Portland Charter Commission tweaks executive mayor proposal as final deadline nears

·8 min read

Jun. 24—The Portland Charter Commission has modified its proposal to change the powers of top city officials to put more checks on the role it envisions for a stronger, executive mayor.

The commission, which is nearing its deadline to submit its final recommendations, voted 8-1 Wednesday in support of amendments from Commissioner Robert O'Brien that would completely detach the mayor from the city council, eliminating the mayor's ability to preside over meetings and set agendas, and would allow the council to remove the mayor by a three-fourths majority vote.

The amended version of the commission's original proposal also does away with an executive committee — which would have been made up of the mayor and two councilors — to nominate top city officials. It retains the commission's original proposal to make the mayor "chief executive" of the city while replacing the city manager with a "chief operating officer" with less authority than the city manager now has.

"I think we're going to put before voters a very clean model they can feel confident in supporting if they want this leadership model of an executive mayor," O'Brien said. "I think we have the right checks and balances with a watchdog council that can pass its own legislation and make sure City Hall is being well managed."

The amendments approved Wednesday are likely the final substantive changes to the commission's most significant proposal. The panel, which has been meeting for months to review the city's charter and recommend changes, must present its final report to the City Council by July 11.

To be enacted, its proposals would then have to be approved by voters, and part of its work in the next few weeks will be deciding how those proposals will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. The commission is bringing forward more than a dozen proposed changes and has the option to send them to voters in groups as opposed to one collective package.

"It's the final stretch," Chair Michael Kebede said. "A fair bit of work remains, but as I've said before, I can't be prouder of my fellow commissioners and I'm confident that each of the reforms will expand democracy in Portland."

A NEW BALANCE OF POWER

The commission's proposal for an executive mayor gives more authority to the city's elected mayor and scales back the power of the appointed city manager.

The proposal removes the mayor from the City Council and eliminates the city manager position in favor of a "chief operating officer" who would still oversee departments and department heads but would report to the mayor rather than the council, which in the current system includes the mayor.

Right now, the appointed city manager takes the lead in overseeing development of the budget and capital improvement plan, and presents them to the council. In the commission's plan, the mayor would do this.

The commission's original proposal called for an executive committee, made up of the mayor and two councilors, to nominate people to head departments and serve in key positions such as city clerk and corporation counsel, but the changes the commission approved Wednesday eliminate that committee.

Instead, city administrators would advertise for candidates for chief operating officer and heads of departments at the mayor's behest, and the mayor would send nominations to the full council. The council would hire the city clerk and corporation counsel, as it does now. The city manager currently appoints department heads with final approval by the council.

The commission's initial proposal took away the mayor's vote on the City Council but let the mayor preside over meetings and set council agendas. In its tweaked proposal, the mayor has no council role. A council chair would preside at meetings and ensure agendas are published correctly.

The mayor would have the power to veto council actions on ordinances and policies, but the council could override a veto with the support of two-thirds of its members. The council also could remove the mayor for cause with the support of a three-fourths majority.

The commission also agreed Wednesday to propose a salary raise for the mayor and increased pay for city councilors and school board members. Under the existing charter, the mayor's salary — now $92,515 — must be at least 1.5 times the median household income in the city. The city council sets its own stipend and school board members earn the same amount — $6,947 at the moment. Meanwhile, the interim city manager's salary was approved by the council last fall at just over $181,000.

The charter commission's proposal now calls for the mayor to earn at least twice the median household income, and for councilors and school board members to be paid stipends of 10 percent of the mayor's salary.

O'Brien said that raising the mayor's salary is intended to attract a broader range of candidates and reflect the greater demands of the role the commission is proposing. "We're offering voters a system where the buck stops in the mayor's office, so for that reason they deserve to be paid as an administrator," O'Brien said, adding that the increase could be offset by paying the new COO less than the city manager now makes.

If Portland voters approve the changes, the new executive mayor would be elected in 2023 and would serve for five years. After that, the mayor would be elected every four years in line with the U.S. presidential election cycle.

COMMISSION SUPPORT

Several charter commissioners at Wednesday's meeting said they believe the most recent changes to the proposal will help address concerns they've heard about a lack of checks and balances in the earlier version.

Commissioners Marpheen Chann, Dory Waxman and Shay Stewart-Bouley were not present to vote at Wednesday's meeting.

One commissioner, Peter Eglinton, said he was unable to vote for the amendments.

"I want to thank Commissioner O'Brien for putting in the work to find ways to improve the proposal that was in the preliminary report, but I will be voting against it due to the compensation section as well as the move more towards a fully executive mayor, which I continue to oppose," Eglinton said.

Commissioner Catherine Buxton believes the proposal as it stands now addresses concerns commissioners have heard from the public and raised themselves. "This is something I feel excited to vote for and confident to talk to Portland voters about," Buxton said.

Kebede, the commission chair, cited a letter that more than a dozen former mayors sent the commission in April saying they were opposed to the proposal for an executive mayor because it would concentrate too much power in one person, and he said he believes the most recent changes have addressed that concern.

"I think this ... makes the package much more defensible than they found it, at least," Kebede said at Wednesday's meeting, before voting on the package of amendments. "That's one reason to recommend this particular arrangement over the one we have. Not to say I won't support the one we have if that's what we end up with, but I think this is a much easier proposal to defend and to sell to voters."

'TOO MUCH POWER'

Some of the mayors who signed the letter — most of whom were not popularly elected but appointed by their colleagues on the council — said that even with the most recent changes, they still do not support the proposal.

"I still think it's going in the wrong direction of giving too much power to one individual," said Anne Pringle, who served as mayor from 1993 to 1994.

Pringle believes some of the perceived problems with the current structure of government have really been because of personality clashes. "I don't think we need wholesale changes to control problems in the personalities of certain people," she said. "There doesn't have to be a whole government overhaul to address that."

Michael Brennan, who was elected mayor in 2011, said that while he agrees with giving the mayor more authority over the budget, he thinks the mayor should remain a voting member of the City Council.

"To separate the mayor from the council and have a council president to me seems to create more confusion around who is accountable in city government," Brennan said.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who joined the former mayors in opposing the commission's proposal in April, said that she was reading over the latest changes and would not be able to comment Thursday.

O'Brien said he understands that not everyone will support the proposal, but he believes it is the right proposal for voters who want to strengthen the role of the mayor. At the moment, the mayor doesn't have any leverage to pursue policy if the City Council or city manager aren't on board, he said, but that would change under the commission's proposal.

"It's really a question of whether you believe we're better off hiring our leaders with the city manager and having oversight with the City Council or (believe) Portland has the capacity to elect its leadership and ensure professionalism through checks and balances," O'Brien said.