The first in a weekly series on where Portland’s mayoral candidates stand on the issues examines the role of the elected mayor.
PORTLAND — The November mayoral election is going to be historic.
It will be the first time in 88 years voters will elect a mayor, who will serve a four-year term and receive an annual salary of about $67,000.
The elected post will not come with all of the trappings of a chief executive – it will still be the city manager who hires and fires employees, and writes budgets.
But neither is it a largely ceremonial job, like the current City Council-appointed mayor, who serves a one-year term and deals mostly with ribbon-cuttings and running council meetings.
Instead, Portland will have a mayor whose power is somewhere in between. The mayor will have a popular mandate to pursue policies, and veto power over a nearly $300 million city and school budget.
Interviews with most of the 15 candidates whose names will be on the ballot reveal how each would use the mayor’s position and when they would use their power to veto the city budget.
Candidates uniformly said the mayor will set the agenda and priorities for the city, working with the city manager and City Council to implement those goals. All said the mayor would be a conduit between the public and city, as well as the face and voice of the city.
But Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state senator and chief executive officer of LearningWorks, said he views the mayor as the CEO of the city, even though the City Charter delegates that authority to the city manager.
The mayor should be someone who can create a general vision for the city, the 43-year-old Strimling said, while also not being afraid to get into the “nitty gritty” of the issues, especially when trying to make City Hall more friendly to businesses.
But most candidates, like 33-year-old Councilor David Marshall, a Green-Independent, said the mayor should not be the city boss.
Instead, Marshall said the mayor should be someone who welcomes public input before drafting policies with city officials. After holding pubic forums, he said he would speak with councilors about revising their committee and task force structures, he said.
Fellow Green-Independent John Eder, 42, echoed Marshall, saying the mayor should be an activist and “super citizen” who “offers a full-throated point of view of the citizen” by empowering neighborhood associations.
Michael Brennan, a former Democratic state senator and policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service, said the mayor should be “a bridge” between residents and the local, state and national government.
Brennan, 58, said he would work with stakeholders to find common ground and themes to move forward and would be reluctant to thump the bully pulpit, opting instead for a more collaborative approach. He said he would also be an advocate for the city in Augusta and Washington, D.C.
City Councilor Jill Duson, a part-time seasonal employee at L.L.Bean and former director of the state’s Bureau of Rehabilitative Services, echoed that view, saying the mayor needs to be a “situational leader” who knows when to defer to experts and when to take the reigns.
Duson said the mayor should be a “mature leader” with an open mind, be able to lead a council of “strong personalities and be accountable. “It’s like they wrote the definition and put my picture in the dictionary,” the 57-year-old said.
Mayor Nick Mavodones, said the elected mayor needs to have “experience, leadership and vision” and be a “champion for Portland,” pointing to recent rankings on livability by groups like AARP and Forbes magazine.
Now serving his second term as the council-appointed mayor, Mavodones, 51, said residents shouldn’t expect him to change if elected. What would change is getting four years to focus and implement a citywide vision, he said.
“If you’re looking for someone to blow up things in Portland and start over,” he said, “I’m not the guy.”
However, Richard Dodge, a caterer, commercial real estate broker and the only Republican on the ballot, said the mayor needs to be a leader who can fix a “pretty-well dysfunctional” City Hall.
Dodge, 59, said he would work to separate needs from wants in an effort to keep budgets low, and would make City Hall more business-friendly. Increasing the tax base will better allow the city to fix pressing neighborhood issues, he said.
“I want to start running this city like a business, not a charity,” Dodge said.
Jed Rathband, who owns the consulting firm that promoted the elected mayor issue last year, said the mayor must to be an ambassador to businesses, neighborhood associations and other stakeholders to build consensus on initiatives.
Rathband, 39, said he would be “an energetic, proactive, out-in-front” mayor seeking to “harness Portland’s momentum as a rising star.”
“I’d be out there everyday on the front lines,” he said.
Jodie Lapchick, an advertising executive, said the mayor needs to market the city and implement council-approved plans, like the Portland Economic Development Plan. The mayor should also empower neighborhood groups, especially with uncertain state and federal funding, 49-year-old said.
Markos Miller, a 43-year-old Spanish teacher at Deering High School, said the mayor needs to be a consensus-builder who can build relationships with stakeholders to achieve goals. He said he would approach the position as a facilitator and an educator, and would seek to unify urban communities to have a stronger say in Augusta.
Ralph Carmona, 60, said the mayor needs to be a communicator, whose “implied and implicit” power will come from being popularly elected. That leader must bring people together, and work with state and national officials.
