2012-09-21 / Front Page

Candidates – where are they?

Officials ponder why so many races are uncontested
By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — At the beginning of each South Portland City Council meeting, the council goes through its appointment calendar. It’s largely a rote administrative exercise. Occasionally a councilor will appoint a nominee to a certain board or commission, but the majority of the appointments are pushed off until a later date because of a lack of interested or qualified candidates. Sometimes the positions remain empty, said Councilor Tom Blake, for up to six months.

The dearth of candidates, however, is not limited to these council-appointed, unpaid positions. This November, there will be just one contested local race on the ballot. Melissa Linscott will challenge Rosemarie De Angelis for the District 3 city council seat.

Linda Cohen will run uncontested to replace termedout Councilor Maxine Beecher in District 4, and there are just two school board candidates for three positions. Dick Matthews and Tappan Fitzgerald will run uncontested to retain their seats in District 3 and District 4, respectively. There is no candidate on the ballot to replace incumbent James Gilboy, who will step down in District 4.

The lack of candidates on the ballot is not an entirely new phenomenon in South Portland. Last year, councilors Tom Coward, Patti Smith and Gerard Jalbert won uncontested races, as did Karen Callaghan, Jeffrey Selser and Fitzgerald on the school board.

But that’s not to say choice is unheard of in recent years. At-large city councilors Blake and Alan Livingston won their positions over two other candidates in 2010, and De Angelis beat out two challengers for her council seat in 2009.

“I have always been a strong believer that competition breeds success,” Blake said. “I want people to run against me. I don’t want to be the only candidate.”

But there are a number of factors that get in the way of that competition, Blake said. The most common answers he hears when he asks residents why they don’t run for local office are, “I don’t have time,” or “I can’t afford it.”

Matthews said he hears a lot of the same but he always encourages those who come to him with complaints about the school board or city government to “do something about it, get out there and run. If you want change, get on there and make a difference.”

When the city council discussed its controversial health care benefit over the last year and ultimately decided to do away with the provision, councilors also brought up the possibility of changes to the city’s compensation policy.

Right now, councilors in South Portland receive $3,000 a year and school board members receive $1,000 annually, but there is no comprehensive policy for compensation in the charter for all boards and committees, outside of simply setting the two figures.

Both Coward and Blake said implementing a compensation policy for the city’s boards and committees would be a good idea. Councilors agreed to form a blueribbon committee of qualified individuals outside the council to evaluate the issue, but the process is still in its infancy.

“The blue-ribbon committee is still in its development stage,” City Manager Jim Gailey wrote in an email. “No real action has taken place on it as of yet.”

“Right now it’s a nice idea and that’s all,” said Coward during a separate interview.

The range of compensation in municipalities around South Portland varies widely. In Scarborough, town councilors receive $1,500 annually, while in Portland, city councilors receive $5,812 per year. The Westbrook City Council receives the same stipend South Portland’s does, $3,000 per year.

But there may be another factor that is limiting participation in local government in South Portland.

Blake said in his 40 years in local government, he has always heard time and money as reasons that keep people away, but recently, he said people have also told him they are frustrated with politics in general.

Coward expressed a similar idea, but was more specific.

“I’ve heard from some people who would be excellent candidates who refuse to run because they don’t want to be subject to public vilification from a small group of people,” he said.

The debate over the health care benefit, he said, brought some of that ugly side of politics out, and Coward believes it was unproductive to the legislative process.

“When I was mayor (in 2009), one of my big projects was trying to tamp down some of the vitriol so that people would feel comfortable coming down and talking to us,” he said. “The meek and the shy deserve a chance to be heard as well as the loud and obnoxious.”

Matthews thinks the “controversy” does have a tendency to keep some of the more thin-skinned candidates away from local politics. But, he added, communications between the school board and city council have improved and become more civil over the last few years, after a resolution to approve a bond that will make improvements to South Portland High School passed in 2010.

Coward, who will likely leave the city council for a position as a Cumberland County commissioner next year, said not all discussions by the council have been unproductive. The long debate over parking in Knightville was mostly civil, he said, and even caused him to change his opinion on the matter.

Even when the process works, this year’s election ballot and the consistently delayed council appointments show interest in local politics is on a downswing in South Portland. Blake hopes a compensation policy will reverse that trend.

“The planning board right now is the most time consuming board that we have (in South Portland). Right now, we put on a breakfast once a year and that’s all they get,” he said. “We really need a policy.”

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