Portland voters to choose Charter Commission members
PORTLAND — Voters next week will have the chance to decide who will make recommendations that could alter the way the city is governed.
There are 19 candidates for Charter Commission. Eight will compete for four at-large seats and each district race has at least two candidates. The City Council has already appointed three members to the 12-member panel: Naomi Mermin, Pamela Plumb and Tom Valleau.
It has been more than 20 years since the City Charter was reviewed. The commission is charged with reviewing the current, 30-page charter and suggesting changes. Proposals will be sent back to voters for approval.
The issue that has had the most discussion is whether Portland should have a strong, elected mayor, instead of the current City Council-appointed mayor. But there are other issues the commission is expected to grapple with, including the role and power of the School Committee, and whether council districts should be eliminated in favor of at-large elections.
City staff are also expected to submit requests for changes needed to bring zoning regulations and other technical and compliance issues up to date.
Benson Monaghan and Benjamin Chipman are running for the District 1 seat, which represents the East End, the Old Port and the islands.
Monaghan, a Munjoy Hill resident, could not be reached for comment last week. In a phone message, his wife said he out of town until June 10, the day after the election.
In responses Monaghan submitted to a questionnaire from the League of Independent Voters, he said he would support an elected mayor because he thinks having one would put a face on local government and lead to more civic engagement.
He also said that the School Committee appears to have little accountability or budgetary discipline. Although he does not know how to remedy that, he said, taxpayers need more control over budgets and operations.
Chipman is a community organizer. He most recently served on the city's Polling Place Task Force.
He said he supports having an elected mayor, as long as the position is controlled by checks and balances. He said that while campaigning he has found that most voters support an elected mayor. The commission owes it to the people to at least put such a measure on the ballot, Chipman said.
An Old Port resident, Chipman said he understands people are frustrated with city government. He also said he wants each proposed charter change listed as a separate question on the ballot.
Daniel Jenkins and Robert O'Brien are competing to represent the West End and Parkside on the commission. Both candidates are in their 20s and have mounted campaigns for office in the past. Jenkins ran in November to represent Parkside in the state House, but was defeated by longtime Rep. Herb Adams. O'Brien serves on the School Committee.
Jenkins said he supports having an elected mayor. He said too much authority is vested in the city manager, who he described as "unelected and unresponsive."
Jenkins said the major question is how much authority an elected mayor should have – an opinion shared by many candidates.
If elected, Jenkins said he would work as a conduit between neighborhood organizations and the commission. A Parkside resident, Jenkins also serves on the board of his neighborhood association.
O'Brien was elected to the School Committee in 2006. He is assistant to the director at Maine Preservation.
O'Brien said he supports an elected mayor, but the structure of the position needs to be carefully considered so decisions are still made by consensus rather than advancing an individual agenda.
A West End resident, he said he is concerned an elected mayor form of government could increase party politics and lead to divisive elections.
O'Brien also said it is important to remember other issues that need to be reviewed within the charter, including planning and permitting processes for development and promoting smart growth.
Joseph Malone and Laurie Davis are running for the chance to represent Libbytown, Woodfords and the neighborhoods along outer Congress Street and Brighton Avenue.
Malone owns Malone Commercial Brokers and said he thinks he would be a good representative on the Charter Commission because he has helped craft city zoning rules. He also said he would bring a business perspective to the commission.
A Deering Highlands resident, Malone said he supports having an elected mayor. He said the power allowed in the position should be slightly stronger than the power the mayor wields now, but should not include the ability to hire and fire city employees.
Malone said the two other major issues he sees for the commission are whether the city should dissolve voting districts, which he does not support, and the structure of the School Committee.
Laurie Davis is director for Upward Bound at the University of Southern Maine and has worked for the city.
Davis said she is leaning strongly toward supporting a mayor directly elected by voters. She said such a change would promote vigorous community discussion and provide accountability.
Davis, like Malone, wants the commission to explore the relationship between the School Committee and City Council, specifically as it relates to increasing collaboration.
A resident of Oakdale Street, Davis said the commission should also look at ways to use technology to support and extend citizen participation in local government.
There is a three-way race in District 4, pitting city government watchdog Steven Scharf against neighborhood activist John Spritz and Planning Board member Janice Tevanian.
Scharf characterized Portland as, "rudderless in a sea of opportunities and challenges." He is a strong proponent of having an elected mayor and said that is the only position he is taking with regard to issues likely to come up during review of the charter.
Scharf, who lives in East Deering and is president of the Portland Taxpayers Association, has advocated for an elected mayor for several years and said an elected mayor is needed for guidance and setting policy in Maine's largest city.
Tevanian has been on the Planning Board since 2003, and served as chairwoman in 2008. She said she could support an elected mayor if after looking at the issue "thoroughly, analytically and realistically" it is determined such a change will produce improvement.
