Short Relief: Half a mayor is worse than none

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I wasn’t particularly unhappy with the way that we have been voting in Portland. I was comfortable with the idea of each person having one vote. It is a relatively simple, straightforward, workable way to express a preference. One that has stood the test of time.

I was unhappy that our directly elected, supposedly nonpartisan City Council has not been able to overcome its differences to effectively address many important issues. One of the most glaring of those failures was the way that the council bungled the process of selecting a contractor to rebuild the deteriorating Maine State Pier so badly that in the end the city was left with no contractor and a crumbling pier.

I felt that our city suffered from a lack of leadership and direction. I thought I was not alone. In November of 2008, voters approved the creation of a commission to review the City Charter. It looked like leadership might be on the way. And, not surprisingly, after meeting for two years, the Portland Charter Commission recommended that the charter be changed to provide for a popularly elected mayor who would serve four-year terms.

The commission reasoned that Portland had outgrown its current, largely ceremonial mayor. (The current mayor is elected by the council, is the official head of the city for a year at a time, represents the city at various events, presides over council meetings, and, together with the council as a whole, oversees the city manager and city clerk.)

The commission professed that Portland needs more: a mayor who can speak for the people, unify the council, implement policies, ensure that the budget reflects the city’s priorities, represent the city in interactions with other entities, and help Portland grow and prosper.

The commission spent a lot of time worrying about ways to ensure that the new mayor would be legitimate. In the end, it proposed that the mayor be elected using ranked choice voting. The commission recommended RCV on the basis that it would ensure that no one gets to be mayor without winning a majority of the votes cast.

Why the commission was so concerned that the mayor be able to claim the support of a majority is a mystery. Because the mayor that the commission proposes is little different from the current ceremonial mayor and would have little real authority. Although the new mayor would cost more.

In its report, the commission said Portland is not ready for a strong executive mayor. It claimed that most Portlanders would not accept such a mayor. To the contrary, I think the city is clamoring for a strong leader. Someone with the ability to transcend the infighting that stymies the council. The commission was just afraid that, in a multi-candidate race, that leader might not be one of them or theirs.

So, while proposing a mayor elected using RCV, the commission kept the professional city manager. He remains the chief administrative officer of the city, in charge of the day-to-day operations of City Hall. He hires city employees, controls the departments, implements the council’s decisions, enforces the laws and ordinances, and prepares the city budget. The mayor is explicitly forbidden from becoming involved in the appointment of city employees and may not direct them.

That doesn’t leave much opportunity for the new mayor to lead. She gets to give an annual address, and she has veto power over the budget, subject to being overridden by the council. The real power remains with the city manager. It’s a recipe for frustration for the incumbent and disillusionment for the people.

How about a parliamentary mayor, a “prime councilor”? One of the popularly elected councilors, elected by a governing majority of the council, given the responsibility to implement the will of the people as expressed by the council. Give her authority over the city bureaucracy to do so. Let her draft the budget and control the departments. She would have the ability to lead as long as she maintained her majority in the council.

Such a PC would have to have a program of positions on the major issues. She would have to build a governing coalition in the council in order to get to be PC. She would be legitimate. She would be effective. She would be a leader. She could make progress.

It’s a lot more satisfactory than the thin gruel that the Portland Charter Commission has served.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.