Why is everybody leaving City Hall? It’s complicated

Former Portland City Manager Mark Rees (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Former Portland City Manager Mark Rees (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Acting Portland City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian announced last week she’s leaving to take a job as the assistant city manager of Cincinnati.

Hill-Christian would have been a frontrunner to be named Portland’s permanent city manager if she’d wanted to be (she didn’t), and she seemingly remains widely liked and respected in the city despite having been handed the keys to the manager’s office during a particularly challenging period.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian. (BDN file photo by Sam Hill)

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian. (BDN file photo by Sam Hill)

When previous City Manager Mark Rees abruptly announced his resignation with about two weeks’ warning last August, the city was still in the early stages of what would become a multi-million-dollar fight with the LePage administration over General Assistance welfare reimbursements. Hill-Christian, named the interim city manager in September, stepped into the role just in time for that snowball into a full $10 million budget hole that needed to be filled by fiscal year 2016.

During the same stretch, the city witnessed the deadliest fire in Maine in four decades, claiming six lives and triggering heavy scrutiny of the city’s fire and safety codes inspections.

Even though it would’ve been hard to blame Hill-Christian for either controversy, hard times in government oftentimes drag down the most visible people responding to them. Yet, Hill-Christian appeared to maintain her strong standing both in the public and among city leaders.

So why did she decide to leave?

The question could have been asked to a number of high profile Portland officials over the past five years. As has been heavily reported, the city of Portland in recent years has become a place of unprecedented turnover. Every time since 2011 it seemed City Hall was about to settle on a full complement of department heads, someone else would announce his or her departure.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck (BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Not to sound like a broken record, but starting with Rees’ hiring in 2011 and continuing through this year, the city has hired a new city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, fire chief, communications director, finance department director, school superintendent, planning director, director of health and human services, human resources director and corporation counsel, among other top positions, and has welcomed its first popularly elected mayor since 1923.

Over the years, I’ve asked several people in Portland government if there was some kind of prevailing problem causing people to leave the city.

The answer? Not really.

Over the same five-year period in which Portland has seen heavy government turnover, it’s also been ramping up in terms of national profile. Even more frequent than stories about departing department heads have been stories about national travel or lifestyle magazines gushing about how amazing Portland is, how great the restaurants are and how explosive the economy is.

Why is that important?

Well, a city with apparently skyrocketing national popularity like that is going to get the attention of more than just tourists and magazine editors. Other cities and companies with positions to fill also take notice of the success.

Hill-Christian suggested that Cincinnati approached her about its assistant city manager position, not the other way around. The Ohio city also poached Portland’s previous police chief, James Craig, in 2011 after he’d spent just two years at the helm of the local force.

Private firms came calling with presumably more lucrative offers for former Planning and Urban Development Director Penny St. Louis, Department of Health and Human Services Director Douglas Gardner and city attorney Mary Costigan, among others.

But will Portland forever be a victim of its own success? Will the city ultimately just be like its minor league sports franchises — the Sea Dogs, Pirates and Red Claws — whose reward for winning is having bigger league teams take all their best players away?

That’s not entirely true, either.

Emmanuel Caulk. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Emmanuel Caulk. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland’s increasingly high profile is also making it an attractive place for some bigger city officials to move for a better quality of life and the promise of making an impact more quickly.

Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk came to Portland from Philadelphia, while urban designer Caitlin Cameron settled in the Maine city after plying her trade in the Boston and San Francisco areas.

Current Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria came from a top fire and homeland security job in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which has a population almost 13 times as large as Portland’s, and Communications Director Jessica Grondin previously held a similar job in the office of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

With many of the others who have come and gone from top Portland posts over the last five years, it’s difficult to find a common thread that can explain the moves in a universal way.

Former Assistant City Manager Patricia Finnegan was passed over in favor of Rees, then took an opportunity to run the show in Camden. Rees’ predecessor, Joe Gray, simply reached retirement age, as did LaMoria’s predecessor, former Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, and previous Corporation Counsel Gary Wood.

And while it would be naive to assume none of the city’s current department head positions will change hands again over the next few years, some of the city’s recent hires have the look of relatively permanent ones. Current Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, for instance, had been with the department for 15 years before being appointed to the top job in early 2012, and all signs indicate he’ll lead the force for the foreseeable future.

Have some city officials left because of personality conflicts or political clashes? That’s definitely possible, and some questions have remained unanswered — publicly, anyway — around a couple of the departures.

But it seems like City Hall’s turnover, for better or for worse, is more a symptom of Portland’s growing national status than anything else.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.