Tevanian said she is not running for the commission to make a change, but to participate in the process of analyzing the situation and making recommendations for change, if appropriate.
The manager of educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, Tevanian lives on Graystone Lane.
Spritz, a marketing director, said he is "agnostic" on the elected mayor issue. He said the point of the commission is to bring together people to review the charter and figure out how to improve it. He said the commission should avoid the perception of a "done deal."
The co-founder and president of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association said he wants to bring his ability to reach out to different constituencies to the commission.
Spritz is a Chenery Street resident.
Former City Councilor Peter Rickett and former city Finance Director Richard Ranaghan are competing for the North Deering seat.
Rickett is in favor of an elected mayor. He said the City Council should be consolidated into six districts (no at-large councilors) with the mayor running at large. Rickett said he would also propose the mayor sit on the School Committee and have a vote.
He said he wants focused accountability and leadership, not "small doses distributed across many officials over many years."
An at-large councilor from 1995-1998, Rickett works as a marketing manager and lives on Quiet Lane.
Ranaghan is a senior vice president at Gorham Savings Bank and staffed the last Charter Review Commission in the 1980s.
He said individuals should not go into the commission with their minds already made up about whether there should be an elected mayor. He said the question of a strong mayor versus a weak mayor versus other options has not been discussed and thought through. Ranaghan said he believes all issues involving charter changes need to be appropriately vetted before recommendations are made.
Ranaghan lives on Deepwood Drive and serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.
The field of at-large candidates includes three former mayors and five others vying for four seats on the commission.
The candidates gathered May 31 at St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center for a forum sponsored by the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization.
Former Mayor James Cohen, who served on the City Council until last November, said he has come around in the past few years to become a supporter of having an elected mayor. He said the city has become slow and cumbersome in trying to move forward, and an elected mayor would help change that.
Cohen, an attorney, said the issues he has heard most about while campaigning are an elected mayor and the relationship between the schools and the city.
The Deepwood Drive resident said he believes city government has a systemic problem, not a problem caused by specific people in city government.
Thomas Elliman is a Munjoy Hill resident and marketing consultant who said he thinks city government needs to be a little more nimble, and he also believes people are worried city leaders have no idea what direction they want to go.
He said the "tide is building" in favor of an elected mayor.
Elliman said that if elected to the commission, he would want to set a list of priorities and at the top of that list should be discussion of transparency in the School Committee.
Paul Farrell, also a Munjoy Hill resident, works in Augusta for the state Senate. He said he favors having an elected mayor, but that in order to keep such an elected position in check, the commission could discuss clean election funding policy.
Farrell said his biggest concern with city government is the lack of ability at core levels. He said the system is "designed to stall."
The candidate also said he has not heard from a single constituent who believes the School Committee is working well in its current structure.
James Gooch is a West Ender and works for the Trust for Public Land. He said he leans in the direction of having an elected mayor.
Gooch said the city suffers from chronic "tardiness," citing as an example the decade it took to get the Bayside Trail started.
The Charter Commission needs to address how the city can better develop and follow a vision, he said, adding that the Comprehensive Plan is "not comprehensible and barely a plan."
Madeleine Segal has been a member of the Police Citizen Review Board for several years. She said she has reservations about making changes to the charter for an elected mayor, and said she is not sure what a "strong" mayor is.
Segal said she is concerned about accountability among city leaders and said she does not think residents know who to talk to about issues in the city.
She also suggested the commission consider creating a liaison position to work with the School Committee and the City Council.
Nathan Smith is a former City Councilor and mayor. He said he is concerned about putting the "cart before the horse" when asked for his view on whether the city should have an elected mayor.
Smith said the city does suffer from a lack of sustained leadership and vision and that the commission should work to give voters a better system.
An attorney, Smith said the city seems to take forever to get things done. He also said the commission should not get bogged down with small issues, but should instead focus on big ones, like the elected mayor question and the function of the School Committee.
Another former mayor, Edward Suslovic, has said he has a strong preference for some form of an elected mayor. On Sunday he said that when he was on the council he opposed sending the question directly to voters and instead recommended it go through a Charter Commission.
Suslovic said the relationship between the council and School Committee needs to be better defined, and said there is too much "artificial separation" between the two boards.
A Kenwood Road resident, Suslovic said "do not harm" should be the primary mission of the commission.
Anna Trevorrow is chairwoman of the Maine Green Party and ran unsuccessfully for School Committee in 2008.
She said she wants a visionary to run the city, but cautioned that the commission would need to be careful in crafting mayoral limits so the position cannot be corrupted.
A Congress Street resident, Trevorrow said everyone she has spoken to while campaigning has "something to say" about the schools and that the commission will need to look at the structure of that department.
Trevorrow is also a proponent of allowing non-U.S. citizen, legal residents the right to vote in municipal elections.
Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org