Short Relief: Portland needs a few good candidates for mayor

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Portland’s second mayoral election in almost a century is five months away and the only person who has announced their intention to run is a homeless, self-described revolutionary who admits he has no chance of winning.

Is it any wonder that Mayor Michael Brennan chooses to lay low and rely on his inherent advantage as the incumbent?

But what explains the lack of any credible challenger? In 2011, there were at least 15 candidates, including three city councilors and three former members of the Legislature.

Is no one interested in being mayor of the state’s largest, most diverse, wealthiest, most economically vibrant city? No one wants the responsibility? The $67,000 a year salary? Are the headaches that great? The rewards so paltry? Is governing the city so difficult? The position so unappealing? Does no one think they can win?

There was a bit of excitement in April, prompted by a private telephone poll of about 500 voters. It reportedly showed that the mayor could be vulnerable. But the likely sponsors of that poll seemed to disavow commissioning it, and any excitement quickly dissipated.

It is not as though there haven’t been issues over the past four years.

For example, in 2012 it emerged that the city had not been doing a very good job of inspecting the roughly 800 establishments that serve or sell food in Portland. A problem in that area could have threatened our status as a foodie town and one of our healthiest economic sectors. (The city now has two full-time inspectors and one part-time.)

In early 2014, the Fire Department stopped conducting inspections of rental properties. The public didn’t find out until after a fatal fire on Noyes Street killed six people in November. (The current budget proposal includes nearly $336,000 for a new executive housing safety office that will report to the city manager.)

Many of the intersections of our major thoroughfares feature panhandlers holding signs appealing for money. Last November, one particularly aggressive panhandler kicked and seriously injured a British visitor, who required surgery and hospitalization.

Earlier this year, a state Department of Health and Human Services audit revealed Portland was not fulfilling its obligations with regard to administering General Assistance, and that people who were not qualified were receiving assistance.

We are on our third city manager in eight months. As of this writing, we did not have a city budget, the one area where the mayor does have some real authority. Last month, tensions between councilors and the mayor about addressing the budget leaked into view.

Over Memorial Day weekend, there were at least two armed robberies, a bank robbery, and a shooting inside a recording studio on Fore Street that left one young man dead.

The city’s taxes and spending have increased each of the past four years. Total expenditures have gone from $196.2 million in fiscal 2011 to $220.9 in the current recommendation.

These are some of the issues I want a mayor to handle. If it had been up to me to revise the City Charter, I would have created a strong elected mayor who had more responsibility for, and authority to deal with, issues like these. I acknowledge that the position that the revised charter created is largely powerless. Maybe that explains the lack of interest.

On the other hand, Portland is a great little city, notwithstanding the challenges it faces. And it has the potential to be even better. Even a relatively weak mayor can use the bully pulpit to take strong positions on the issues.

Imagine if something nice could be made of the Maine State Pier, Williston West Church, Congress Square, Midtown, Thompson’s Point and the Portland Co. property. We could fund our own foreign aid program with the increased tax base, and not have to ask the rest of Maine to pay for it.

One thing is for sure. It can’t be the prospect of a long, arduous, antagonistic campaign that is keeping prospective mayoral candidates at bay. At this point, any candidate who enters the race is looking at only a few months of the rubber chicken circuit, if that. In my experience, Portland never experienced much of the acrimony of other statewide or national races.

That was the mystery of the movement for ranked-choice voting. It was a solution in search of a problem. Proponents argued that it would make elections more civil and avoid the possibility of some fringe candidate winning a multi-candidate race. But Portland elections hadn’t been particularly antagonistic, and there aren’t enough extremists in Portland to win even a 15-way race by a plurality.

If anything, the problem in Portland is a lack of accountability, diversity and choice.

Nomination papers to run for mayor become available June 30. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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