Short Relief: Portland is stuck with ranked choice voting, but not with Brennan

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You might have been surprised to learn that four of eight Portland city councilors and seven of 10 members of the School Board oppose the re-election of incumbent Mayor Michael Brennan. That’s 11 out of 17 of the city’s highest elected officials, most of whom belong to the same party as the mayor.

In announcing their position, these officials described the city as divided and its workforce hampered by the departure of key staff.

A fair assessment is that the weak mayor form of city government, ranked choice voting, and Brennan have all been disappointments.

It begins with the position that the Charter Commission created. In 2008, Portland authorized the commission to address the lack of leadership that had resulted in a series of major decisions being botched.

The most glaring of those was the way that the council bungled the process of selecting a contractor to rebuild the deteriorating Maine State Pier, so that in the end the city was left with no contractor and a deteriorating pier. There was also the lost opportunity for a new civic center and an out-of-control school budget. The sense was that Portland needed a leader to make difficult decisions.

But instead of creating a position of leadership, the commission worried about creating a mayor who was too powerful. It crafted a largely ceremonial position and ranked choice voting to ensure that whoever is elected would be popular.

Brennan’s supporters said he would be a good listener and communicator, and could build the coalitions necessary to make the weak form of mayor work.

But under his watch the development of Congress Square was thwarted by referendum. Development of the Portland Co. waterfront property is threatened by referendum. Conversion of the Williston-West Church was hampered by not-in-my-back-yard litigation. The Midtown Project is in jeopardy because of a combination of litigation and soured relations between the city and developer. The Thompson’s Point project is moving at a snail’s pace.

And the way Brennan handled his own signature issue, raising the local minimum wage, has been less than an unqualified success.

The mayor announced his intention to raise the wage in his January 2014 state of the city address. He formed a 19-member advisory committee to study the issue. The panel held meetings and heard from academics, government officials, employers and interested organizations. It reviewed studies. It held a public meeting attended by more than 100 people.

The issue of how the city wage would apply to tipped workers was prominent. Employers expressed concern about how any municipal ordinance would interact with the state’s minimum wage law.

The mayor must have known that law. Between 1992 and 2008, he served four terms in the state House of Representatives and three terms in the state Senate. During that time, the Legislature raised the state’s minimum wage nine times, from $4.75 to $7.25 an hour.

Even so, the mayor didn’t appreciate how his minimum wage ordinance interacted with state law regarding tipped workers.

State law sets the minimum wage at $7.50 an hour and provides for a credit, in terms of dollars and cents – not a percentage – against that amount for employers of tipped workers. Such employers must pay their workers $3.75 an hour on the assumption that tips will at least make up the difference.

When it created a city minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, the council amended part of the city code subsection pertaining to tipped workers. It left intact the part of that section that specifies that the tip credit cannot exceed the amount established by state law.

The most obvious implication is that employers of tipped workers will have to pay the difference between the state tip credit and the city minimum, or $6.35 an hour. As a result, employers of tipped workers say they may not be able to employ as many people, and the council is planning to revisit the matter.

At this point, it’s not realistic to change the City Charter, but we can try a different mayor.

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