Forecaster Forum: Charter Commission gambles with Portland's future

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The Charter Commission is proposing a change in how Portland governs itself, asking citizens to gamble that a full-time elected mayor with a four-year term of office can produce better government than our current arrangement of a city manager reporting to a nine-member City Council.

This is an expensive proposition. Cost estimates for the elected mayor position range from $87,000 to $400,000 annually, depending on how issues like staffing and travel budgets are figured.

Oddly, the elected mayor’s job would remain basically ceremonial, as it is now: speech making, chairing meetings, facilitating and the like.

Add to this the novel voting method called “ranked choice voting,” where the candidate with the most votes may not win the election, and voters have a strange trifecta of cost, ceremony and confusion.

Yet Portland, the economic and cultural center of Maine, is one of the most successful small cities in New England, and perhaps in America. Among its many blessings over the decades has been good government, so good in fact that we take it for granted.

We set out the trash and it goes away. We dial 911 and the ambulance appears. Our kids ride off on safe yellow school buses every weekday morning.

Portlanders are fiercely proud of their waterfront. We like the honest work that created it and that continues to sustain it. It’s our namesake and our signature. We have one of America’s great small downtowns: vibrant, safe and charming.

Portland is not the wealthiest community in Cumberland County. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re a community of working people, but proud nevertheless.

So as the Charter Commission considered changing our form of government, it came to the work not from a failed community, but from a shining example of how cities can succeed through good management and a tradition of civic responsibility.

We have a history of civic service on our city councils, and wonderful people have stepped forward to serve over the years and helped to shape this beautiful city. Their service is part-time and they are paid a stipend.

If Portlanders approve the position of a full-time, highly compensated mayor, they will be paying more, yet getting less.

Reduced to basic terms, the choice before the voters is simple: keep our tradition of volunteer civic service and professional city management or, instead, place a political person at the top of city government.

It’s a gamble about Portland’s future. I don’t like the odds.

Thomas F. Valleau served on the Portland Charter Commission. He is executive director of the North Atlantic Ports Association and is Portland’s former deputy city manager and transportation director.