Portland Charter: Battle lines drawn over elected mayor decision

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PORTLAND — As Election Day approaches, the “elected mayor” question has become the one to watch in the city, with organized efforts going door-to-door, staging press conferences and taking the debate to neighborhoods and schools.

As part of its final report to the City Council this summer, the Charter Commission recommended the city elect a full-time mayor. Currently, city councilors take turns serving as mayor for one-year terms, and are appointed by fellow councilors to the position.

The elected mayor would serve a four-year term, be paid a yearly salary of about $67,000 and have some veto power over the annual city budget.

Proponents say an elected mayor will allow a vision or plan to be developed and implemented by the city. They also say an elected mayor will be able to move along economic development projects that now get caught up in too much bureaucratic and political process.

“Things are happening in minutes and a lot of times Portland can’t make a decision,” Jim Cohen, a former councilor and mayor, said at a recent Lyseth School PTO meeting. Cohen also served on the Charter Commission.

He said the council-manager form of government Portland currently has is falling out of favor and the city needs a real leader.

“I’ve come to believe this city is broken,” Cohen said.

The Portland Community Chamber has put its weight behind an elected mayor as well, and has used the failed Maine State Pier development in 2008 as an example of why an elected mayor is needed.

The campaign blames that development failure and others on a lack of leadership in the city.

But opponents of an elected mayor say the position would wield no more power than the current appointed mayor and will cost taxpayers an additional $67,000 a year, plus benefits and the cost of support staff.

City Councilor Cheryl Leeman and current Mayor Nick Mavodones are part of the opposition camp. They told the Lyseth meeting they also take issue with the “ranked-choice voting” component of the elected mayor question.

Attached to the question asking voters if they want to elect a mayor is the companion order that the mayor would have to be elected by more than 50 percent of voters. Voters would rank candidates in order of preference. If someone doesn’t receive more than 50 percent of the first-choice vote, the candidate who comes in last would be knocked out and the votes would be recalculated.

“It’s complicated,” Mavodones said. Only the mayoral election would be conducted using ranked choice.

School changes

The Charter Commission has also recommended a series of changes to how city schools are governed, including changing the name of the School Committee to the Board of Public Education.

The changes would make it mandatory for the board to meet with councilors regularly for budget meetings and to deliver an annual “State of the Schools” report.

Board members would get an increase in pay, from $3,000 to nearly $5,600 annually, which would bring them in line with city councilors.

Voters will also be asked on the ballot to approve several technical changes that will satisfy state and federal regulations and also make the charter reflect city regulations and policies that have changed in the 24 years since the charter was last reviewed.

Election Day is Nov. 2. For more information on the charter questions, go to portlandmaine.gov and select the 2009 Charter Commission link on the left side of the home page.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]