- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2004

MERCER, Pa. (AP) — He’s rubbed elbows with Donald Trump and President Bush. He’s been in Rolling Stone, on international news shows and shadowed by an MTV crew. He’s also been declared one of the most eligible young men in the country.

Two years ago, at age 19, Chris Portman took office as mayor of Mercer, making him one of the nation’s youngest mayors. But the celebrity that ushered in his term hasn’t changed much in this borough of 2,400.

Mr. Portman’s youth — he could be the previous mayor’s great-grandson — and the accompanying celebrity have been a mixed blessing.

“Chris is trying to get his feet going and has had difficulties with council and some other things,” said former Mayor John Johnson, 80, now one of seven council members. “I think he has a lot that he can accomplish … but some people’s minds are like concrete — thoroughly mixed and firmly set.”

Mr. Portman, now 21, appears undaunted: “I didn’t go into this job thinking it was a piece of cake.”

Critics suggest an untimely vacation earlier this year, absences, perceived impatience with borough business and his parents recently speaking up at a council meeting signal his immaturity. Some question whether he’s more interested in his celebrity, which recently brought an MTV documentary crew to town, than civics.

“I think it is kind of ridiculous, the things with the council and MTV. It’s a little overwhelming,” said Chelsea Beers, 16. “He just hasn’t done anything. You can tell by the things he’s said that he’s not mature enough. He’s still growing up; why should he be mayor?”

Supporters point out Mr. Portman’s job is largely ceremonial. He can’t make policy, can’t vote during council meetings unless there’s a tie and most of his power lies in enforcing ordinances and overseeing the town’s handful of police officers.

He ran for the post unopposed.

By one measure, Mr. Portman is succeeding as the biggest booster of Mercer, a 1-square-mile town about 55 miles north of Pittsburgh.

“As ambassador of the borough, he has obviously received national and international notice, but whether that is of any value is debatable. I don’t think anyone is going to move from New York City,” said John Zohoranacky, 40, a first-term councilman.

Mr. Portman has had his problems. While in Las Vegas in January, he missed the first meeting with the newly elected council and the deadline for a grant the borough hoped to use to replace its broken 1939 weather siren. After a last-minute scramble, the borough turned in a grant application that should cover the cost of a new siren — up to $15,000.

Mr. Portman also squabbled with council over his insistence on riding with police officers and an MTV documentary crew that followed him around town. Both incidents spurred the council to attempt to craft policies to deal with safety on police ride-alongs and rules for filming in the borough.

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