Portland mayor, manager far from reconciliation

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PORTLAND — After agreeing Monday night to meet more frequently, Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings on Tuesday remained at odds on the core of their working relationship.

“For me, the most important of the requests I had is Jon and I start meeting regularly. There was clear consensus from the council that Jon and I start meeting,” Strimling said Tuesday, following a four-hour City Council workshop Monday night.

Jennings, who on Monday said he would resign if councilors sided with Strimling, said Tuesday he will schedule hour-long meetings with Strimling and Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance.

But he also said Strimling continues to misrepresent their disagreement.

“(Strimling) continues to push a false narrative to enlarge his position in his own mind,” Jennings said.

The workshop Monday in City Hall was designed to clear the air between Strimling and Jennings, who have been at odds over the level of mayoral involvement in city governance.

Strimling asked Monday for twice-weekly meetings with Jennings, the same access to city department heads that councilors have, personal staff and prior review of city press releases.

The workshop, which some councilors – including Justin Costa, Belinda Ray and Nick Mavodones – said should have been behind closed doors, led only to the recommendation Strimling and Jennings meet face-to-face, with hope that would help resolve other issues.

Councilors and Jennings also held out the possibility of future private meetings to discuss concerns about specific employees and Strimling’s level of access to them.

On Tuesday, Strimling said he wants to receive the same courtesy accorded councilors who lead committees, which is the chance to work with them after Jennings’ approval, and then to communicate directly with them on policy issues.

In response, Jennings said he is the point person at every stage when councilors are communicating with city staff.

“He heard every councilor say that was not the system they have,” Jennings said.

Mavodones and other councilors were wary of guidance that was too specific, including how frequently or for how long Strimling and Jennings should meet, and largely supportive of the more limited view of the City Charter.

“This manager does a phenomenal job, and that is by and large the unanimous view of the council,” Councilor Jill Duson said.

Councilor Brian Batson, who twice met with Strimling last year before unseating former Councilor Ed Suslovic, said the mayor is straying from collaborating with the council.

“For me, this is about the dynamic you two share, but in fairness, this is about you furthering yourself from your colleagues,” he told Strimling.

Strimling, councilors and Jennings all have pointed to sections of the charter to uphold their opinions.

Ray noted on Monday “the city manager shall be in charge of the day to day operations of the city and administration of the city budgets approved by the council.”

Strimling has noted mayoral duties include “to facilitate the implementation of city policies through the office of the city manager.”

Jennings agreed to meetings, but said he has been placed in an unmanageable situation. His contract runs through June 30, 2018, and he said he will fight attempts to put any political pressure on his staff.

“I’ve been very successful in the past in things I have done. I love the city of Portland and the people I work with,” Jennings said. “I have not made any decisions, but this problem with one person has had an influence in what I may do next.”

Strimling said he will continue to advocate policies and views that benefit his constituents.

“I think the best way to do it is to work with staff to develop the policy. My point is, if I don’t have staff to do it, it will push me out,” he said.

Opposing views were also aired inside and outside City Hall before Monday’s workshop.

Former Councilor and Mayor Cheryl Leeman was joined by former City Manager Joe Gray, and former Councilors Linda Abromson, Ann Pringle and John Coyne in the rotunda to advocate for a strong city manager. Almost all had voted for Strimling in 2015.

“The charter did not change that the city manager runs the city,” Abromson said.

Outside City Hall, a rally organized by Progressive Portland to “defend the office of the elected mayor” drew fewer than a dozen people.

“Whether you voted for Ethan Strimling, Mike Brennan, or Tom McMillan in the last election, we all need to stand up for a strong mayoral position,” Progressive Portland Steering Committee member Michael Langenmyer said.

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

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, right, complains during a four-hour City Council workshop July 31 that City Manager Jon Jennings, left, has blocked his access to city officials and ignored his communications. Councilors said the pair need to meet more often.

Former Portland City Councilor and Mayor Linda Abromson, in a July 31 City Hall press conference, said the City Charter is clear that “the city manager runs the city.”

A rally organized by Progressive Portland on July 31 asked supporters to “defend the office of the elected mayor.”

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.