Portland city attorney nominated to serve as interim city manager

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Sep. 29—The city's top attorney has been nominated to serve as interim city manager beginning on Nov. 2.

Portland city councilors will vote on Corporation Counsel Danielle West's nomination at its Oct. 4 meeting. If approved, West would assume control over the city's daily operations on Nov. 2 from City Manager Jon Jennings, who is leaving to begin working in Florida.

Mayor Kate Snyder said in a written statement Wednesday that West has the familiarity with city operations and relationships with existing staff to manager city affairs while the council looks for a permanent replacement for Jennings, who has been Portland's manager since 2015.

"I'm thankful that Danielle has agreed to step up and serve as interim city manager during this time of transition. It's critically important that city staff continue to have known, effective leadership in place while the council conducts its search for a permanent city manager," Snyder said. "We believe Danielle's expertise, her institutional knowledge, and her relationships both in City Hall and in the community will serve the city well."

The city manager reports to the full council and oversees a $268 million municipal budget, including $212 million in general funding spending, and more than 1,400 full time employees. The corporation counsel and the city clerk are the only two other employees who report directly to the council.

West, who currently earns nearly $151,500 a year, would earn just under $181,100 as interim manager, according to a city spokesperson. She has been a city attorney since 2008 and was named the corporation counsel in 2013.

"I'm honored to receive the Mayor and Council's nomination and I appreciate the support they've shown in me with this decision," West, 43, said in a written statement. "I'd like to thank Jon Jennings for his steadfast leadership over the last six years. I am looking forward to the opportunity to continue to work with the City's strong team of Department Heads and all City staff in carrying out our important operational and policy work, including the implementation of the City Council's goals."

Associate Corporation Counsel Jennifer Thompson will oversee the city's legal department while West serves in her interim role, the city said.

The announcement comes as the council is in the process of establishing an ad hoc committee to lay out a public process for soliciting and choosing a new permanent city manager. Snyder said that she expects to nominate a search committee for the Oct. 18 council meeting. The charter requires the mayor lead the search committee.

"I've asked all councilors to let me know if they're interested in serving," Snyder said.

West has dealt with thorny political issues in recent years.

She was thrust into the center of the debate over mayoral powers during former Mayor Ethan Strimling's tenure, arguing they were limited in scope, a position that was upheld by outside counsel.

Two years ago, she opined that a citizen initiative to create a public financing program for municipal candidates would first need to be reviewed by a charter commission, rather than being placed on the ballot. That legal battle is ongoing.

And late last year, West and her staff were tasked with implementing five citizen referendums. Her opinion that a hazard pay provision in the city's new minimum wage ordinance would not take effect until 2022 drew condemnation from progressive activists, who argued it should take effect immediately. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with the city.

City Councilor Pious Ali said in a written statement he supports the nomination.

"As the city goes through these transitions, we need someone with a long history of understanding all aspects of City operations, solid relationships with staff, partners and the community at large," Ali said. "At the moment I can't think of anyone to lead us through these changes other than Danielle West, and I am looking forward to working with her."

Councilors had debated whether they should look for a permanent city manager, while the charter commission was considering structural changes to city government, including possibly demoting or eliminating the manager position in favor of a strong mayor.

Some councilors were concerned that the ongoing charter review would limit the pool of candidates. But councilors ultimately decided to move forward with a full search, acknowledging that if they didn't find a qualified candidate they could simply keep looking.

Councilors met two weeks ago in executive session to discuss possible candidates. Snyder declined to answer questions following the on Sept. 16 session about how many candidates were being considered or whether a clear favorite had emerged.

Jennings was expected to leave his post when his contract expires this coming July. That timeline was moved up when he accepted the city manager's on in Clearwater, Fla. His last day in Portland will be Nov. 1 and he will begin work in Clearwater on Nov. 8.

The city manager position is one of several top level positions open in City Hall. Other vacant positions include the city's economic development director and human resource director.

Police Chief Frank Clark also announced on Friday that he would leave the city on Nov. 1 to take a job in the private sector. And the city's public works director is out on medical leave, and three incumbent city councilors are not reeking re-election, leaving a third of the seats up for grabs.

And the city only recently hired an assistant manager. Anne McGuire was hired in August, but she is new to the city, having previously worked in New York. McGuire, who has known Jennings since the 1990s when she was a special presidential assistant for Cabinet affairs under President Bill Clinton and Jennings was a White House fellow, started her new job on Aug. 30.

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