Anna Trevorrow, At-large Portland Charter Commissioner

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Elected Mayor ...

Many Portland voters have heard the rhetoric surrounding the City Charter Commission race concerning an “elected mayor.” But, what are we really talking about? And, what does it mean to be “in support of” versus “in opposition to” an elected mayor?

Many cities that have adopted a city charter operate, as Portland does, within a “council-mayor” structure of government. You have a City Council of some kind, and a Mayor in some fashion. In a (sub-category) “weak mayor,” a.k.a., “ceremonial mayor” structure, the mayor is usually a member of the City Council, and thus, the City Council embodies both the legislative and executive branches of government. Under the same structure, the mayor may either be appointed (as in our case in Portland), or elected. In either case, the mayor’s authority is largely ceremonial (cutting ribbons, and issuing keys, etc.).

On the other side of the spectrum, you have a “strong mayor” structure of government, where the mayor is separated out from the council entirely. The council, then, represents the legislative body of government, and the mayor, the executive. Typically, in this set-up, the mayor presides over more “executive” tasks, such as budget development and administrative oversight. In this form, the mayor is almost always popularly elected.

Where does the City Manager fit in? The “ceremonial mayor” system of government tends to go hand in hand with a “strong” city manager. The city manager retains prime responsibility for setting budgets and overseeing departments and reports directly to the whole council. But, when you shift those responsibilities to the mayor in “strong mayor” fashion, the city manager’s role naturally becomes more like an assistant to the mayor.

It is important to note that while charter revision does not change the socio-political make-up of the city, revising our governing structure can make it simpler or more difficult for competing interests to advance their causes. So, it is important to me that such a significant charter commission recommendation as a strong, elected mayor, be offset with checks and balances.

I favor an elected mayor, and lean toward a “strong-mayor” structure for Portland because it would allow for executive accountability to Portland voters by shifting executive authorities to an elected position. It is a more democratic process. However, I am leery of the potential for an overly powerful executive to emerge. Thus, I would like to investigate measures that would limit executive power, such as regulating mayoral campaign financing so that a private interest could not “buy” the position. I would examine term length, term limits, and recall procedures for the office of mayor to increase mayoral accountability to the public. And I would under no circumstances favor granting veto power to the mayor.

In my conversations with Portlanders throughout my campaign, I believe a strong majority favor an elected mayor. At the same time, implementing the right mechanisms for checks and balances addresses the concerns I have heard in opposition to a strong mayor. In the end, whether or not an elected mayor will empower the Portland electorate will depend on the details and execution. That is what the Charter Commission will spend a great deal of time researching and debating. Hopefully, the right balance can be struck. Nonetheless, I believe the general structure of an elected mayor with a strong set of checks on executive authority fits the socio-political dynamic of Portland today.

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