Portland mayor makes friends, foes in 1st year

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PORTLAND — A poll commissioned by the Democratic City Committee last month shows Mayor Ethan Strimling has a 60 percent approval rating.

But the opinion isn’t necessarily shared in City Hall, as evidenced last week.

At the Nov. 21 City Council meeting, the manner of the mayor’s opposition to selling city land was harshly criticized.

A day later, a new city office to help link immigrants and employers, supported by Strimling in his 2015 campaign, was unanimously recommended for approval by the City Council Economic Development Committee.

“Municipal politics is a very different animal. What I love is the immediacy, and the in-your-face, day-to-day interaction with people in the street,” Strimling said Nov. 22.

On Monday, Dec. 5, when new Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson are sworn in, Strimling will have been in office a year. He said last week he is pleased his office is more visible in the community, that council proceedings are more transparent and that the council has ultimately come together on the big issues.

But the “in-your-face” interaction has also been marked by a contentious relationship with some councilors and City Manager Jon Jennings.

Jennings and Strimling have publicly disagreed on the municipal budget, and at the core of their differences is how they interpret the City Charter.

“We do not have an executive mayor, and city staff reports to me,” Jennings said Nov. 18. “It was, frankly, the relationship I had with Mayor (Michael) Brennan. He understood and accepted the responsibility.”

Strimling said he wants a strong collaboration between the mayor and city manager, but cited several charter sections as the basis for his desire to be briefed on daily operations, fueled by what he hears from the public.

“I have to provide clear guidance for (Jennings) and he has to incorporate that,” Strimling said.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who lost his re-election bid to Batson, took a different view last month.

“When the mayor has tried to act as spokesperson for the city, it can be problematic, as the mayor is still just speaking for himself,” Suslovic said.

On Nov. 21, Strimling opposed the sale of 12,000 square feet of land to CPB2, the owners of the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St., because he thought the $400,000 price was too low.

He announced his opposition before a council meeting, and before a public hearing and vote, much the same way he sought to amend a $374,000 tax increment finance agreement for the biotech company Immucell in August.

In each case, Strimling was unsuccessful; the land sale passed 8-1, and there were no TIF amendments after Councilor David Brenerman said the City Council Economic Development Committee would review existing TIF policies in the future.

Strimling’s desire to add local hiring and living-wage requirements to the TIF agreement just before it faced a final council vote and after the Economic Development Committee endorsed it angered Brenerman and Immucell President and CEO Michael Brigham.

“The contract was negotiated and voted upon by the committee. No one offered amendments during our deliberations and no one spoke at the committee’s public hearing,” Brenerman said in September.

The record backs up Brenerman, but Strimling said he was clear about his TIF policy objectives in January, when the topic was first discussed.

Strimling’s comments on the municipal budget, required by the charter, also upset councilors for his tone regarding Jennings’ plan to close the India Street Public Health Center and shift services to the nonprofit Portland Community Health Center, now known as Greater Portland Health.

Strimling said the budget favored “pavements over people,” and he wanted assurances transition plans were in place so no one would lose services. Councilors Justin Costa and Jill Duson called the remarks inappropriate.

“What was new to me was closing India Street,” Strimling said last week. “The first time I saw the budget before it came to the council was the day before it was given to the press.”

Jennings and Suslovic have said Strimling was fully briefed on the scope of the plan.

“I think this was one of the first things where I began to become more concerned about the politicizing of City Hall,” Jennings said. “I never would have brought forth this plan without the support from the City Council and the mayor.”

Ultimately, the Positive Health Care program for HIV-positive patients was shifted, but the city will continue to run the needle exchange and screening services for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases at India Street.

Strimling has also found himself at odds with the City Council Housing Committee, which he established.

In July, he presented his own comprehensive ordinance, one that would have eliminated “at-will” tenancies, required a 90-day notice for rental increases, and capped the annual number of apartments that could be forcibly vacated for building repairs.

The Housing Committee, led by Duson, did not include the measures in the package it sent to the full City Council in September. The package was approved last week, after Strimling’s attempts to amend it failed.

The ad hoc committee Strimling established in July to review a proposed $70.6 million bond to upgrade four elementary schools is “one of my proudest accomplishments going forward,” he said.

But the bond amount was questioned by Suslovic and Councilor Jon Hinck, because they worried how the debt would affect overall city finances and its bond rating.

As it wraps up its work, the committee may now send a $60 million bond proposal back to the School Board before council discussion is renewed.

If he has not gotten all he wanted, Strimling is glad he made the effort.

“I am proud we have had really good debates about the really important issues,” he said.

He will also continue his policy goals, bolstered in part by the Portland Democratic City Committee poll. The survey results were published in late October, and have become a potential guidepost for city politics.

