Portland council appoints Hill-Christian acting city manager

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PORTLAND — On a night when decisions by acclamation were elusive, city councilors on Sept. 3 unanimously promoted Sheila Hill-Christian to acting city manager.

Councilors also listened and debated for almost 90 minutes before narrowly rejecting a contract zone amendment sought for a residential development on Ocean Avenue.

Accepting the resignation of former City Manager Mark Rees, appointing  Hill-Christian, and setting up a search committee for a new city manager took about 20 minutes, all by unanimous votes.

Hill-Christian, who became the first deputy city manager in 2013 after holding a variety of public and private jobs in the Richmond, Virginia, area, was praised by councilors for her demeanor and determination.

“For those of you who have not had the pleasure of working with Sheila, please do,” Councilor Cheryl Leeman said. “(She) brings incredible strength and integrity to this position.”

Hill-Christian will earn $146,600 as acting city manager, the salary Rees would have earned had he stayed through the additional one-year contract City Councilors approved in April.

“Portland is a city with many blessings,” Hill-Christian said before the council vote. She later thanked city staff for their skill and said they deserved credit for the praise she received.

Rees became city manager in September 2011. He cited his desire to pursue other personal and professional interests when he announced his resignation last month. Hill-Christian was sworn in at noon on Sept. 4.

In a workshop preceding the meeting, Hill-Christian received the go-ahead to continue with searches for the heads of the Finance, Health and Human Services and Human Resource departments.

Former HHS Director Doug Gardner left in late June. Finance Director Ellen Sanborn shifted to the School Department last month. Former Human Resources Director Mike Miles left in early spring.

The city manager search committee is led by Mayor Michael Brennan, who will be joined by Councilors Nick Mavodones Jr., Jill Duson and Ed Suslovic. The composition of the elected mayor and three councilors is required by an amendment to the City Charter in 2011.

During the workshop, Mavodones and Leeman urged transparency in the search for a new manager.

“I would hope we try to keep our search committee meetings as open as possible,” Mavodones said, although he noted some discussions about candidates and contract terms will require privacy.

Mavodones also suggested using a regional search firm to attract candidates.

But councilors were urged not to rush into the process by Holm Avenue resident Robert Hains and High Street resident Steven Scharf.

Hains suggested the search be postponed, and money saved, if the council waits to see how Hill-Christian fits into her new job.

Scharf said the search committee should include members of the public.

In their other business, councilors voted 5-4 against amending a 10-year-old contract zone for 18 acres of land at 802 Ocean Ave. The decision prevents developer Diane Doyle from moving forward with a revised plan to build as many as 96 housing units near the Falmouth town line.

Doyle said her revised plans would reduce building heights from an allowed 100 feet to 75 feet, reduce the number of market-rate housing units by two, and still leave eight acres of open space that could be incorporated into the Portland Trails network.

Doyle said she would like to build two four-story buildings topped by penthouses. Her original plans were put on hold after the recession in 2008.

A contract zone without an expiration date allowing Doyle’s initial development plans was approved in 2004. Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said his staff made no recommendations on the amendments, but has found them consistent with the city Comprehensive Plan.

Planning Board members did not agree last month and recommended councilors vote against the proposed amendments. On Sept. 3, councilors heard about 30 minutes of public comment, most of it opposed to Doyle’s revised plans.

Wayne Goodman, a resident of adjacent Wildwood Circle, gathered 190 petition signatures in opposition to Doyle’s revised development plans, while noting the argument was not against all development on the land.

“(We) are clearly united in our objection to this development,” he said. “It is completely wrong for our neighborhood and wrong for the city of Portland.”

Goodman objected specifically to the scope of the project, which reduces the number of units while potentially doubling the project footprint to 24,000 square feet.

“(They) look more like hotels than condominiums,” he said.

Councilors had mixed opinions.

A motion by Mavodones to send the requested amendments to the Housing and Community Development Committee failed after the committee chairman, Councilor Kevin Donoghue, said there was little more the committee could discuss unless it was about wider zoning questions.

Councilors were also uncertain about the fate of the property if they rejected the amendments, but were told Doyle can still move forward with existing plans or seek other zone amendments.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.