The quiet but mighty city administrator.
If Portland isn’t ready for a strong mayor, a strong city administrator might be just the ticket.
Last week Mayor Wheeler, seemingly out of the blue, fired the city’s chief administrative officer.
The timing is uncanny given how important the mayor-CAO relationship will become under the Charter Commission’s reform proposal.
Rose City Reform talked to Charter Commissioners Melanie Billings-Yun and Andrew Speer about why they think a professional administrator, not the mayor, should manage day-to-day operations.
When the story broke last week that Mayor Wheeler had fired Tom Rinehart, the city’s chief administrative officer, many Portlanders were surprised. Before being hired for the role, Rinehart had served as chief of staff to Wheeler twice, both when Wheeler was county commissioner and later when he was state treasurer.
For others, this was the first they’d heard of Mr. Rinehart. The office of chief administrative officer, or CAO for short, typically flies under the radar – and that’s by design. As the city’s top bureaucrat, this nonpolitical administrator is meant to implement the administration’s agenda while letting the elected officials bask in the spotlight.
A strong mayor is the “kiss of death”.
Under the Charter Commission’s proposal, the CAO will gain power at City Hall. While charter commissioners want to centralize city operations under the mayor’s office, they are weary of giving the mayor too loose of a reign.
“In 2002 and 2007 Portlanders voted down charter reform proposals because of concerns about a power grab from the mayor. There is a feeling among commissioners that a strong mayor is the kiss of death,” Charter Commissioner Melanie Billings-Yun told Rose City Reform.
“The public likes the idea of a professional being in charge,” she added.
So how can the Charter Commission simultaneously strengthen and defang the executive mayor? Enter the empowered CAO. The reformed city charter will stipulate that the mayor must delegate a significant amount of executive power to a city administrator. Luckily for the mayor, they get to handpick the CAO, and once approved by the council, the employee will be under direct mayoral supervision.
Even for a CAO with broad decision-making authority, antagonizing the mayor could come at a steep price, because the mayor can fire the CAO at will.
Must the City Charter spell out everything?
It’s unclear how much power the CAO would have in the new system. On March 31, the Charter Commission voted to give the CAO, not the mayor, the authority to hire and fire city bureau directors.
But should the public assume that after hiring the bureau directors, the CAO alone will lead and oversee the bureau heads? Not necessarily.
“Just like the US constitution, it’s about what’s not being said,” said Commissioner Billings-Yun.
“If you don’t specifically say that the mayor will not be able to interfere, then the mayor will always be in close consultation with the city administrator.”
Charter Commissioner Andrew Speer prefers to leave some room for the mayor, the city council and the CAO to work out norms and traditions over time.
“I don't believe that we should be so prescriptive in the charter language as to say who can hire and fire bureau directors. Instead, we can talk about the general scope of the CAO and clarify that they will be managed by the mayor. Then I imagine it will be a matter of style of whoever is in those seats,” Commissioner Speer said, adding that if he were the mayor, he’d want the city administrator to handle daily operations.
With a strong CAO, what’s left for the mayor?
Time will tell if the Charter Commission’s recommendations result in a hands-on mayor, or an administration where the mayor focuses on loftier goals while the CAO runs on-the-ground operations. Recent polls seem to indicate strong public opinion in favor of a professional administrator shouldering the brunt of the responsibility.
What would be left for the mayor? Policy and vision-building, being the face of government, meeting with constituents and negotiating with district representatives, among other things.
Oh, and the budget. That’s one power the Charter Commission doesn’t want the mayor to give up.
“The mayor should have that authority because it’s the mayor who is ultimately accountable, and they will look at it not just from a bureaucratic standpoint, but also a political one that considers what is feasible and what the public wants,” Commissioner Billings-Yun said.
Preparing the budget for a multi-billion institution like the City of Portland is a mighty power indeed. But not so fast, mayor.
A mayor without a veto and a council that can’t break a tie.
Once proposed, the mayor’s budget lands at the city council’s table. Under the charter reform proposal, the mayor lacks a veto and the 12-member council can amend the budget and send it back to the mayor, who will have no choice but to implement the revised version.
Which perhaps begs the question of whether voters should ultimately hold the city council accountable for the budget, rather than the mayor.
It’s unclear what happens if the even-numbered council can’t agree on the budget. Under the proposal, the mayor will no longer serve on the council and will not have a tie-breaking vote.
“We recognize that there are still some nuances to work out and discussions to be had about possible off-ramps or pathways for preventing gridlock for key policy items. Especially those that are time sensitive,” Commissioner Speer said.
The new system will lead to more collaboration, commissioners say.
Commissioner Billings-Yun believes that the lack of a tie-breaking vote will incentivize the council to get along to get things passed.
“As a nation we’re continually having narrow fifty-fifty votes that require someone to break the tie. I strongly believe that it contributes to the division and the problems we are having now,” she said.
“We are looking for more consensus and clear majority votes. The budget is going to have to please at least seven people. The aim is to respect the separation of powers while also encouraging a more collaborative system that is representative of a larger portion of the public,” she added.
Commissioner Speer said he leans toward granting the mayor a tie-breaking vote on the council, but still agrees that keeping the mayor at arm’s length could contribute to more consensus-building among councilmembers.
“It would become transparent where the tension points are, and who's behaving in a collaborative manner and who's not, and how that affects their effectiveness and ability to retain their seat on the council,” he said, concluding:
“All of this work is incremental. We’re on a journey, and we're proposing a big structural change for a city. There is no silver bullet, but I think these changes go a long way towards improving the outcomes that we're seeking to improve. And the next charter commission, ten years from now, hopefully will be able to refine the work that we've done, and understand what changes are necessary for better outcomes for communities of the future.”
However the structure shakes out, the relationship between the mayor and the CAO is going to be one of the most important partnerships at City Hall.
Let’s hope it works out better than it did between Mayor Wheeler and Mr. Rinehart.
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The timing of the firing IS uncanny. And instructive. Like, we already HAVE a CAO. It isn't at all clear to me that the Charter Commission proposal is changing much of anything when it comes to the CAO, except maybe constructing layer of illusory independence for the CAO to make the proposal more acceptable to charter voters. I mean, the CAO is gonna be making big "professional" bureau management decisions, but in "consultation" with the Mayor so they don't get fired as an "at-will" employee, who will definitely have negotiated a severance package... This is different, how?
Thanks for these commentaries. One correction: Wheeler was State Treasurer, not Secretary of State.