Forecaster Forum: In Portland, it's time to choose our mayor and our future

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It’s been 87 years since Portland voters elected their mayor.

In 2008, Portland voted overwhelmingly to create a 12-member Charter Commission. Among the ballot questions developed by the commission for November is local Question 1, which would allow voters to directly elect their mayor for a four-year term, up to two terms.

Portland is a great place, with serious challenges. Taxes go up every year while services continue to be cut; business relocation specialists repeatedly tell us they struggle to bring new businesses to Portland because there is no leadership to get things done (keep in mind businesses provide jobs and keep residential taxes down); piers are decaying and the Maine State Pier seems destined to languish for years to come; neighborhood problems fester; Capisic Pond, the city’s largest freshwater body, is disappearing; major traffic arteries through our neighborhoods indicate more emphasis on through–put than quality of life.

Portland is great at talking and studying, but slow to act. Every year we react; we don’t have a proactive plan. No wonder: the mayor-for-a-year rotation discourages any project that takes more than a year. Portland’s current “mayor” is not elected by the people and struggles to say “I speak for Portland.”

In a world where things happen fast, Portland falls behind. Like a $250 million ship with an undersized rudder, turning is wicked slow.

In response, the Charter Commission designed Question 1 to encourage leadership, to focus on priorities, find resources and get things done.

The City Manager will still handle professional administration – a role distinct from the mayor’s or council’s. Seventy-one percent of cities with council-manager governments have an elected mayor.

The mayor’s job will be full time, because it must, to get things done. Portland needs undivided attention, not someone who squeezes in mayoral duties with another full-time job.

Of course, there are critics who say electing a mayor should remain the exclusive province of the City Council. Translation: Voters can’t be trusted.

Some claim the new mayor would have no powers different than the current one. Not true: being popularly elected by majority vote confers power, as does a four-year term, as does the formal power to appoint council committees and a budget veto. Sure you still need council votes to get many things done. The president needs Congress. So what? The mayor will now have some tools and time to work with.

Some say what’s wrong with the $7,000 we now pay? Why pay more? You get what you pay for. Local businesses and neighborhood leaders understand that investing in city leadership doesn’t cost, it pays. The mayor’s salary puts the mayor in a strong position to bring additional resources to the city, far in excess of the salary amount. It’s an investment.

This is an opportunity to make Portland better. The choice is yours – as it should be.

Nathan H. Smith was a Portland Charter Commission member, and a former mayor and city councilor.