In a move that’s already raising questions, the city of Portland is hiring a senior-level staffer to help the mayor develop policies, write speeches and reach out to members of the community and City Council.

A posting for the new position, which was first proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings, includes a salary and job description that rival those of the full-time mayor, who serves a four-year term and makes $70,000 a year plus benefits. The mayor has no control over the day-to-day operations of the city; that’s handled by the city manager.

The starting salary for the mayor’s assistant would range from $55,000 to $75,000, depending on experience.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who was elected in November, said the “special assistant to the mayor” is needed to help develop policy and assist council committees. “This person will not be coming up with what those goals are,” Strimling said. “If we’re going to get to a place where this city is where we want it to be, it’s going to take a lot of people working together. This position is going to assist with that work.”

The position would be unique to Portland – at least in Maine. Other towns with elected mayors, including Westbrook, Biddeford, Saco and Augusta, don’t have staff assigned solely to the mayor’s office. Instead, they rely on the city manager or the manager’s executive assistants for help.

The job posting is turning into an “I-told-you-so” moment for some opponents of the 2010 charter revision that changed the mayor’s job from a ceremonial position for a member of the City Council to a full-time job, with the mayor elected by city voters.

“This is exactly what we predicted during the debates over an elected mayor,” said Cheryl Leeman, a former longtime city councilor who endorsed Strimling. Opponents said “the office would grow at taxpayers’ expense. But the proponents said the mayor won’t have a staff, and (that) the mayor’s expanded role would actually allow for reduced staffing in the city manager’s office, such as (eliminating) one of the two assistant city managers.”

Leeman said the job description for the new position sounds a lot like the mayor’s.

“I’d like to suggest that the newly elected mayor needs to squelch this immediately and put the money to better use,” she said.

The council and mayor had a part-time administrative assistant until 2008, when the job was cut from the budget. That position paid $30,000 a year for a 30-hour week, according to the city. Strimling’s predecessor, Michael Brennan, as well as some councilors, had expressed interest in hiring at least some administrative help for the council and mayor, but it was never budgeted.

Jennings brought up the topic of hiring an assistant during his first meeting with Strimling after he won the election.

“I’ve always thought if the city is going to have a full-time mayor, then the mayor position ought to have one administrative position to help with speech writing and day-to-day operations of the mayor’s office,” Jennings said.

According to the job posting, the special assistant will be a senior-level member of the city staff. Duties include assisting with developing, analyzing and achieving public policy goals; building community coalitions; speech writing; assisting with City Council committees; standing in for the mayor at internal meetings the mayor can’t attend; and assisting individual councilors as needed.

The position is being funded through June 30 using savings in the city’s salary budget line. Whether the position is included in future budgets will depend on the city’s normal budgeting process.

City Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Nicholas Mavodones, who also opposed the switch to an elected mayor, believes the position is needed, based on Brennan’s term as mayor.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Mavodones said. “We have seen how things worked over the last four years. It was clear there needed to be some sort of additional support for the mayor. With Ethan coming on, it provided an opportunity to take a look at it.”

Resident Steven Scharf, a fiscal conservative who regularly attends council meetings, said he was surprised the position paid so much.

“Wow,” Scharf said. “I think that position should pay no more than $40,000.”

Scharf said it appears the mayor is looking to create a constituent services position similar to what members of Congress have, or what Scharf described as “a government-paid hack position to ensure a person is re-elected.”

The city is only posting the position for eight business days (Jan. 11-21), even though most city-posted jobs are open for two months. While some – including Scharf – have speculated that Strimling has a candidate in mind, the mayor said that’s not the case.

“I’ll ask them to reopen (it) if we don’t get a good pool,” he said.

 


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