Forecaster Forum: Portland Charter Commission needs your feedback

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Serving on the Portland Charter Commission this past year has been a humbling lesson in compromise.

The commission, which has issued its preliminary report, is comprised of 12 members. Each of us wants to make Portland a better city. But each of us hails from a different life experience, with a different set of priorities.

Thus, compromise is the order of the day. So, for instance, if you look at our preliminary report, you’ll see that we call for an elected mayor in Portland. But some on the commission felt, and probably still feel, that we didn’t go far enough, that we’ve crafted a mayoral position with too few teeth. Others contend that we overshot the mark, that our current system works just fine.

Read the report and judge for yourself. It’s on the city’s website; there are also hard copies available at City Hall and the Portland Public Library. The report tells you how to comment to the commission, or you can attend our next public hearing, on Thursday, June 10, in City Council chambers.

In reading it, I hope you’ll appreciate that the decisions we made were not arrived at willy-nilly, nor the result of undue influence from one interest group or another.

Rather, we heard evidence and talked and, yes, argued with great deliberation. We tried to assess not just what a particular change meant for the city now, but what its ramifications might be five and ten years down the road. City charters are revised only occasionally (in Portland it’s been close to a quarter century since the last commission), so, as we kept saying to ourselves, “We’d better get it right.”

Did we get it right? We don’t know yet. We’re only starting to get comments back on our preliminary report, and of course the final yea-or-nay will come at the ballot box in November. That’s when Portland’s voters will have the last word.

But I very much believe that, given the competing personalities and opinions on the commission, we crafted a serious, well-thought-out document for Portlanders to consider. For example, we examined the different ways cities are governed. We then looked at our current system, where City Council chooses one of its own members annually for a largely ceremonial post, and we said, “We think Portland deserves better.”

In designing the elected mayor position, however, we were careful to retain the professional expertise that comes from the city manager. What we recommend, then, is a city government where the mayor has the policy and leadership role, and the city manager handles Portland’s day-to-day operations. Perfect? Maybe not. A good solution, and one that has proved effective in countless other cities across America? Absolutely.

Similarly, when we examined the School Committee’s role, some of us felt that Portland’s education administration had really turned around in the past year or so, and we shouldn’t touch it. Others worried that any improvements might be only temporary, and that we should “hard-wire” the City Charter to impose more controls over the School Committee.

In the end, we made recommendations that put some greater demands on the School Committee (which, by the way, we think should be renamed the Board of Public Education), while still giving it the leeway to make sound fiscal and educational policy for the schools. The ideal solution? Perhaps not, but it’s a compromise that strives for improvements while recognizing the realities of how people and systems interact.

So please, take a look at what we’re recommending, and let us know your responses. It’s your city, our city, and we’d better get it right.

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