PORTLAND — Entering his third year in office, Mayor Ethan Strimling feels he has gained traction on his policies and goals.
Voters approved a $64 million school bond he backed, and the City Council enacted revisions to tax increment finance policies and property tax rebates for some older residents.
“It has been a very good year,” Strimling said Nov. 30. “We are certainly seeing bumps, but the arc is curving in the right direction.”
Strimling considered the bond to rebuild Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools his top priority. With 65 percent voter approval, it beat a competing $32 million bond by 13 points and had stronger support than any other referendum question on the November ballot.
The council will vote Dec. 18 on an ordinance Strimling supports regulating use of pesticides. His proposed mandatory sick leave policy for public and private employers, now in front of the Council Health and Human Services Committee, is expected to be considered anew in February 2018.
His proposal to expand the city’s inclusionary zoning rules to provide more affordable housing will get a Planning Board review, although it was not recommended for passage by the Council Housing Committee.
On Monday, Strimling said he will also appoint himself chairman of the council Finance Committee, a move that will require six council votes.
“It is better to do it this way, to have input at committee level, and the council has been clear they want me to be more a part of the council,” the mayor said said.
Leading the committee as it helps shape the municipal and capital improvements budget and reviews the education budget would more closely align Strimling to the mayoral duties outlined in the City Charter, he said.
Strimling does not expect the budgeting process to change. He and City Manager Jon Jennings will meet with councilors before Jennings introduces a budget in early April, then review the budget as a committee and suggest amendments.
“There is nothing radical going on,” Strimling said, adding committee leadership and assignments will be announced ahead of the Dec. 18 meeting.
But the mayor’s successes have come with costs, too.
Jason Shedlock, Strimling’s former assistant, lost his job when councilors defunded it in May. Shedlock is now executive director of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Strimling remains unhappy about what happened.
“(Shedlock is) a great guy, he did a lot of great work for the city, I don’t think he was treated well,” Strimling said Oct. 11.
Shedlock said he and Strimling remain aligned on issues, and those are largely embraced by the public. Moving polices forward, however, has been a learning experience.
“Often times because of the structure and still how new it is, it was like putting the bike together while you are pedaling downhill and you hope it is together when you get there,” said Shedlock, whose 16-union council supported the school bond and will press to include the prevailing wage standards included in the new TIF policies for the school rebuilding work.
The TIF revisions were not what was originally sought, but Strimling and Shedlock would also like to include hiring preferences, even if they create legal challenges.
“My position then and now is, if we think something is the right thing to do, merely the chance of litigation should not be a final deterrent as to whether we should move forward,” Shedlock said.
Strimling also worked closely with West End couple Steven Biel and Emily Figdor to pass the four-school bond. Biel and Figdor also supported keeping Shedlock, and a stronger role for the elected mayor.
In October, Biel took a leave of absence form Progressive Portland, a nonprofit he co-founded. In November, Figdor resigned as chairwoman of the Portland Democratic City Committee, which was preparing to consider a petition to remove her from the post.
Biel has returned to Progressive Portland; Figdor has returned to a job at MoveOn.org and continues to lead Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, the political action committee behind the successful school bond.
Strimling has said he will always listen to people and groups supporting liberal causes and actions. His sick leave policy was developed while working with Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Worker’s Center.
Strimling said working with Pine Tree Legal and Homeless Voices for Justice also helped develop housing policies he has supported.
But the year was fractious enough for Strimling to say Nov. 30 he was meeting with members of Progressive Portland, Democratic Socialists of America and the Maine People’s Alliance to forge a smoother way forward.
“I am impressed and grateful on how city has come together. We have not seen this level of community activism in decades in this city,” Strimling said. “Progressives can fight like cats and dogs; we have to find ways to work together.”
In advocating for the school bond, Strimling took a more active role in supporting the bond than any councilor did on any of the four referendum questions on the Nov. 7 ballot. He served on the advisory committee for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, and was a PAC decision-maker, according to finance reports.
“I knocked on over 1,000 doors … I put in my voice, shoe leather and contribution, everything I could,” he said.
But determining Strimling’s level of involvement required several Freedom of Access Act requests to the city.
