Portland councilors reject mayor’s call for reconciliation task force

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PORTLAND — The new budget can stay, but the “basic dysfunction” has to go, Mayor Ethan Strimling said Monday.

Citing a May 15 vote by the City Council that eliminated the job of special assistant to the mayor, Strimling said he wants to form a task force to “reconcile these differences” in how he and councilors interpret the City Charter.

“The council’s action, whatever their intention, undermines the ability of the independent office of the mayor to do the work the voters expect it to do,” Strimling said in a press conference outside City Hall.

He stopped short of using his veto power on the $240 million municipal budget councilors passed May 15 despite his opposition.

“Vetoing the budget will create at least two more weeks of political maneuvering, grandstanding and infighting that will only serve to further divide our city. I won’t let that happen,” Strimling said.

The mayor said he envisions a task force of five to seven people that could work through the summer and come up with some possible charter revisions if needed. He would seek council input on appointing a task force with members of the public “without preconceived notions” on the charter.

“I still believe this Charter can work if we work together and take some time to clearly define our roles,” Strimling said. Any suggested revisions could possibly go to a new charter commission; the task force is not intended to have sole discretion over changes.

Strimling said he had not spoken with any councilors about the task force before his press conference. The council would have final approval over who might participate.

“My hope is councilors will see this for what it is,” he said.

After a workshop Monday night, each councilor who voted to eliminate the position of assistant to the mayor said the task force Strimling described as “a path forward” as an unnecessary walk.

“I think the council works very well; there is a difference between disagreement and dysfunction,” Councilor Belinda Ray said.

Ray introduced the motion to defund the year-old special assistant to the mayor. She had suggested the money funding the position could be used to pay for a waterfront manager, which City Manager Jon Jennings wanted but said could not be afforded in the new budget.

“I find the duties of the mayor to be quite clear,” Ray said. “I don’t think we need another task force to give yet another interpretation of the mayor’s duties.”

Brenerman considered a motion May 15 to add the waterfront manager to the budget, but decided not to make it following the protracted debate on funding the special assistant’s job.

He said Strimling could get the support, research and policy development he requires from existing city staff, which was how former Mayor Michael Brennan did  the job.

“I don’t understand the appointment of a task force except to find more people who agree with the mayor,” Brenerman said.

Councilor Justin Costa agreed with Brenerman.

“This is routine for all of us,” he said of asking city staff for information about policies and budgeting.

Councilor Pious Ali did not attend the workshop. Strimling and Councilor Brian Batson left before it concluded. The three had voted to retain funding for the position.

Councilor Nick Mavodones, who last year did not require the new assistant job to be approved by the Finance Committee he leads before a full council vote was taken, said Strimling has failed to understand he is ultimately part of the council and can use the same methods councilors do to get information.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau on May 15 blamed Strimling for the lack of collaboration, and on Monday said he saw no need for a task force, especially as city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and the late Peter DeTroy last year gave their own opinions on how the charter works.

“How many more funds are we going to expend to get us to the same result?” he asked. “We’ve had a charter commission and two sets of eyeballs on this and have come up with the same result.”

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

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, left, on May 22 said a City Council vote to eliminate funding for his special assistant, Jason Shedlock, shows “a fault line within our structure of government.”

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.