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Portland’s Charter Commission Is Deliberating on Suggestions for City Hall Leadership

Portland’s Charter Commission
A commission tasked with considering changes to the structure of Portland city government got a first look Wednesday at two proposals for leadership models at City Hall.

A commission tasked with considering changes to the structure of Portland city government got a first look Wednesday at two proposals for leadership models at City Hall.

The proposals, brought forward by members of the charter commission’s governance committee, were heard by the full commission, which asked questions but largely refrained from debating their merits.

“The goal is not to debate these proposals or engage in a deliberation,” Chair Michael Kebede told the commission at the outset of the workshop. “It’s simply to increase our understanding of the two ideas.”

The first proposal heard by the commission, brought by three of the four committee members, would create a new “chief of staff” position to respond to City Council requests for information and access to staff, and create new avenues outside the committee structure for the council and public to bring up policy proposals. The plan also would give the mayor more say in budget development and the right to form a staffed task force around any policy proposal not taken up by a council committee.

The second proposal, from Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, calls for a strong executive mayor who would nominate and oversee department heads and no longer serve as a council member. Sheikh-Yousef’s proposal also calls for creating an elected public advocate who would respond to constituent needs and would nominate candidates for and oversee the city clerk and city attorney.

The commission, which was proposed by the council in 2019 and elected last year, is tasked with recommending proposed changes to the city charter, which will ultimately have to go to voters for approval. The commission is scheduled to issue a preliminary report on its recommendations in March and a final report by June, but indicated Wednesday that they will discuss next week whether to ask the City Council for more time.

Kebede asked the three members of the governance committee behind the first proposal – Robert O’Brien, Shay Stewart-Bouley and Ryan Lizanecz – why they had not proposed strengthening the mayor’s position. The balance of power between the elected mayor and the appointed city manager is a key focus of the commission.

O’Brien, the committee chair, said the panel was concerned that giving the mayor the authority to hire, fire and manage city staff could lead to turnover each election cycle, leading to a loss of institutional knowledge and momentum on initiatives.

“It came up,” O’Brien said. “We as a committee discussed it and we were concerned that every four years there’s the potential for department heads being replaced and the loss of institutional memory.”

Commissioner Pat Washburn said that when the commissioners ran for election there was a lot of talk about decisions in Portland being made by someone who isn’t directly responsible to voters. She asked the committee how its proposal would bring more accountability.

That’s where the recommendations for the chief of staff and for bringing up policy proposals come in, O’Brien said. Currently, policy is largely set through the council’s annual setting of priorities and assigning those priorities to committees, which then bring recommendations to the full council.

“I believe this provides more avenues for people who are directly elected and for direct access by members of the public to petition their government,” O’Brien said. “Instead of there being a single gatekeeper of City Hall this sort of opens up the gates for the public, the press and the council to access the information they need.”

Sheikh-Yousef, meanwhile, said an executive mayor would provide more accountability than the current system in which department heads are appointed by and report to the city manager, who is appointed by the council. Her proposal also gives the mayor the authority to sign into law or veto legislation approved by the council, though the council could override with 75 percent support.

Sheikh-Yousef said she has gotten questions about whether a strong mayor would lead to corruption and heard concerns that a strong mayor could refuse to implement certain policies, but she said the council would provide an appropriate check.

“The council can hear and pass policy or publicly expose the mayor’s failures, just as the state Legislature could do with the governor,” she said.

In addition, she said a mayor can be recalled or voted out of office each election cycle, but a city manager can only be hired or fired by a majority of the council.

“That’s the system we’re living under and it’s hard,” she said. “We did interviews with councilors who said the former city manager … had been keeping five councilors on his side so he could continue doing what he had to do and there was no accountability in that position.”

Several commissioners expressed interest in Sheikh-Yousef’s plans for a public advocate, but also questioned how such a position would work, whether that person would run on a policy platform and whether it would be beneficial or detrimental to have the public advocate oversee the city attorney and clerk.

“I’m really intrigued by the public advocate position, as others are, it seems,” said Commissioner Peter Eglinton. He asked Sheikh-Yousef whether she thought there was any potential for political friction between the proposed position and other elected posts.

Sheikh-Yousef said it wasn’t something she had looked at. “That’s something we could work on as a commission, but no, I have not thought about it,” she said.

Sheikh-Yousef said she is open to feedback around the proposal. “I’m not 100 percent an expert, which is why we’re all doing this together,” she said.

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Rajesh Tamada