2012-12-14 / Front Page

What about public works?

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – In the middle of a South Portland City Council workshop Monday, Dec. 10, councilors and staff took a brief break from the discussion while councilors voted on the issues they felt were most important.

The results of that very informal vote surprised city staff and City Manager Jim Gailey, and taught the council what new councilor Linda Cohen called “a lesson in unintended consequences.”

The plan for a new public works, transportation and parks facility has been at the top of the city’s priority list for years and is set to go in front of voters this November. But when discussion leader Craig Freshley tallied up the stickers councilors placed by each issue, the new public works facility plan was buried in the middle of the list.

When Freshley turned the discussion over to department heads for their input, the public works, parks and transportation facility was the center of discussion.

“It’s their turn. They need a building,” said Fire Chief Kevin Guimond. “That’s going to benefit all of us.”

Gailey said the department heads in the city “have their finger on the heartbeat” of what South Portland needs, and the public works staff is “holding it together with duct tape and baling wire.”

The council assured staff after the discussion that the new facility has not dropped from their priority list despite the list formulated at Monday’s workshop. Councilor Tom Coward said councilors hoped to formulate new ideas and find new directions for the city, which is why the public works building, which has been discussed in city meetings extensively, was not a focus.

“I think the staff is panicking unnecessarily,” Coward said, assuring the council remains as committed to the new facility as it has been in the past.

Public Works Director Doug Howard said he was somewhat concerned and surprised after he saw the initial list of goals coming out of the workshop break, but the council’s reassurance when staff spoke up put him at ease about where the city’s priorities lie.

The public works, transportation and parks facility was one of more than a dozen ideas that councilors floated over the course of the evening to set the city’s direction for 2013 and beyond.

Coward, who will leave the council next month to join the Cumberland County Commissioner’s office, focused primarily on methods to implement the city’s new comprehensive plan, which was finished this summer after three years of work.

Councilor Jerry Jalbert brought one singular goal to the workshop. He said the council should change the way it brings issues up in front of the body as a whole. Currently, any councilor can bring any issue from a constituent to a workshop. Jalbert argued there should be a more involved process that requires approval from more than one councilor before the council discusses something. That, he said, would ensure the council is sticking to its direction and focus without getting sidetracked by less important issues.

Jalbert placed all of his votes in the workshop break on the procedural issue he brought to the table, which buried the public works issue farther down the list. The reason he did so, Jalbert said, is because he feels the council wouldn’t get to its vital goals if it doesn’t fix the procedural issue first.

“There’s a massive difference between representing people and governing. Governing means you sometimes make a tough decision and tell a constituent no,” Jalbert said.

Other council focuses were varied. They included ideas to consolidate school and municipal functions; a desire to improve public transportation and make the city more pedestrian friendly; and questions about how to effectively market the city’s positive aspects to businesses to support economic development.

Mayor Tom Blake said a number of the ideas discussed Monday are already scheduled to come to workshop in the coming months. Those include a potential upgrade of the Wilkinson Park Community Center, senior citizen property tax assistance and regional economic development.

The councilors agreed the goals workshop was a productive exercise to provide a focus to the upcoming year. Even the momentary confusion over the new public works building could be used constructively, said new Councilor Melissa Linscott.

She said one issue the city is likely to deal with is how to demonstrate the need for the new building, and the snippets she heard from the head of each department at the workshop could help members of the public who “don’t understand the impact it has across the city.”

Return to top