Portland Charter Commission expected to set path this week

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PORTLAND — The Charter Commission is expected to elect its leaders and set dates for future meetings during its first session Thursday.

Nine members were elected to the commission June 9. They join three City Council appointees on the board charged with reviewing and recommending changes to the City Charter, which has not been reviewed in 23 years.

While the commission is expected to spend a majority of its time on whether the mayor should be elected and the structure of the relationship between the schools and the City Council, members first need to figure out how they are going to operate.

On Thursday, the 12 commissioners will be sworn in; receive an overview of their task from city corporation counsel; elect a chairman, vice chairman and secretary; set a date for a public hearing, and set an agenda for their next meeting.

Former Mayor Jim Cohen, who was elected to an at-large seat on the commission, said he expects commissioners will also want to discuss their resources, including where they will get legal advice and research assistance.

“I think we’ll also look at finding someone who can help take accurate minutes,” said Cohen, who suggested the Greater Portland Council of Governments as an option. “I think the city would appreciate a neutral minute-taker.”

The commission will have a budget, but there is no specific amount set aside. Cohen said he expected that to be discussed and also said there are national organizations the city belongs to that could provide materials for guidance.

The commission has up to two years to report back to the City Council with its findings and recommendations, which will then be sent to voters for approval. If the commission finishes its work sooner, the recommendations could go to voters as early as November 2010. 

“I’d prefer we moved carefully, but quickly,” Cohen said.

In addition to deciding whether the city should switch to an elected mayor – the mayor is a city councilor, appointed for a one year term by the City Council – the commission is also going to have to decide what kind of power the mayor should have and how having a “strong” mayor will affect the power structure at City Hall.

Cohen said it will be important for commissioners to share with each other what they consider key issues, and then reach consensus on which of those issues are worth exploring. He said the public will also be allowed to weigh in early in the process.

The Charter Commission meets Thursday at 6 p.m. in Room 24, in the basement of City Hall. For more information go to portlandmaine.gov/chartercommission.htm.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net