Capitol Notebook: 'Portland Together'? Not so much

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Under the watchful eyes of several former Portland mayors, as well as the past mayors whose photographs line the walls of the City Council chamber, a strange drama played out last week.

The City Council workshop was called to mediate a festering dispute between City Manager Jon Jennings and Mayor Ethan Strimling. Their dysfunctional working relationship has preoccupied the council for months and distracted attention from work on the city’s growing problems, such as homelessness and drug addiction, spiraling gentrification and lack of affordable housing.

At the meeting, Jennings accused Strimling of lying, and of interfering with him and his staff. Jennings had the support of most of the councilors, who accused the mayor of not following accepted procedures and failing to do his homework. Not much was resolved after the four-hour meeting, except that the two men agreed to start meeting together, a meeting that at Jennings’ request will include other city staff.

For his part, Strimling looked down on Jennings from his mayoral perch and lectured the manager as though speaking to an adolescent. He accused the manager of blocking his agenda and failing to provide information he needed to develop policy.

The breakdown in the relationship between the two men is the latest sign that the newly enacted system of a popularly elected mayor is a setup for failure. Before 2010, Portland was run by a city manager, with a mayor elected by the council for a one-year term to fill a mostly ceremonial role.

The City Charter was changed in 2010 to include an elected mayor, with a four-year term and slightly expanded powers. The Charter Commission did not want to diminish the authority of a strong city manager to run the day-to-day operations of the city, a position that has generally worked well. But members wanted to add a method for voters to have a say in the direction of the city by electing a mayor.

This worthy aspiration has not worked out so well in practice.

Peter DeTroy, a prominent Portland attorney who died last year, attempted to clarify the two roles in a memo to the council. He stressed that the mayor’s role is to collaborate with the City Council in setting policy. He described the mayor’s role as one of “comity not power” and “collaboration not assertion.” The administrative and executive functions are clearly to remain with the city manager.

But the revised charter document itself sows confusion, DeTroy acknowledged. It creates an “opportunity for crisis and conflict” due to ambiguous language concerning budget preparation and some “textual cross-currents on policy implementation.” He suggested that further legal work on this issue might help, leading to a potential memorandum of understanding between a city manager and mayor.

While this may be possible in the future, for now the city is stuck in this conflict between two men who don’t trust each other.

As DeTroy pointed out, the revised charter intended was for the mayor to work with the council to develop policy. With Strimling now firmly at cross-purposes with the council, they can’t work together to make policy. The council will have to work without him, which they made clear last week. And ultimately, the mayor is just one of nine votes on the council.

Meanwhile, the division between these two men, and that between the mayor and the council, has highlighted a new fracture in city politics. Activists organized by Progressive Portland demonstrated against the city manager on the steps of City Hall before last week’s meeting, brandishing diapers and baby rattles as they accused Jennings of whining. They have also targeted City Councilor Jill Duson, who is up for re-election this year, accusing her of stalling on the issue of affordable housing because she balked at an unnecessary procedural motion when the issue was already on her committee’s agenda.

It’s doubtful there will be a movement organized to get rid of the elected mayor, and with different personnel and a clear and accepted delineation of power, the system might be able to work better.

But for now, the city that elected Strimling on his campaign motto of “Portland Together” seems to be pulling further apart.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.