Mark Rees: The accidental tourist

So long, Mark Rees. We hardly knew ya.

And that was a big part of the problem.

The announcement this week that Portland City Manager Mark Rees is resigning after three years as the boss of Maine’s largest city, and nearly a year before his current one-year contract is set to expire, has Portlanders all asking the same question: Who’s Mark Rees?

Compared with his immediate predecessors in the position, Joe Gray and Bob Ganley, Rees was like a ghost, haunting the halls of City Hall. Granted, God only made one Bob Ganley, the hard-charging, blunt-spoken workaholic who wore his passion for Portland on both sleeves. And Gray, though he operated on a much lower frequency than Ganley, had 30 years at City Hall to build relationships and learn the ropes before he got the top job in 2001.

Rees came in cold, from the town of North Andover, Massachusetts, and it seems like he never warmed to the city. Despite the expectations of the city councilors who hired him, and a stipulation in his original three-year contract, Rees and his wife never made Portland their home. Rees spent many, if not most weekends back in Massachusetts with his family, like a summer tourist in reverse.

Portland has more than twice the population of North Andover, but it’s a small town at heart. It’s not hard to get to know the place, especially if that’s your job and it pays you a six-figure salary, plus bennies. Take a few days to stop into the shops, chat up the locals, read the rags and hit some happy hours, and you can get a pretty good sense of who’s who and what’s what around here.

It seems like Rees never did that, never made much of an effort to reach out to the moms and pops doing business in the city, or the muckety-mucks in the art scene, or the lawyers, or the fishermen, or the homeless, or the media. Getting a quote from Rees was like making an arduous pilgrimage to the Oracle of Delphi, only to be told the obvious.

Here’s a revelation: Rees resigned to avoid being fired by his nine bosses on the city council. That’s the choice he was given earlier this month, an informed source told me, and Rees took last week off as “personal time,” apparently to consider those two options. Meanwhile, God caused a flood that nearly washed away the city he’s supposed to be managing.

Rees’ absenteeism was only one reason councilors grew disillusioned with him. He showed a general lack of leadership, my source said, a weakness worsened by the confusion caused in City Hall’s chain of command when the newly minted elected mayor took office a few months after his arrival. Rees didn’t seem to fully appreciate the fact that he had nine official overseers, and it seems Mayor Mike Brennan wasn’t eager to correct him.

How have the staff at City Hall reacted to being caught between the mayor and the manager? If the steady exodus of department heads during Rees’ tenure is any indication, not well.

To Rees’ credit, the city didn’t crumble under his watch; the Brits didn’t burn it down again or anything. He did a reasonably good job keeping the wheels of government turning, even if they mostly spun in place.

In his letter of resignation, Rees is at a loss to list any meaningful personal accomplishments. Instead, he bullet-points eight things his “administration” was able to “move forward” — stuff he was supposed to do anyway (“presented three balanced operating budgets”), stuff other people did on his watch (“supervised the Police Department” during a period when some types of crime decreased), and stuff he probably shouldn’t have done (“established the city’s first five-year capital improvement program,” which obligates Portland taxpayers to borrow, and pay interest on, over $92 million).

The quotes from elected officials included in the press release announcing Rees’ resignation betray hardly a hint of disappointment. “He established the city’s first five-year capital improvement program, as well as presenting us with three balanced operating budgets,” said City Councilor Nick Mavodones, cribbing from Rees’ own letter. “I wish Mark well as he pursues other opportunities.”

I do, too, I suppose. I don’t really know him, either, but Rees seems like a nice guy. Most tourists are nice people, and it’s good that they visit here. They spend money — $5 for parking, $50 on dinner, $92 million in bonds, whatever — then they go back to Massachusetts and leave us in peace to mop up the streets and pay down our debts during the long, cold months to come.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.