The campaign to bring an elected mayor to Portland, a proposal championed by the city's charter commission as well as several arts and business groups, officially launched at a City Hall press conference on Tuesday. The Elect Our Mayor/Yes on One campaign calls for the city to switch from its current system — a city manager plus a council-selected mayor who serves for one year — to a hybrid model in which the city manager oversees administrative functions while the elected mayor serves as a "policy leader" over a four-year term.
"We need the vision, leadership, and continuity that comes with an elected mayor," said Jessica Tomlinson, director of public relations at Maine College of Art. Tomlinson, who also sits on the SPACE Gallery board of directors, calls the lack of that consistency "the number one challenge for growing Portland's creative economy."
Portland has made a name for itself as a foodie, artsy, vibrant town, but without sustained direction, "it's built on quicksand," she said. "Because the growth happened randomly, it can just as easily disappear."
Those who support the elected-mayor concept (which has been floated several times in Portland over the last few decades) say the "professionalism" of local government would be maintained by the city manager while "strategic political vision" would be provided by the mayor. And they say the time is right.
"I have always been opposed to this in the past," admitted Pam Plumb, a former city councilor and mayor. "The charter [commission] process and the tenor of the current time have changed my mind."
Past proposals were "vaguer," Plumb said, in how they delineated checks and balances among the council, mayor, and city manager. This time around, "the commission worked long and hard" to define who would fill what roles. The city manager will still oversee day-to-day administrative functions (and write the budget), while the proposed mayor would establish budget and policy priorities, appoint committee members, and serve as the official head of the city.
The charter commission has proposed setting the elected mayor's salary at one-and-a-half times the median income of Portland, which at this point would be about $66,000 per year. (For context, Governor John Baldacci earns $70,000 a year, and Portland Public Schools superintendent James Morse gets a yearly salary of $141,500.)
The proposal is not without confusion — the very same referendum question asking Portland voters to approve an elected mayor will also seek approval for rank-choice voting (see "Ideas From Away," by Jeff Inglis, January 5, 2007), so people who support one but not the other will have to choose which position to give up.
And there are detractors, too: Next week, a new organization called Citizens for Responsible Government will announce their formal opposition to the elected-mayor idea. In addition to balking at the cost, opponents deny that the position would increase accountability.
"Just because they have a four-year position guarantees nothing other than that they will be beholden to the special-interest groups that got them elected," says city councilor Cheryl Leeman, who has fought former proposals for an elected mayor.
And Leeman uses the praise recently heaped on Portland to the exact opposite effect as Tomlinson. No quicksand here: "We get national accolades . . . somebody's doing something right." In other words, if it ain't broke, why fix it?