Budgets pass Portland council muster, mayor’s assistant does not

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PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday approved $345 million in school, municipal and county funding.

But less than $70,000 in proposed spending produced protracted, emotional debate.

By a 6-3 vote, with Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson opposed, the council removed funding to pay for a special assistant to the mayor, a job now held by Jason Shedlock.

The debate showed the contrasting views of the role of an elected mayor as defined by the City Charter.

“If we want to collaborate, if we want to work together, eliminating this position will not achieve that,” Strimling said just before the vote that culminated a two-hour debate that included 40 minutes of public comment.

“In deference to the mayor or in deference to the charter, I am going to choose the charter,” Councilor Jill Duson said in support of the motion by Councilor Belinda Ray to remove funding for the job.

To support their positions, Strimling and Duson both quoted a legal opinion on how an elected mayor fits into city government written by the late attorney Peter DeTroy.

Strimling has said his role is to bring the voice of the people to municipal government and Shedlock provides invaluable help in communications, research and formulating policy.

At the forefront of Shedlock’s work was a $64 million referendum question to repair and renovate four elementary schools that is now on the Nov. 7 ballot, the mayor said.

“Almost always, when one of you or one of your constituents asks me a question …,” Strimling said, “Jason helps makes sure I respond quickly and as accurately as possible.”

Shedlock declined comment after the meeting, but spoke during public comment, saying he viewed his job as a public responsibility.

Duson also referred to DeTroy’s analysis of the mayor as playing a unifying role on the council, and said the charter changes seven years ago that created an elected mayor did not include adding support staff.

“I think this is outside the conversation, it should never have been created,” Duson said.

Ray, accused of playing politics by those who support the position, said her motion to defund the job was in response to constituent criticisms and her own conclusion the job duplicates the support other city staff can provide to the mayor.

Public comment Monday and communications to city officials and councilors produced by a Freedom of Access Act request revealed split opinions on the need for the job and Ray’s motivations for trying to eliminate it.

Some, including Joey Brunelle, who is opposing Duson in her re-election bid this fall, said the fight over Shedlock’s job is a diversion from a flawed budget that does not adequately address concerns about housing, substance use disorders and an increasing tax burden.

Yet an exchange between Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and Strimling went to the core of the dispute after Strimling said he wished councilors “could walk in my shoes for just one week.”

‘“What you just said is the very problem,” Thibodeau responded. “‘Me, I,’ is the very problem. … You need to come back to this council, come back to collaborate. I will be here.”

Saying it “diminished democracy” because of the job elimination, Strimling then opposed the full $240 million city budget, which passed 8-1.

When the 2018 education budget is included, city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said property tax rates will increase from $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value to $21.65, or about 2.6 percent.

The $105 million school budget was passed unanimously and quietly by councilors and faces a June 13 referendum. Included in the referendum will be a question allowing any additional state funding from the new biennial budget to be used to fund operations.

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

Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, spoke for himself Monday when he asked councilors to keep the post of assistant to Mayor Ethan Strimling, held by Jason Shedlock, right.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.