PORTLAND — As Mayor Michael Brennan and the City Council continue the search for a new city manager, acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said she is excited by the possibilities her new job holds in Cincinnati.
“Portland is beautiful, calm and historic,” she said Monday in an email. “Cincinnati is really high energy, architecturally fascinating and is enjoying a lot of development that is breathing new life into neighborhoods.”
Hill-Christian announced April 8 she will leave Portland to become assistant city manager in Cincinnati. Her last day in Portland will be May 8.
“I was approached with this opportunity, and I have decided that it is a good fit for me personally and professionally at this time,” Hill-Christian said a press release.
Hill-Christian was appointed acting city manager a day after former City Manager Mark Rees resigned on Sept. 3, 2014. Brennan and Councilors Ed Suslovic, Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones Jr. comprise the search committee that hired Meredith, New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources to conduct a nationwide search for a new city manager in hopes of filling the post permanently by July 1.
How to fill a second interim city manager post was discussed in a City Council executive session Monday.
Suslovic said April 10 he was upset by Hill-Christian’s decision to leave and it is time to reconsider the City Charter change that created an elected mayor.
“For selfish purposes, I was saddened and disappointed,” Suslovic said. “I was a proponent of the City Charter and having an elected mayor. From my perspective, I would argue we should repeal it. I hoped there would be a lot of value added, but I just haven’t seen it.”
Hill-Christian said government in Portland differs greatly from her prior experiences in Richmond and Henrico County, Virginia, although roles in City Hall were always clear to her.
“I think the roles of mayor and city manager are clearly delineated, although people often assume that staff report directly to the mayor and seek his assistance when they should come to me,” she said Monday. “That hasn’t been a major issue and we generally just work through it very well.”
A key difference comes in relationships with Augusta, she said.
“Governors and political parties would change in Virginia but at the core there was always a sense of partnership between state and local government,” she said. “What’s unfolding here is disturbing. Not the what so much as the how.”
Hill-Christian removed herself from consideration as permanent city manager last month, saying she preferred the deputy city manager post Rees hired her for in January 2013. She was the first to fill the position when it was created by combining two assistant city manager posts.
Her appointment as acting city manager came at the outset of a challenging budget season, as city and state officials clashed over administration and funding for homeless and general assistance programs.
An audit by the state Department of Health and Human Services cited flawed record keeping and a failure to apply proper eligibility and reimbursement standards at the Oxford Street Shelter, which will lead to administrative changes and the possible loss of $820,000 in state reimbursements.
“We must rethink our role as a social services center for Maine,” Hill-Christian cautioned in an April 6 letter accompanying her proposed budget.
The city is also a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Maine Municipal Association against the state DHHS regarding a decision to no longer reimburse general assistance vouchers provided to undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, the city taking a financial hit of at least $3 million in unreimbursed aid, without accounting for the disputed $2.2 million in vouchers for undocumented immigrants, according to city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell.
Her tenure as acting city manager allowed Hill-Christian to hire O’Connell, Dawn Stiles to lead the Health and Human Services Department, and Gina Tapp to lead Human Resources.
“(They) are a great addition to the team. All have hit the ground running during a very challenging time,” she said.
Hill-Christian led juvenile justice services, the state lottery and housing programs in Virginia and Richmond.
“My references in Richmond said they were asked if I’d be bored in Portland after dealing with so many challenging situations in Richmond,” she said. “After two years here I still laugh every time I think about that. I’ve never been bored here.”
Sheila Hill-Christian reviews her fiscal year 2016 budget with Portland city councilors April 9. She will leave May 8 to become assistant city manager in Cincinnati.