2014-12-05 / Front Page

New mayor touts collaboration

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


South Portland’s newest mayor, Linda Cohen, right, poses with her daughter April Cohen, president of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Buy Local, following inauguration ceremonies Monday. (photo courtesy April Cohen) South Portland’s newest mayor, Linda Cohen, right, poses with her daughter April Cohen, president of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Buy Local, following inauguration ceremonies Monday. (photo courtesy April Cohen) SOUTH PORTLAND — When Linda Cohen took the gavel as South Portland’s newest major Monday, her first official act was to call her daughter April to the council dais.

There, the younger Cohen, 32, inserted her mother’s new nameplate into its holder at the seat of honor. It was the reenactment of a weekly ritual from more than 20 years earlier, when a 10-year-old April would help her mother, then South Portland’s City Clerk, prepare for council meetings. When Cohen, 59, was nominated for the city’s top spot two weeks ago, April reminded her mother of how important she had felt, as a little girl, to set up her mother’s nameplate, located just a few seats over from the mayoral chair, and how she almost wished she was 10 years old again.


Taking the oath of office during inauguration ceremonies Monday are new and returning city councilors, from left, Claude Morgan, Patti Smith and Brad Fox. (Photo courtesy SPC-TV) Taking the oath of office during inauguration ceremonies Monday are new and returning city councilors, from left, Claude Morgan, Patti Smith and Brad Fox. (Photo courtesy SPC-TV) “I decided right here and there I would surprise her today,” Cohen told a packed council chamber, full of friends, family, former employers and city staffers, all gathered for the swearing in.

And so April Cohen one more time slid her mother’s name tag into place, not as an administrative staffer, but as the top elected official. Although it did take a judicious tap of the gavel to work the new tag into place.

But even that seemed somehow symbolic, as Cohen has hammered away at barriers her entire life, working her way out of poverty as a single mother.

Cohen grew up with two siblings in a two-bedroom apartment on Market Street in the Old Port section of Portland, long before that section of town became a trendy shopping district. Her mother later moved her kids to outer Congress Street and worked hard to make ends meet, but struggled with alcoholism. Since her election to the city council in 2012, Cohen has spoken poignantly about the impact of alcohol abuse on her family (a sibling also battled the bottle), and her struggles being the single mother raised by a single mother, getting by on government assistance.

Cohen moved to South Portland in 1976 to attend what is now Southern Maine Community College. She was taking classes in law enforcement and, after earning her associate’s degree, served an internship with the South Portland Police Department. She then ended up taking a job as a secretary in the city’s code enforcement division. She worked there for a year and a half when a position in the assessor’s office opened, which was a promotion. Six months later, her peers were encouraging her to apply for the newly opened job of city clerk.

At the time, Cohen was taking minutes at city council meetings, a duty she’d been given to go along with her request for a raise, since the secretary to the city manager, whose responsibility at the time it was to compile workshop minutes, didn’t want to do it.

“So, that’s how I got involved with the city council,” Cohen said. “Then, when I was encouraged by some of my fellow employees to go for the city clerk position, I did, even though I didn’t know a thing at the time about running elections or anything like that, and I was scared to death.”

But Cohen did just fine, earning accolades along the way for integrity and professionalism during a career that lasted from 1989 to 2001. Cohen then cross the river and served as Portland’s city clerk until 2011.

After retiring from pubic administration, Cohen has worn many hats. In addition to winning election to the city council — now the subject, rather than author of the official minutes — she’s worked with her daughter in the real estate business, been a loan officer at PMAC Lending Services, and was director of development at LearningWorks, a Portland-based alternative education and social services agency. In 2013 she became president of the South Portland- Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce and, on Dec. 22, she’ll begin a new job as branch manager of Bangor Savings Bank in Mill Creek Shopping Plaza.

Still, her newest role, as mayor, may be the most challenging.

“This is only slightly nerve-wracking doing this today,” she joked, after taking the gavel. “I’ll do my very best not to disappoint you. With four former mayors on the council as well as two of my best friends as former mayors, I think I have plenty of guidance. I know where to go when I need resources.

“I cant’ tell you how honored I feel to be in this seat,” she said.

Cohen said during her brief inauguration address that she hopes to improve public communication and to continue recent work done by the council based on the recently adopted Climate Action Plan, but otherwise refrained from making any broad pronouncements, or grand political gestures.

“I could make all kinds of promises here about the next year, but I am only one of seven councilors,” she said. “What I can promise is to continue to be a team player and to keep the big picture in mind when making decisions.”

Instead, Cohen preached the gospel of collaboration and working together toward common goals.

“We cannot succeed in making South Portland the best that it can be without collaboration,” she said. “Debate and differences of opinion are healthy, but let’s always respect each others’ perspective, even when we disagree. And let’s always be honest and transparent.”

That request was aimed as much at the audience, as her fellow councilors, given that South Portland has weathered some divisive issues in recent years. The public, she said, needs to bear in mind that each councilor is working for what he or she feels to be in the best interests of the city.

“While an issue may be very personal to you, the council has to keep in mind the physical and financial well-being of 25,000-plus people,” she said. “I ask members of the public to keep an open mind.”

But open communication and collaborative efforts do not stop with councilors and city residents, Cohen said, noting that she hopes to increase cooperation between South Portland and its namesake across the bay.

“Let’s remember, the Casco Bay Bridge goes both ways,” she said.

Also on Monday, longtime school board member Richard Matthews was unanimously elected by his peers to be chairman of the South Portland Board of Education. Mary House was selected to serve as vice-chairman.

“I’ve spent the past six years trying to be the best board member I could be. It has been at times challenging, but always rewarding,” said Matthews, noting that the school board has a busy year ahead, with the opening of the new high school wing, the development of new proficiencybased diplomas, and “that stubborn budget,” not to mention hiring a new school superintendent to replace Suzanne Godin, who will retire June 30.

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