original commissioners.
Ethan: Hopefully we’ll have a James Madison in the second round.
Phil Harriman served as a town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling served as mayor and state senator from Portland.