2015-06-19 / Front Page

City will change role of future assistant city manager

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s official, South Portland’s assistant city manager, Jon Jennings, will be crossing the bridge to take the top job in Maine’s largest city.

Jennings had been rumored for weeks to be one of three candidates for the job, out of a field winnowed down from 66 applications. Following a press release issued late last week by Portland City Hall naming him the top prospect, Jennings was confirmed unanimously Monday by the Portland City Council.

His last day in South Portland will be July 8. He will start in Portland July 13, at a base salary of $148,064 per year — a substantial hike from his South Portland paycheck. When hired to his first municipal job by the city in February 2013, Jennings was given a starting annual salary of $85,956.

Still, Jennings said Tuesday the jump was less about pay, than place.

“I’m excited to be able to move across the bridge, but I never aspired to be a city manager,” he said. “That was never anything that was in my professional goals. This move really had everything to so with the city of Portland, that was the attraction.”

Jennings said he saw applying for the city manager’s job as a way to build on his history with the city, which includes several years logged on the boards of Mercy Hospital and the city’s July 4 committee, as well as serving as co-chair of the city’s homelessness task force. In 2007, Jennings brought professional basketball back to Maine as part owner of the Maine Red Claws. He later was a principal partner in Portland’s $110 million Thompson’s Point development.

“I thought I could make a difference, which is why I think any one of us gets involved in government,” he said of his decision to apply for the Portland manager’s job, where he will lead a city staff of 1,400.

“I’m sorry to lose Jon, as I hear great things from our business community about how wonderfully helpful he is to work with,” Mayor Linda Cohen said, who worked in Portland as city clerk for many years. “I am happy for Jon and excited for the city in which I grew up to see such a talented, well-connected and all-around good guy take the reins. Portland needs someone with great people skills, as well as the business acumen, that Jon brings.”

On Monday, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey also sang Jenning’s praises, saying that although a recent proposal of a joint waterfront commission recently failed to pan out, he says Jennings’ ascension as a sign of future increased cooperation between the sister cities of the Fore River.

“I think there’s quite a bit of back-andforth between the two cities already, but there is room to grow on that front, absolutely,” Gailey said. “With Jon, knowing what we’re thinking and doing over here, that may open more doors to allow even more in that regard.”

“That’s probably the most exiting part of the equation for the two cities, for me anyway,” Jennings said.” I think there are a number of ways we can move forward with various interlocal agreements, things that look at everything. Any way we can create efficiencies in government that will lead to cost savings, or greater effectives in terms of services for residents and taxpayers, that’s something we should explore.”

Gailey said he will start advertising for Jennings’ old job on Friday, with applications due July 10. He hopes to have a replacement in place by mid-August.

Gailey also noted that, while Jennings’ job description focused heavily on economic development, the role will be reimagined, based in part on how effective Jennings was at other aspects of the job.

“I revamped it a little bit, with one of the biggest changes being to make the job more of a liaison between residential and business groups and city hall, to make it a sort of ombudsman kind of like,” Gailey said. “The new assistant manager will be the contact for citizen and business complaints, as well as an outreach point person for press releases and media contacts.”

A former assistant coach and scouting coordinator for the Boston Celtics, Jennings later served as Massachusetts state director for Sen. John Kerry and held several positions in the U.S. Department of Justice and in the White House, served as liaison to multiple cabinet agencies and the office of then- First Lady Hilary Clinton. In 2004, Jennings lost a race for Congress, running as a Democrat in Indiana’s 8th District. In 2007, Jennings brought professional basketball back to Maine as part owner of the Maine Red Claws. He later was a principal partner in Portland’s Thompson’s Point development.

Shortly after taking the South Portland job in 2013, Jennings said he had divested himself of all management responsibilities and ownership in the Thompson Point development, in part because of what he called “an obvious conflict of interest.” The development was then trying to lure WEX from South Portland to its site.

More recently, Jennings has acknowledged that he did retain a small financial stake in the project, which he termed as “a very small percentage of the developer’s fee, if any was realized,” on the project, for which he lobbied Portland councilors for more than $30 million in tax breaks while still part of the ownership structure.

Jennings said he “was approached a couple of months ago” by Chris Thompson, principal in the project, who “offered to buy out” that remaining interest for an undisclosed sum.

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