Halsey Frank: New Portland Charter Commission worse than the last


The current Portland City Charter Commission is worse than the 2009-10 one. The last one was prompted by widespread dissatisfaction with the city council’s inability to make significant, controversial decisions like shoring up the deteriorating Maine State Pier.

The sense was that a strong leader was needed to make those kinds of decisions. Instead of providing us that, the commission got sidetracked by its concern about how any mayor got elected. It proposed a weak mayor elected using ranked-choice voting (RCV), promising that would reduce negative campaigning, ensure the election of a leader who had a majority of supporters, and who would be able to bring people together. RCV did none of that.

Portland politics has become more antagonistic than ever. Campaigns are more negative. Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson, City Manager Jon Jennings and Police Chief Frank Clark, and School Board members Sarah Thompson and Jeff Irish have left or are all leaving their positions at least in part because of that antagonism. And the three mayors that the city has elected using RCV have all struggled to varying degrees to get along with the rest of the council. 

All this is happening in what is essentially a one-party town in which the conservative minority hasn’t had a seat at the table for years because of processes like RCV.

Nor did the last charter revision create a system any better able to make significant controversial decisions. That is evident from the Midtown project in Bayside which never got built and instead has degenerated into a lawsuit.

Now we have a new commission prompted by concerns about equity, police accountability, eliminating the city manager, guaranteeing basic needs, giving the School Board independence and control over half the city budget, and funding clean elections. To the extent that anyone can tell, it is determined to cement its policy preferences in the city’s foundational document, all without much transparency.

The Commission is considering a provision that would allow non-citizens to vote in city elections notwithstanding legal opinions that doing so exceeds the city’s home rule authority. It is also proposing: (1) to give the mayor more power over the budget and policy making, and a full-time, paid chief-of-staff; (2) to give the school board autonomy with no oversight of its budget by the city council; and (3) creating a paid, 12-member police oversight board with paid staff.

I have always been in favor of a stronger mayor on the basis that the city needs an executive with enough power to make controversial decisions that otherwise linger until resolved by default and neglect. I thought that the 2010 Charter Commission erred by not giving the mayor more power. The other two proposals are bad ideas.

I realize that police reform is one of progressives’ highest priorities, but a city of Portland’s size, about 65,000, with a police force of 160 sworn officers, does not need a review board of this magnitude. Inevitably, it will find fault where it doesn’t belong. That will demoralize law enforcement and embolden criminals. The city will lose paying, productive people, making Portland a less desirable place to be.

Giving the school board greater power and autonomy is another progressive priority that doesn’t deserve codification either. Progressives have rigorously pursued power in Portland, starting with the School Board. I believe that they have achieved it largely because of a combination of Portland’s generally liberal orientation, suppression of any meaningful diversity of political perspective, and lack of engagement by residents. I give them credit. Progressives followed the traditional playbook of using lower elected offices as springboards to higher ones.

Although I worry that it has become dominated by liberal ideology, I believe that, properly conceived, education is an important government function. Even so, a hierarchy that subordinates education to other government functions makes sense. Education is not a government’s only function. It is not the equivalent of maintaining the infrastructure and law and order, or delivering basic governmental services like fire suppression, trash collection, and public transportation. The school board should not be the equal of the city council.

In the July 14, 2020 election, 13,220 people voted for the establishment of a charter commission. That’s about 21% of Portland’s 62,768 registered voters. (4,998, or about 8%, voted against establishing a commission.) In the June 8, 2021 election to fill nine seats on the commission using RCV, 9,045 people voted, or 14.4%. Arguably the most progressive candidate in the race, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef, who had called City Manager Jennings a white supremacist, got the most votes, 1,950. That’s about 3% of Portland’s registered voters. Not much.

My sense is that to the extent that most Portlanders were dissatisfied with the structural reforms implemented by the 2009-10 commission, they were dissatisfied with their failure to produce elected officials who could get along and get the job done. I don’t think they were looking for the kind of widespread restructuring upon which the current commission has embarked.

A city charter is not the place for short-term policy making, much less cementing partisan political advantage. It is the place for a structure and processes that transcend such matters and endure. The last charter commission failed to produce. This one looks like it is on course to do the same.

Ultimately, even the best charters are imperfect. In order to succeed, they require goodwill, an understanding of the spirit of the charter, and a commitment to that spirit, all of which seem in short supply these days.


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