Charles Bragdon, a former cab driver turned publisher, said the mayor needs to be a lobbyist at the state and national level. The mayor will also have to justify the position to residents, he said.
Christopher Vail, a Portland firefighter, also believes the mayor will have to sell the position not only to residents, but skeptical councilors. “I know the City Council is not a fan of this position,” he said.
Vail said the mayor will be a name and a face residents can hold accountable for the city’s successes and failures.
Hamzaa Haadoow, 37, said the mayor needs to listen to residents, no matter how insignificant their concerns appear. To that end, Haadow said he would open his office door, if elected, for eight additional hours every two weeks beyond the salaried hours to hear public input.
“I believe no concern is too little,” he said.
Haadoow said he would also build relationships with surrounding communities.
Peter Bryant, 68, could not be reached.
The elected mayor will have the power to veto the city budget within five days of passage, but that veto may be overturned by six of the eight other City Councilors.
Most candidates said using Charter-established veto power would be an action of last resort. Some said using the veto would be unimaginable, signifying a lack of leadership and a flawed process.
But a few candidates who said they were ready to use the veto were open about about situations and scenarios where a veto might be used.
Strimling and Marshall said they would veto the city budget if it increased taxes too much.
Marshall said tax increases that greatly exceed a cost of living adjustment would deserve a veto, as well as budgets that are out of step with public opinion.
Strimling said he’d veto a 3 percent tax increase or greater. Strimling said he’d also veto a budget that doesn’t focus on economic development and job creation.
Eder said he’d never use a veto indiscriminately, while Lapchick said she might use it to make a political point, since she believes major issues will be worked out in the budget process.
Rathband said he may veto a budget if initiatives he strongly supports are not included, including a revolving loan fund to help middle-income families pay for college and eliminating duplicated administrative positions.
Brennan, meanwhile, said he would be very reluctant to use the veto, since he would be involved throughout the budget process. But he said he could imagine a scenario where he might use a veto when it comes to setting the bottom line for school funding, especially if school and city officials disagree what’s needed.
“Hopefully,” he said, “those would be resolved in a way where you wouldn’t have to use the veto.”
PORTLAND — Michael Brennan, a former Democratic state representative, was the winner last week of an informal poll of those who attended a Sept. 8 mayoral candidates forum at the Lucid Stage, 29 Baxter Blvd., sponsored by the Maine League of Young Voters.
But during the forum, the candidates signaled who they think is the front-runner: Mayor Nicholas Mavodones.
Mavodones, who is in his second consecutive term as the council-appointed mayor, was called to the stage five times out of a possible 11 to defend himself.
Markos Miller, a Spanish teacher at Deering High School, asked Mavodones why Hall School is falling apart; Jed Rathband asked how Mavodones could be an effective mayor when he opposed the City Charter change that established the elected mayor.
Councilor David Marshall referred to Mavodones as “councilor,” not mayor, and asked about statements he made to the press that seeming supported pumping Canadian tar-sands oil through the Portland Pipeline.
Charles Bradgon and Richard Dodge piled it on, asking why voters should expect Mavodones to change from the status quo when he has been there 14 years.
Mavodones remained good natured throughout the evening, often thanking his opponents for the questions, and had answers for all of them:
• Hall School failed to qualify for state funding, unlike three middle school renovations and the construction of East End and Ocean Avenue Elementary schools.
• He opposed having an elected mayor because the position isn’t strong enough and he thought ranked-choice voting should have been a separate question.
• His comments about tar-sands oil were taken out of context; he was asked about activity on the waterfront. He has since researched the oil and also has concerns about it.
• It’s “tough to juggle a lot of watermelons” serving a one-year term as a part-time mayor.
While Mavodones may have been tarred, Brennan, who did not challenge Mavodones, was feted as the audience choice in the ranked poll of those in attendance.
Nicola Wells, state director of the Maine League of Voters, said between 160 and 170 people attended the forum and 109 people submitted informal ranked-choice ballots.
The results of the League poll:
1 – Michael Brennan, 2 – Dave Marshall, 3 – Markos Miller, 4 – Jed Rathband, 5 – Nick Mavodones, 6 – John Eder, 7 – Hamzaa Haadoow, 8 – Ethan Strimling and Chris Vail, 9 – Jill Duson, 10 – Charles Bragdon, Peter Bryant and Jodie Lapchick, 11 – Ralph Carmona and Richard Dodge.
— Randy Billings