Incoming city manager sees Portland as a career pinnacle

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PORTLAND — On Friday afternoon, Mark Rees, dressed in a light blue polo shirt and stone-colored khakis, breezed into City Hall with his wife, Beth.

They passed a group of television reporters, who didn’t recognize Rees, and made their way to the city manager’s office, where a telephone sat on a large desk and the book shelves were empty.

The shelves probably won’t be empty much longer.

On Wednesday, Rees will become Portland’s 12th city manager, fulfilling a career goal of leading a small city.

“I’m excited,” he said. “Portland itself is a great city. It’s got a lot of positive things going for it.”

Rees, who has nearly 35 years experience in municipal governments, will be leading a city more than twice the size of North Andover, Mass., where he served as manager for the last 11 years. 

North Andover is town of about 30,000 people. The city operates with an $80 million budget, 250 municipal employees and is governed by a five-member Board of Selectman. It also holds an annual town meeting.

Portland, meanwhile, is a city of more than 65,000 people. It operates with a $202 million budget, 1,400 municipal employees and is governed by a nine-member City Council.

But where some might see differences between two communities, Rees sees similarities, especially, he said, when it comes to the desire to have an efficient, responsive government that keeps taxes low while providing good services.

“The basics aren’t going to change, regardless of the size of a community,” said Rees, who was previously the chief financial officer of Framingham, Mass., which had a $145 million budget.

Not only will Rees be the administrator of a much larger community in Portland, but a community that is in flux.

The city clerk is relatively new, the police chief is being replaced, and in November, voters will choose the first popularly elected mayor in more than 80 years.

Rees said change is part of running any community.

“My approach is to not get too excited,” he said. “I’m a process-oriented person.”

When Rees ran a police chief search in North Andover, one of the things he did was put applicants through real-life scenarios, tactical and financial.

He said he plans on talking with city councilors, employees and residents before deciding on a process to fill Portland’s post.

As a manager, Rees said he tries to treat everyone fairly and not play favorites. He doesn’t like to micromanage, he said, and instead favors a consensus-building approach and encouraging cross-department projects.

“I’ve been impressed with the quality staff Portland has,” he said. “I see my role as trying to get them the resources they need and creating a positive environment for them to succeed. But at the same time, I do hold them accountable.”

Rees said part of his entry plan is to spend a half day or a day travelling the city with each department head to get a feel of what’s working and where improvements could be made.

He also plans to meet with each city councilor and get out into the community to meet with the many neighborhood associations.

Rees said he will try to make government more efficient by exploring ways to consolidate city departments. He noted that Portland has already started that process by merging facility maintenance with the schools. 

He said he hopes to look for more opportunities, including tapping residents as resources.

“You don’t want to go to a community where people don’t want to be involved,” he said. “That is certainly not the case here in Portland.”

Rees and his wife said they were both drawn to Portland because of the character and quality of life in its neighborhoods. They also loved the arts and restaurant scene, as well as the recreational opportunities.

Rees said he is an avid recreational hockey player and hopes to play in a local league. He is also a runner and bicyclist, so he plans to explore the city’s many trails.

In addition to spending time with his family (a 24-year-old son, Greg, just finished his first year of law school and a 21-year-old daughter, Meredith, attends the University of Connecticut), Rees said he likes to read biographies and history books.

When asked if he had any favorites, Rees said he was particularly fond of a biography of Robert Moses, an administrative official in the 1930s and ’40s in New York City.

As a city planner, Moses favored urban planning that encouraged the use of automobiles. He is also credited with creating public authorities, which didn’t have to answer to elected officials or the public.

His supporters believe Moses laid the groundwork for making New York City the metropolis it is today, while his critics claim progress came at the expense of traditional neighborhoods and residents.

“It’s a testament to what a good city administrator can do,” he said. “And what a good city administrator shouldn’t do.”

Rees and his wife are still looking for a permanent residence in Portland, which is a requirement of his three-year contract. The couple had three appointments on Friday afternoon. Until they find a place, they will be staying at a local hotel.

Although a little nervous, Rees, who will earn a $143,000 annual salary,  said he is excited about getting to work.

He also said he doesn’t see Portland as a stepping stone to a better job. Instead,  he would like it to be his capstone, if the community will have him.

“At this stage of my career,” the 54-year-old said, “I expect this to be my last stop.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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Mark Rees, in his City Hall office, will take the reins of Portland city government on Wednesday, July 20, as the city’s 12th manager.

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