The open hostility between Portland’s top two city officials appears to have ended – at least publicly.
Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings have clashed repeatedly for more than a year over the breadth of power allocated to the mayor’s office under the City Charter, which was changed in 2010 to create the position of a full-time, popularly elected mayor. The post has no executive power over day-to-day operations, and Strimling and Jennings have publicly accused each other of overstepping the lines of authority.
That conflict came to a head two months ago after the council eliminated the mayor’s assistant position and then held a long and contentious public meeting, at which Strimling accused Jennings of obstructing his policy agenda by preventing him from communicating with staff and cutting him out of media releases. Then Jennings, who was backed by the rest of the council, accused the mayor of being dishonest and bullying city employees.
But all of that personal animosity appeared to have dissipated during a joint interview last week. The two men have been meeting at least on a weekly basis and described the new relationship as collaborative and respectful.
Strimling and Jennings responded together to separate interview requests to discuss their meetings and a new council subcommittee being created to oversee evaluations of its employees. During the telephone call, Strimling lauded the manager’s responsiveness to requests for information, and Jennings praised the mayor for channeling information requests through the manager’s office.
“The policy stuff is really working,” Strimling said. “Our communication has been open and honest.”
“We’re also better understanding each other’s role so we can work collaboratively for the betterment of the city,” Jennings said. “Honestly, the past is the past. We’re trying to make this work in a way in which everyone wants us to make it work. We have been very respectful to each other’s positions.”
The change in tone also comes weeks after the nonprofit advocacy group Progressive Portland conducted a poll about various city issues and races.
Progressive Portland declined to discuss the poll conducted in early September and the results. But several people who participated said the poll asked about the elected mayor position and whether it should be kept, strengthened or scrapped, and whether people would be more or less likely to support an issue if they knew Strimling supported it.
Several city councilors, including Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson, did not respond to interview requests. However, councilors Justin Costa and David Brenerman said in separate interviews that they have seen the working relationship between Strimling and Jennings improve.
“Everything I have heard is that, yes, things improved significantly,” Costa said.
“I am hoping that that kind of relationship will continue,” Brenerman said. “That’s what the expectation of the council was – that the city manager and the mayor could meet periodically and figure out how to get along better. And that the mayor could be less demanding on staff time. And perhaps that’s happening, too.”
Meanwhile, Strimling is looking to formalize a process for reviewing the council’s three employees: the city manager, clerk and attorney.
In previous years, that process has either fallen on existing subcommittees, or been conducted by the council as a whole. Last year, the council’s Legislative/Nominating Committee oversaw the process. That process usually involves forms being filled out by the councilors and mayor, which are then summarized by one or more councilors, who then meet with the employee being evaluated.
Costa, the nominating committee chairman, said he oversaw the evaluation process last year because of tensions between Strimling and Jennings.
Strimling is asking the council to create the City Council Appointee Subcommittee as an emergency measure Monday, so the group can meet Wednesday. Strimling will lead the three-person committee, as outlined in the City Charter, and councilors Brenerman and Mavodones will also serve.
The city manager’s current evaluation form measures the manager’s communication and responsiveness to the council and the mayor, as well as the type of work environment he is creating for city staff, among other areas. Councilors are asked to assign a numerical score and provide any additional written comments.
Strimling said the committee will review and possibly change the performance goals of its three employees for next year’s evaluations. The group will also oversee this year’s evaluations, which the council hopes to have completed by December before a new council is sworn in.
“Down the road, I hope to normalize the process with this committee so that the reviews can actually be done on anniversary dates and not all at once,” Strimling said.
Last year, all three council employee received significant raises after their evaluations based on their performance and market adjustments.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
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