A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Portland 101

Last week I participated in the first "Portland 101" program that the local League of Young Voters is sponsoring. This is a series of after-work sessions that give a small group of Portland citizens a look into how various government agencies and departments actually work, and we kicked it off with a one-hour conversation with City Manager Joe Gray at Portland City Hall.

Gray spent most of the time going over the city's budget, and how it gets crafted - a project that seems to occupy most of his time. Writing the budget proposal and guiding it through City Council approval gives Gray a great deal of influence - even in these cash-strapped times, Gray leads the discussion of what gets cut, what should be kept, and which taxes to raise.

But here's the interesting thing: because of the nature and structure of city government, and a high reliance on state and federal funds, Joe Gray and the City Council only have direct control over a relatively minor portion of Portland's municipal services. Those include the police and fire departments, City Hall staff (like the Clerk's office and the Planning Department), a capital improvements budget, and the Barron Center, a city-owned and managed nursing home.

Other parts of our local city services are either financially self-sufficient - the city's golf course and the airport, for instance - or outside of the City's control altogether. The city's garbage disposal, for instance, is controlled by ecomaine, a nonprofit company that's owned by 21 different towns and cities in the region. Even though Portland has a seat at the table on ecomaine's board of directors, and pays a small portion of ecomaine's budget, it only has a tenuous say in ecomaine's management. This is probably a good thing: my impression is that ecomaine is very well-managed, and that the city gets a good deal for sharing the expense and work of garbage disposal with 20 other towns and cities.

Similarly, Portland's city water, schools, public housing, and ferry services are also run by separate, quasi-independent public organizations and boards. The City Council doesn't have direct control over any of these - for instance, it can't tell the schools to hire or fire employees without going through the elected school committee. But most of these agencies still need financial support from City Hall after they've collected all the revenue they can from federal, state, and private sources, and because the City Council effectively signs those checks, they still get some say in how the money gets spent.

So how does Portland's structure of government affect the city's built environment - the buildings, streets, and public spaces to which this blog is devoted to chronicling? By my sights, these are the public organizations and departments that impact the city's built environment the most:

  • The Portland Housing Authority, which manages hundreds of units of public housing in large complexes that dominate their neighborhoods across the city;
  • The Greater Portland Transit District, or METRO, which operates the city's bus system;
  • John Peverada, the bureaucrat in charge of Portland's parking meters and public garages;
  • and I've saved the biggest for last: the Planning Department, and the city's land use regulations.
Portland's structure of government, and more specifically, the responsibilities and accountability of Gray's city manager position, have recently been the topic of some discussion in the city's charter review. Over the next two weeks or so, I plan to write here in more depth about Portland's city government, how it relates to the four agencies and departments I've bulleted above, and how we might go about improving how they work, in order to improve the quality of our city as it grows in the future. Stay tuned...


Corey Templeton said...

I've already learned a few things. Looking forward to the rest of this series. I haven't read the charter commission's reports, so I wonder if an elected mayor will add any new oversight or control over some of these things?

Padraig said...

I, too, am looking forward to your subsequent posts on this topic. It is very important, yet too often overlooked, to get at the root (or framework) variables that influence the shape and feel of our city. Corey, my understanding is that the Chart Commission's proposal for an elected mayor would not add any additional oversight, but would, rather, be a more prominent unifying voice with little additional power, if any.