A tale of 3 cities: Governing in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook

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PORTLAND — They span the core of the greater Portland area, presenting residents with three distinct methods of city governance.

Portland, South Portland and Westbrook each employ city managers or administrators, and each have mayors who work with them. All have councilors setting policy frameworks, all have seen recent turbulence and contention as the sometimes-conflicting roles resolve themselves.

Or don’t.

Charter chatter

Former Mayor Michael Brennan became Portland’s first elected mayor in nearly 90 years in 2011. Contrasting views about the mayor’s role soon followed.

In the past year, much of the contention has centered around the day-to-day roles of the current mayor and the city manager, with Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings engaged in a dispute that has cost the city $21,000 in legal fees.

“I read the charter very carefully before I ran; what I saw was a collaborative approach, a mayor/city manager form of government where they work closely together,” Strimling said Dec. 22.

Jennings said Dec. 22 he views the charter in the same vein as the Constitution.

“I will never abdicate my responsibility or allow anyone to usurp my responsibility,” he said.

Changes approved by voters in 2010 created a popularly elected mayor who presides over the city council, can veto the municipal budget, and annually delivers a “State of the City” address outlining a vision and specific goals. Yet the elected mayor has one of nine council votes, and the level of involvement in daily city operations is an argument that has yet to be settled.

“One of the things we were trying to solve – and I think successfully – was the voters of Portland did not have a say in who their chief spokesperson was and what they wanted to do for the city,” former Councilor Jim Cohen said in November about charter changes he helped draft. Cohen also served as mayor when the post was a one-year term and elected by councilors.

The quarrel between Strimling and Jennings has not necessarily impeded progress. The city tax base has expanded, the Public Works Department continues its operational shift from Bayside to Canco Road, and voters could see a $60.1 million bond to renovate four elementary schools in June.

“Portland is killing it, and not just Portland, it is the whole region,” Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Hall said this fall. “I understand the concerns they are raising, I get that, but I am not necessarily persuaded the architecture is broken.”

Brennan and councilors disagreed on setting meeting agendas. Brennan also moved on policies such as a citywide minimum wage and combating substance use disorders in subcommittees held outside council committees.

Eventually, his relationship with councilors frayed enough for Councilors Jill Duson, Nick Mavodones Jr., Kevin Donoghue and Ed Suslovic to endorse Strimling when he ran against Brennan in 2015.

In November 2011, Strimling lost narrowly to Brennan. In November 2015, he won handily.

Meanwhile, city management was in flux. Jennings, hired in July 2015, became the fourth city manager in less than a year. He took the job with clear intentions.

“I articulated what I had in mind and studied the charter carefully. I needed to instill a different culture. What I have been doing is building a foundation,” Jennings said.

Strimling cites clauses e-g of Section 5 of the city charter as the basis of his duties. Yet the section defining mayoral powers concludes:

“Notwithstanding the foregoing, the city manager shall be in charge of the day to day operations of the city and administration of the city budgets approved by the council.”

Jennings has balked at Strimling’s involvement.

“I have never varied or digressed by what the charter says. I was backed up by our attorney and a pre-eminent attorney in the city,” Jennings said.

Strimling said he values the opinions of Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and the late Peter Detroy for their clarity.

“Those documents were crucial to me in helping me understand the depth of my role, my power,” he said.

Who’s the boss?

In Westbrook, the balance of power between the mayor and other city administration is more clearly defined. The mayor is in charge.

According to longtime City Administrator Jerre Bryant, it’s also made his job easier. In his 14th year, he’s now working under his fourth mayor – Mike Sanphy, who was sworn in Dec. 5.

“The authority is much, much clearer in Westbrook,” he said last week. “But with each mayor I’ve worked with, it’s been a great collaborative partnership.”

He said each incoming mayor has respected the training and experience that he brings to the table, while he respects “the fact that they have the authority.”

According to the Westbrook City Charter, “the executive powers of the City shall be vested wholly in the Mayor.” The mayor has the authority to organize city departments, and to hire and discharge employees in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and contracts. He or she can also veto decisions made by the seven-member City Council.

