2012-12-07 / Front Page

Council breaks from tradition

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Tom Blake Tom Blake SOUTH PORTLAND – The last time Tom Blake was the mayor of South Portland, in 2009, the city dealt with the contentious issues of dog access on Willard Beach and wrestled with the decision to allow public input at council workshops.

Last year, during Councilor Patti Smith’s term as mayor, tempers flared over parking arrangements in Knightville and councilor health benefits.

Those issues have all been put to rest. But Blake, a retired firefighter and longtime resident serving his second term on the council, knows he can expect more passionate arguments in 2013 in his second term as mayor. The council inaugurated him for the ceremonial post on Monday, Dec. 3.

“Some people ask me ‘Why does South Portland always have contentious issues?’ We always have, we always will and that’s a good thing,” Blake said. “If you have a community that doesn’t have any issues, that community isn’t going anywhere. It’s stagnant.”

In his inaugural address, Blake laid out his goals for the upcoming year. The primary concern for the council, he said, should be to keep the city’s tax rate down.

“It is my sense that our taxpayers cannot pay more, this is our greatest challenge, doing more with less,” Blake said.

That objective, he argued, should inform all of the council’s other decisions throughout the course of the year. For example, Blake would like a reduction to the $18 million price tag on the proposed new public works facility, scheduled for a November 2013 citizen vote.

Blake established four other goals he’d like the city to focus on over the course of the upcoming year: improvements to the city’s public transportation system; establishment of an endowment fund; continued improvement of communications between the council and the school board; and filling the city’s vacant positions of assistant city manager and economic development director.

Blake spoke to a crowd of about 75 people at South Portland City Hall that included city staff, officials and his family. Blake’s mother, his wife, daughters and many of his grandchildren attended the ceremony.

The position of mayor is a ceremonial post in South Portland. The mayor has no explicit powers compared to fellow councilors, but the individual who is mayor does serve as a figurehead for the city.

Traditionally, the councilor who has served the longest without a year as mayor is appointed to the seat. The nominations have followed in that mold for most of the last two decades with a few exceptions, which include James Soule, who served his third term as mayor in 2008 and Linda Boudreau, a councilor for 18 years, who was mayor for the third time in 2004.

Both returning councilors who have not yet served as mayor, Jerry Jalbert and Alan Livingston, said they endorsed Blake for the position this year.

Livingston said although it is a “nice gesture” to give first refusal to a councilor that hasn’t served as mayor, there is no written or unwritten rule that codifies the tradition. Rather, he said, the selection is more of a “feeling out process.”

Livingston said he was not interested in the position for the upcoming year because he felt he did not have the time to juggle both his position as a math teacher at Cheverus High School and the mayor’s position.

“The day I retire from teaching, I’d be very interested in being mayor. Unless I had all my daytimes free, it wouldn’t be fair to my current job. That’s where I’m coming from,” Livingston said.

Livingston’s first term as councilor expires at the end of 2013. He said if he serves multiple terms and retires from teaching at some point during his council tenure, he would be interested in becoming mayor.

Jalbert said he was surprised Livingston was not interested the post.

“I fully expected Al to want to be mayor off that tradition we’ve seen for the past 20 years,” Jalbert said.

Jalbert said his professional responsibilities also would affect the time he could devote to the position of mayor. He started a new job as a reverse mortgage specialist at Reliant Mortgage in Portland this June, and said his schedule right now doesn’t leave much free time.

However, Jalbert said it would be a post he’d consider in the future. Jalbert’s current term, his first, expires in 2014.

Blake commended the performance of both Jalbert and Livingston, and said he would have endorsed either councilor for mayor. But Blake said he doesn’t agree with the established tradition for choosing councilors.

“The mayor’s position is an earn thing, not a turn thing. You earn the position to be a CEO, a shop foreman, or a paper boy. You don’t get it because you’ve been around a long time,” Blake said.

“That’s not the way to do business. You don’t reward for longevity, you reward for performance.”

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