After an emotional debate Monday, the City Council voted 6-3 to eliminate the position of special assistant to the mayor as part of the $345 million budget that will take effect July 1.
Mayor Ethan Strimling made an impassioned plea to keep Jason Shedlock on the payroll, saying he plays a “key role” in the mayor’s office by writing speeches, analyzing policies and budgets, responding to constituents and meeting with advocacy groups.
“I wish that each one of you could be in my shoes for one week,” Strimling said. “You would understand me when I say this job can’t be done alone. Without this minimal resource, this office will fail.”
But several councilors said that the mayor can succeed only by collaborating with the council, and that having a special assistant is getting in the way of mending his relationships, which have been strained for more than a year.
“I feel as though you are on an island by yourself. I firmly believe this position has made it worse,” said City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau. “Come back to this council. Come back to work with your colleagues. Come back to collaborate. I will be here.”
But Strimling, who was joined by Councilors Pious Ali and Brian Batson in opposing Councilor Belinda Ray’s amendment to eliminate the position, immediately dismissed that notion in a testy exchange just before the vote.
“If we want to collaborate and work together, eliminating this position will not get us closer to that,” he said. “It will make it harder. It will make it worse.”
Strimling ultimately opposed the entire budget, which passed on an 8-1 vote, saying the council’s move “undermines democracy.”
The council’s vote was the culmination of its first public discussion about the controversial position, which was created in 2016 by City Manager Jon Jennings shortly after Strimling was elected mayor. The position did not come up during that year’s budget discussion, which was dominated by a controversial proposal to close a portion of the city-run health clinic on India Street.
The move to eliminate the position emerged about two weeks ago as the Finance Committee took up a request for a raise from Strimling. Ray and other councilors said in interviews last week that the council would have discussed the position even if Strimling hadn’t asked for a raise. The position was expected to cost about $69,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.
Councilor Nicholas Mavodones accepted some responsibility for creating the position without public debate. He seemed to become emotional when discussing Shedlock’s resume and service to the city. But he noted that the position has dogged councilors for over a year.
“This position has been a lightning rod in the community,” Mavodones said.
He said Jennings offered to “take the heat” for the position, which generated immediate backlash.
Several councilors said they decided to support the position, even though they opposed its creation. However, they voted to remove it when the job grew beyond administrative support into a more policy-oriented and arguably political position.
Ten of the 14 people who spoke during a roughly 45-minute public hearing called on the council to defeat Ray’s amendment and preserve the assistant – including Shedlock himself.
During public comment, Shedlock said it was like “watching your own funeral” to see people speaking about him, but he hoped it didn’t foreshadow his fate. During his comments, a light bulb in the council chamber went dark, but eventually came back on.
Shedlock listed examples of helping people in all of the council districts.
“This evening the body is about to make a decision that may very well hamstring a member of your own team,” he said. “Eliminating the position would strip the mayor’s office of the tool it says it needs to do its job.”
Several speakers accused the councilors who supported the amendment of making a “petty political” maneuver to consolidate power under Jennings. Speakers described the move as “cruel,” “partisan” and “petty” politics.
Every member of the council is a Democrat.
West End resident Emily Figdor said eliminating the position is “a direct attack on democracy in Portland.”
Figdor’s husband, who founded Progressive Portland, said, “This is the most petty and nasty thing I have seen the council do.”
But councilors roundly dismissed those claims. Ray, who sponsored the amendment, said it had nothing to do with politics or policy disagreements – only that she believes the position duplicates services already at the disposal of the mayor and the council.
“It’s simply keeping a promise I made to constituents,” she said.
It isn’t clear when Shedlock’s last day will be. Although funding for the position runs only through the end of the fiscal year June 30, the city’s human resources director said most employees are typically given three months’ notice or three months’ pay when their position is proposed for elimination by the city manager at the beginning of the budget process.
The council also approved the $105 million school budget, which will be voted on citywide June 13.
Combined, the $345 million municipal and school budgets, which also include county taxes, would increase property taxes by about 2.6 percent.
That would increase the city’s tax rate of $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed property value by about 55 cents, adding an estimated $165 a year to the annual tax bill of a home with an assessed value of $300,000.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: