Monday, June 02, 2008


Debate goes back nearly 100 years
Fear – of corruption and immigrants – has driven the issue historically.

By TOM BELL, Staff Writer June 1, 2008

The debate over the city's form of government goes back to the early 1900s, when Portland and other Maine cities were swept up in a national clean-government movement that sought to replace big-city bosses and corrupt political machines with professional city managers.

At the time, Portland was run by an elected a mayor, a nine-member common council and a nine-member board of aldermen, with each member of both boards representing one of the city's nine wards.

In 1923, reformers joined forces with the city's business establishment, Portland Press Herald publisher Guy Gannett and liberals in the Republican Party to bring change to City Hall.

The Ku Klux Klan, a force in Maine politics at the time, also supported the effort. The Klan was alarmed by a surge in immigration and the growing political influence of the city's Catholic wards. About 6,000 people attended two Klan rallies at City Hall on Sept. 27, three days before the referendum vote that changed the system.

The new government was a council with five members elected at-large, described by supporters as a "board of business directors." The council appointed a city manager. There was no mayor, only a council chairman.

The Protestants in Portland's business and political establishment believed the new arrangement would dilute the ethnic vote and give power to a professional manager who would be "more like one of them," said state Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, a historian.

The council was expanded to nine members in 1946. In 1969, the title of the council chairman was changed to mayor.

Today, while the religious and ethnic strife that plagued the city in 1920s is no longer a factor, the same issues of democratic representation and leadership are still at stake, said City Councilor David Marshall.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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