Forecaster Forum: An elected mayor is 'just right' for Portland

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I’m confused.

The November ballot asks Portland voters if they want to directly elect their own mayor. Some city councilors oppose the idea, because they think this proposal is way too bold. But other councilors think it doesn’t go far enough.

Well, which is it?

Some councilors think the proposed mayor’s salary is too low, unrealistic to get the full-time job done. But others think it’s too high, that a full-time mayor should work for nothing, or next to nothing.

Again, which is it?

Yes, it’s confusing to sort out all of these objections.

But at least every opponent to this proposal is united in one certain opinion: Portland voters should not be allowed to directly elect their own mayor. Not now, not ever. Because we just don’t do it that way in Portland. Because directly electing our leader is, well, un-American, I guess.

Come to think of it, can you really call our current mayor of Portland a “leader”? He or she gets awfully proficient at cutting ribbons and handing out keys to the city, but that’s about it.

The current mayor doesn’t have veto power over the budget (as the elected mayor would). The current mayor doesn’t perform an annual review of the city manager, city clerk and corporation counsel (as the elected mayor would). The current mayor doesn’t provide any policy direction on the budget to the city manager (as the elected mayor would). The current mayor doesn’t give an annual State of the City address, or lead a council workshop on city-wide goals, or represent the city in Augusta and Washington, or interface with developers and neighborhood associations, or – well, you get the point.

Here’s one thing the current mayor does do that the elected mayor wouldn’t: the current mayor gets elected secretly. In private.

It’s very simple, really. Every year, the nine city councilors walk into a room, close the door, politic among themselves, and then pick the next mayor of Portland. And we get to read about their decision in the newspaper.

So please, please, please, let’s make sure we all understand what the objections are about. They certainly aren’t about an elected mayor’s salary, because for a full-time position as Portland’s true leader, he or she would make less than the city manager – heck, less than the assistant city managers.

And the objections certainly aren’t about “adding another level of bureaucracy.” The current councilors can’t seem to get out of their own way to get anything done in Portland – witness the Maine State Pier fiasco. Seems to me we might need a true leader to whip them into shape.

And the objections certainly aren’t about the proposed four-year term for the elected mayor, enough time to actually get something done in office. (Unlike the one-year stints we currently endure.)

No, the objections are about one thing only: you, a Portland voter, do not have the right to elect your own mayor. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Been that way since 1923, so it must be good, right?

The proposal that the 11 other charter commissioners and I worked on for a year has been called a “Goldilocks” proposal: not too much this, not too much that, but just right. Maybe not as “strong” a mayor as some people want, but also a stronger mayor than some people thought they could accept. Just right.

Maybe that’s what Portland needs, right now, in 2010. A mayor we can all vote for, in a real election.

A mayor who’s just right.

John Spritz is a Portland resident and was a member of the Charter Commission.