City Councilors Kevin Donoghue (left) and Dave Marshall, the latest local pols to push for a directly elected mayor. (photos/courtesy Donoghue, Marshall)
Council Greens push for elected mayor
Seek an “attitudinal change” at the top”
By Chris Busby
The Portland City Council’s two newest members are reviving the effort to have voters directly elect a mayor who’d serve for more than one year at a time. Councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue plan to introduce an order in March that would give Portlanders a vote on the question this November.
Under their proposal, the mayor would be the sole City Council member elected at-large, by a citywide vote. There are currently four councilors elected at-large and one for each of the city’s five electoral districts. This proposal would require those five districts to be redrawn into eight smaller districts, each with its own councilor.
The mayor would serve a three-year term, and could run for re-election, but he or she would have no more power than Portland’s mayors have now – no veto authority, no direct say over decisions to hire or fire department heads, and no separate budget-making role, for example.
This is essentially the same proposal the Portland Taxpayers Association presented to the Council in the fall of 2004. At the time, no councilor was interested in promoting the idea, and it went nowhere.
Now two councilors are backing the same plan, and if their colleagues don’t agree to let the voters approve or reject it, Donoghue and Marshall say they’re ready to collect the signatures needed to force a citywide vote. (The tax activists made the same threat, but did not follow through.)
“We need long-term leadership in the city of Portland and a sustainable vision,” said Marshall, who represents the West End, Parkside and adjacent neighborhoods.
“It’s an attitudinal change – to believe Portland is worthy of leadership,” said Donoghue, whose district includes the East End, downtown, Bayside and islands.
Trouble is, “attitude” is one of the things opponents of this idea fear it will bring to city politics.
Under the current system, councilors appoint one of their fellow members to run the meetings and cut ribbons for a year. This choice is usually unanimous, based on seniority and polite turn-taking.
Critics say a citywide mayoral campaign would inject partisan politics into Portland’s officially non-partisan city races, though party affiliation has long been a consideration in these contests, and has become an increasingly recognizable factor in campaigns for municipal office. Still, the public has shown a distaste for party politicking in city government, as evidenced by the negative reaction to recent partisan squabbles on the Portland School Committee, where registered Greens have gained seats in the past couple years.
Donoghue and Marshall are the first Green Independent Party members elected to the Council, which, like the school board, has long been dominated by registered Democrats. Shortly after their election last fall, the city got a taste of what a contentious mayoral competition looks like. Previous mayor Jim Cohen was vying for a second consecutive year in the post, and at-large Councilor Nick Mavodones, who was mayor seven years ago, wanted a second turn holding the gavel. Donoghue and Marshall were the swing votes that gave it to him.
Donoghue and Marshall say they aren’t advocating to make city races partisan, though they believe a popularly elected mayor will have more political clout among fellow lawmakers at the state and national level. And they cite the reason Cohen gave for seeking a two-year term last fall: a mayor needs more than one year to make real progress on the goals he or she sets for the city.
Variations on the “elected mayor” idea have surfaced with some regularity since the early 1920s, when Portlanders switched to a form of government that gives the city manager, rather than the mayor, direct responsibility for operations at City Hall.
These days, those opposed to switching back often cite the vote in 1997, when Portlanders decisively rejected a similar effort to make the mayor directly elected for a three-year term. “I think people spoke very clearly [against it] last time it came up,” Mavodones told The Bollard last fall. “I don’t know if it’s ever the right time to revisit the issue.”
However, there are some key differences between the proposal voters considered ten years ago and the one they may consider this year.
Most notably, the previous plan would have given the mayor veto power over Council decisions. Opponents raised the specter of Portland being dominated by the type of tyrannical, corrupt executive found more often in big-city politics – opposition posters featured the image of a sleazy, cigar-chomping character – and that fear played a big role in the outcome, current and past councilors say.
Furthermore, because this veto authority would have fundamentally changed the balance of power on the Council, it would have been necessary to first elect and convene a special charter commission to examine the structure of city government as a whole. The commission would be under no obligation to recommend specific changes, like direct election of the mayor, but could bring forward any number of other options, like term limits.
This added a degree of confusion and uncertainty to the debate that helped convince 62 percent of voters to reject the call for change.
The current proposal keeps the balance of power largely unchanged, so no such commission would be necessary. And unlike last time, when a majority of councilors voted against putting the question on the ballot, proponents may not need to gather thousands of signatures to force a citywide vote.
“I don’t think there’s a majority on the Council that’s hoping for change,” said at-large Councilor and former mayor Jim Cloutier, who’s open to the idea. “But I think there’s more sentiment on the Council that it’s OK to have a vote on something you don’t happen to favor.”
At-large Councilor Ed Suslovic didn’t like the idea ten years ago, but “times change, situations change,” he said. “I think we ought to take a look at it.”
“I basically think Portlanders ought to be able to decide,” said former mayor and current at-large Councilor Jill Duson. Duson likes the current set-up, but said, “if the people of Portland decided they want a different system, that would be fine…. I might even entertain running for such a position.”
District 4 Councilor Cheryl Leeman is as adamantly opposed to the idea as she was last decade, when she actively worked to defeat it. Neither Mavodones nor Cohen could be reached for comment yesterday, but both have recently gone on record against revisiting the matter.
District 3 Councilor Donna Carr said she’s “willing to think about” the proposal, and expressed some interest in making the mayorship a two-year term. But Carr shares a view common among opponents of the change then and now: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
The public’s level of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with the current workings of city government will likely be the determining factor this time around. And there are signs the electorate is warming to the idea.
For example, ten years ago, the business community largely opposed the “elected mayor” proposal. The Chamber of Commerce was among the groups aligned against it. Nowadays, “there’s pretty substantial interest in exploring [the idea] from a business point of view,” said Portland Regional Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood. “I certainly think it’s the kind of thing that should go to the voters.”
The Chamber hasn’t taken a formal position on this latest plan, and Wood said he sees some benefits to the current system, but added, “if you were to have an elected mayor, there’d be a lot more accountability and opportunity for vision and planning.”
The League of Young Voters (formerly the League of Pissed Off Voters) is rumored to be willing to put its growing political muscle behind the idea (local League organizer Justin Alfond did not return a call seeking comment). And city Democrats may also get behind the two Greens’ proposal. Local Democratic Party activist and organizer Dory Waxman got ears ringing in City Hall when she recently inquired about the charter commission process. (Waxman did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, either).
Former councilor and mayor Tom Kane spearheaded the movement for change ten years ago. Having lost that battle, he was hesitant to predict the outcome of this round, but said the “biggest obstacle” proponents faced last time was the need to form a charter commission – a step the new proposal would not require.
“It’s like a lot of political stuff and political movements,” said Kane. “It’s all timing.”