Survey says …

The 15-question, $3,000 poll of nearly 500 residents by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina, was part of the committee’s effort to take a more active role in city politics, PDCC Chairwoman Emily Figdor said Nov. 22.

It was also commissioned without the vote required by committee bylaws, with questions written by committee officers, and funded through small contributions of the type Figdor and her husband, Steven Biel, are adept at raising.

Figdor said while she regrets not taking a vote, the poll still reflects what committee members believe is important.

“It was a very honest mistake,” Figdor said. “… It is good to have transparency. (But) the poll was and is a good tool to assess voter opinion.”

Strimling agreed, although he said it is just one measurement for him.

“I’m glad they did the survey,” he said. “As you try to be representative of and reflective of your constituents, you have to take a lot of things into account.”

Figdor and Biel have worked for progressive causes, including MoveOn.org and Environment Maine. According to April 2 Democratic committee minutes, Strimling nominated Figdor as committee chairwoman. She was elected without opposition by a unanimous voice vote.

Biel was treasurer for Ali’s successful City Council campaign until early June.

Just before the election, Strimling endorsed Ali in his race against Hinck. He joined the entire School Board, Duson and Suslovic in doing so.

Strimling made no endorsement in the race between Suslovic and Batson, but did meet with Batson twice to talk about city issues.

“His values seemed to be right in line with what I have heard in the city,” Strimling said Nov. 8.

Some of the poll’s 15 questions show clear support for policies Strimling has advocated, including local hiring for TIFs, retaining services at the India Street Public Health Center, and the $70.6 million school bond. Respondents also opposed banning short-term housing rentals, which Strimling said put pressure on the local housing market.

“It reminded me we are a city that wants the council to take bold action. I learned from it that maybe we are more progressive than we realize,” he said.

While the survey results may be a portion of shaping his policy outlook, Strimling said the results could also be a consideration in the 2017 elections, when the terms of Duson, Brenerman and Costa expire.

“I am always looking for people I can work with and people who are progressive. I will look at every election every time,”  he said.

While Strimling prepares for a new year, others wonder how the mayor, council and city manager’s office can work more cohesively.

Charting the course

Suslovic, a supporter of the charter amendment that returned a popularly elected mayor to Portland, supported Brennan in 2011.

In 2015, he ended his own mayoral candidacy after asking Strimling to run. Suslovic said he supported Strimling because Brennan was no longer effectively working with the City Council.

Now he wants more charter revisions.

“I have come to the conclusion it was an experiment worth trying, but it has failed,” he said last month about the elected mayor. “The pluses have not been realized and I did not anticipate the negatives as problematic as they are.”

Suslovic, Ali, former Councilor Cheryl Leeman and Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization President Jay Norris are among those who have suggested another look at the charter.

Jim Cohen, a former city councilor and mayor, also served on the Charter Commission. Last month, he said the changes need more time, and those in office, whether elected or appointed, need to collaborate more.

“It is abundantly clear from everything I’ve heard there are definitely challenges in City Hall,” Cohen said. “At this point, I don’t think the problems stem from our system of government.”

Leeman and Cohen said the intent was for a mayor to provide a guiding vision, not to immerse themselves in daily city operations.

“It was a bunch of checks and balances, we really thought the ideal mayor would be a collaborative person, and the types of powers given to the mayors would be ‘soft’ powers,” Cohen said.

Leeman said Brennan and Strimling overstepped their roles.

“I believe both went into office with a higher expectation of their duties than allowed by (the) charter,” she said.

Jennings was appointed in July 2015, and his focus and energy were praised by Leeman and Suslovic.

“I can’t say enough good about what he has done,” she said. “He has set us on a path to correct things that have not been done for a very long time.”

Strimling insists it is the role of the city manager to implement policy based on guidance from the City Council and mayor.

“I think what the Charter Commission wanted was a mayor who was not ceremonial. And they did that by creating these powers,” Strimling said.

Jennings objected to Strimling asking city department heads for briefings.

“Part of my role is to be sure the professionals understand they are not part of the whims of politics,” he said. “Part of what is disconcerting is, the mayor wants staff who do not report to him to brief him on any number of issues.”

But Strimling said that’s his role under the charter.

“As the mayor, one of my responsibilities is facilitation policy through the city manager’s office. I need to be briefed,” he said. “Part of my job is to be the eyes, ears and voice of the city. Being attuned to that is what I strive for everyday. People appreciate that.”

Leeman also admitted that reopening the charter would be risky.

“There may be some merit to seeing if things settle down a bit,” she said, “but it is clearly an option.”

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

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said Nov. 22 he will continue to push for progressive policies in his second year in office.

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.