Bryant said former three-term Mayor Colleen Hilton did not use her veto power during her seven years in office, but that her predecessor, Bruce Chuluda, did on a few occasions.

However, in 2009, Hilton made an instant mark when she exercised the city’s strong mayoral form of government during her first day on the job.

At each inauguration, the new or re-elected mayor announces his or her appointments of city department heads. Hilton made a splash when, during her inaugural address, she did not reappoint three prominent employees, including the finance director and fire chief. Sanphy maintained the status quo during his speech in December, making no changes to city staff.

During a recent interview, Hilton, the CEO of VNA Home Health & Hospice, said her decision in 2009 was based on how she would run her company.

“As a chief executive, that’s what I would do,” she said. “What’s my team, where’s my strength, what do I need to do?”

Bryant said in Westbrook, he is the chief administrative officer, and the mayor is chief executive officer.

“In Portland, the city manager is the chief executive officer, so that begs the question: what is the mayor?” he said.

He added that he’s been paying attention to what’s happening in Portland, and believes it comes down to a lack of clarity in the charter.

“Governing is tough enough to begin with,” Bryant said. “Governing when there is some level of cloudiness in the lines of authority makes it even more difficult.”

‘Look across the river’

In South Portland, because a one-year term of mayor is given to a sitting councilor after a caucus by fellow councilors, the mayor is essentially the chairman. Beyond leading the council’s meeting,s the mayor has “no regular administrative duties,” according to the city’s Charter.

Councilor Linda Cohen, who served as mayor from 2014-2015, said she appreciates that the mayor is not a publicly-elected position.

“The thought of paying a professional city manager and a mayor just makes no sense in a community of 25,000 people,” she said. “All we have to do is look across the river and say, ‘No, we don’t need that.'”

Cohen said she has “always respected the fact that the councilors are the policy- makers and the city manager is there to run the day-to-day operations of the city.”

The City Council employs the city manager and city clerk. The council maintains the right to discontinue either employee’s contract simply by “a majority vote,” according to the charter.

The city manager, however, dictates and oversees hiring and managing all department employees within the city. Only the city manager has the right to hire and fire people in these positions.

Being that the manager is employed by the council, but the manager acts as a conduit, of sorts, between the council and other city departments, that dynamic has, at times brought its own challenges.

Former City Manager Jim Gailey left the position after nine years in July amid rumors that his departure was, at least in part, a result of some councilors making the workplace hostile for him.

Gailey declined comment about governing in South Portland, but when he resigned, veteran City Councilor Maxine Beecher said he’d endured “a year from hell.”

During Gailey’s last year, for example, when NGL Supply Terminal Co. applied to build an above-ground storage facility for holding and transporting liquefied petroleum gas in Rigby Yard, Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette said the application complied with the city’s zoning code.

Some councilors and residents said Doucette had misinterpreted the city’s code, and suggested she be replaced. The extent of what could be done was limited; only the city manager can hire or fire a city employee.

One year later, Doucette reversed her opinion just days before the council was slated to vote on whether to pass a moratorium that would have prohibited the project.

By that time, councilors had been criticized by some residents who were worried that the council’s actions would lead to another lawsuit. The city is already in litigation with Portland Pipe Line Corp. over the Clear Skies Ordinance.

City Councilor Brad Fox had stirred tensions by trying to dissuade fellow councilors via email from approving the project; and NGL Supply Terminal Co. had publicly accused the city of changing the rules mid-game.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings worked with Gailey for two years before his hiring in Portland, serving as economic development director and assistant city manager.

“I think South Portland was extremely well managed,” Jennings said. “The difference is maybe in semantics, I’m trying to manage and provide leadership.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling expects a close collaboration with City Manager Jon Jennings, saying it is his job to bring the voice of the people to city operations.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, right, has disagreed with Mayor Ethan Strimling on the level of involvement the mayor should have in daily city affairs. At left is Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr.

Councilor Linda Cohen was sworn in to a one-year term as mayor of South Portland in 2015, and said she appreciates the separation of roles between mayor and city manager.

Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant, in his 14th year on the job, is now working under his fourth mayor. “The authority is much, much clearer in Westbrook,” he said of the balance of power.