On Sept. 14, The Forecaster sent two requests for communications, including private emails, between Strimling and Shedlock, the Progressive Portland Steering Committee, and members of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools on the TIF revisions, the school bond, and polling done on the bond and other city issues.
Emails from his official account were provided by the city on Oct. 10. It was evident then Strimling was communicating with PONS via a private email account, but had not supplied requested materials.
“What I have tried to do is tell people who want to communicate about political stuff is use my (private) account,” Strimling said Nov. 30. “I don’t think it was proper to use my official account for political stuff.”
Maine Freedom of Access laws, however, restrict the use of private emails by public officials:
“Even when sent or received using a member’s personal computer or e-mail account, e-mail may be considered a public record if it contains information relating to the transaction of public or governmental business unless the information is designated as confidential or excepted from the definition of a public record. As a result, members of a body should be aware that all e-mails and e-mail attachments relating to the member’s participation are likely public records subject to public inspection under the FOAA.”
City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin and Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said it is up to elected officials to comply with FOAA requests for private communications, since those are not stored by the city.
A second FOAA request was sent Oct. 11, and Strimling was asked about his use of private emails in an interview that day. He said he would follow West-Chuhta’s guidance.
After Strimling returned from a vacation in late October, he, Grondin and West-Chuhta were all asked on Oct. 30 about complying with the second FOAA request. Strimling did not reply, but Grondin said the mayor and West-Chuhta were set to meet and review the request.
Emails from his private account were provided Nov. 17 and 22, and show he provided advice and perspective to PONS about videos and campaign literature, and the possible effect of news stories showing the ties between PONS and Progressive Portland. He was also kept aware of a Progressive Portland-commissioned poll on city issues done in early September by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, North Carolina.
On Oct. 20, The Forecaster sent a FOAA to all city councilors, seeking communications with all political action and ballot question committees related to the four Nov. 7 referendum questions.
While it took approximately two months to receive all of Strimling’s emails, Councilors Belinda Ray and Justin Costa responded to the Oct. 20 FOAA request within about two weeks, on Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, respectively.
Costa sent one message to Figdor on Oct. 13. Ray offered advice on the content of some campaign literature from Better Schools Better Deal supporting the $32 million bond to rebuild only two city schools (which ultimately failed).
On Monday, Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who was hospitalized for more than a month after an Oct. 26 appendectomy, provided two emails where he responded to Figdor’s invitation to speak at a June 11 PONS rally.
The remaining FOAA responses supplied by the city Nov. 30 showed PACs used only official city accounts to email councilors.
Another area where Strimling said he has made progress is in his relationship with Jennings.
After a July 31 council workshop where Strimling and Jennings aired their complaints about each other, councilors largely took the side of the city manager, especially in regard to ensuring Jennings remains the gatekeeper for access to city staff.
“It has gotten a lot better, the relationship with Jon, we are communicating much better,” Strimling said Oct. 11.
He said city staff had been very helpful in providing research for Strimling’s sick leave proposal and expanding the inclusionary zoning to create more affordable housing.
“There is a fine line that has to be solid. Nonpartisan staff cannot be putting together position papers to advocate for a councilor,” Strimling said.
A month before, Jennings objected to potential politicizing of city staff, when Figdor sought a meeting with Fire Department officials regarding safety conditions at the schools covered by the bond.
In her Sept. 11 email, Figdor told Assistant Chief Keith Gautreau that Strimling would be willing to attend a meeting “if needed.”
It was as much an effort to reach out to the union for support of the bond, Strimling and Figdor said, but the request was redirected to Gautreau. Safety reports were provided, but the meeting did not occur.
“I am very concerned there is an attempt to involve city staff in political efforts,” Jennings said in an email to Strimling.
On Nov. 30, Strimling said Jennings’ concern was “totally legitimate.”
The meeting never occurred.
The working relationship between Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, left, and Mayor Ethan Strimling, seen Dec. 11 at a City Hall workshop, is improving, Strimling said last month.
Jason Shedlock, right, former special assistant to Mayor Ethan Strimling, said policies favored by the mayor are also favored by the city in general, while Strimling has also learned how to work better with city councilors.