2015-10-16 / Front Page

South Portland candidates lay out positions in debate

Meet the candidates
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Orchard Street resident Bob Whyte asks a question of candidates for public offi ce in South Portland at an Oct. 8 debate sponsored by the Ferry Village Neighborhood Conservation Association. About 30 people attended the event, held at the Betsy Ross House for senior living. (Duke Harrington photo) Orchard Street resident Bob Whyte asks a question of candidates for public offi ce in South Portland at an Oct. 8 debate sponsored by the Ferry Village Neighborhood Conservation Association. About 30 people attended the event, held at the Betsy Ross House for senior living. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Traditionally there has been just one candidates debate in South Portland each election cycle, sponsored by the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce.

That event is still coming, scheduled for Oct. 29 at city hall, but this year the Ferry Village Neighborhood Conservation Association got in on the action, staging an Oct. 8 debate at the Betsy Ross House for senior living, with all four city council hopefuls on hand.

The ballot features incumbent Linda Cohen facing a

A second candidate debate for city council and school board members in South Portland will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29, at city hall. The South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce is the sponsor of the event, which will be moderated by Mike Vallaincourt. challenge from Andrew Snyder for the District 4 seat, while newcomers Eben Rose and Ernie Stanhope are squaring off to represent District 3.

Although fewer than 25 people attended the event, it was recorded for playback on South Portland Community Television, giving all office seekers their first chance to set themselves apart.

Introductions

Both Rose and Cohen stressed humble origins in their opening remarks, while Stanhope and Snyder played the outsider angle.

Rose introduced himself as a geologist and former professor at Bowdoin College in the spring of 2009. Rose said he was “raised by a single mother,” and the first in his family to attend college. He pointed to a string of blue- collar jobs he’s held and although he is now working to complete a doctorate at Yale University, he said he started his postsecondary education at the community college level. Rose said his interest in local politics was spawned by the tar sands issue, in which his technical expertise was put to use “shaping what eventually become the Clear Skies Ordinance” that banned the product. Today he and his wife run a tile cleaning and restoration business.

“That seems kind of a strange shift from being an academic, but I like it,” Rose said, “and now, more of my research and technical skills, I would like to apply and put to civic use.”

Stanhope, a South Portland High School graduate and local stove shop owner making his first foray into the public arena, opened by apologizing for his nerves and lack of polish.

“I’m not a politician. I don’t speak as one. I don’t want or pretend to be one,” he said. “My goal is to be the voice of the everyday man and the small business owner in this city.”

Cohen, seeking her second term, is a former city clerk in South Portland and Portland, now working as manager of Bangor Savings Bank’s Mill Creek branch.

“I have been a single mom from Day 1,” she said. “I have been very, very poor, and I have made very, very good salaries. I have many times worked three jobs, so I know what it’s like to struggle and make ends meet. I think that makes me more empathetic to many of the people in our community. I think I can relate to various socio-economic levels of our society.”

Snyder, her opponent, came to Maine more than 25 years ago to work in the thenburgeoning biotech industry, managing firms from small start-ups to large public organizations, but for the past 15 years, he has worked the real estate trade.

“I have experience negotiating with everyone from multinational corporations right down to individuals, and I have developed a track record of being a consensus builder,” he said.

High-level experience in the business world, Snyder said, is what sets him apart.

Reasons to run

Both Rose and Snyder referenced Portland Pipe Line Corp. when speaking of the concerns that prompted them to run for office.

“We need to wean ourselves off of our dependence on fossil fuels,” Rose said, adding he wants to help PPL make a “graceful transition” into green energy operations.

“It’s not too early to start talking about how are we going to clean up the land underneath those [oil] tanks, and who’s going to do it,” Snyder agreed.

Stanhope said he intended to stake out a “different perspective.”

“I feel the current council looks at things from a one-sided point of view,” he said. “I want to be the balancing voice. I am more conservative in my views. I firmly believe South Portland needs to expand its tax base and become more business-friendly to survive.”

Meanwhile, Cohen seemed intent on striking a neutral tone.

Although a recent past president of the local Chamber of Commerce, she claimed she is neither pro-business nor entirely on the side of aspiring regulators.

“I am pro-South Portland,” she said.

Her reason for seeking re-election, Cohen said, was to stay the course.

“I think I understand the people here well,” she said. “We’ve started doing some really great things here in the city and I’d like to continue that.”

Business development

Patricia Whyte of Orchard Street opened up the question period by asking the candidates what types of businesses they would hope to bring to South Portland.

“As a woman who loves to shop, I can tell you I would love to see more boutiques, small types of women’s shops, especially on the east end of the city,” Cohen said. “I think a few more restaurants on the east end wouldn’t hurt, either.”

Rose said South Portland is “very well positioned” to become “a center for innovation and design that transitions us away from the fossil fuel center.”

The city should act as “an incubator,” Rose said, investing in startup R&D firms in exchange for “license agreements on any inventions they develop.” Owning a piece of any patent created on the city’s dime, he claimed, would eventually help to lower the property tax burden.

Stanhope said he is “all for small businesses [and] open to anybody, really.”

“Any type of business that comes to this area is a boon for all of us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Snyder echoed Cohen. A proponent of preserving and protecting South Portland’s historic neighborhoods, he said he looks to cafes and mom ‘n’ pop shops to anchor those distinct villages. However, Snyder said he also favors beefing up the waterfront with shipbuilding, cargo and tourism companies.

City by the sea

Bob Whyte of Orchard Street, asked the candidates to describe what role the city should play in protecting Casco Bay.

Stanhope said South Portland “seems to be going in the right direction,” with recent ordinance changes to curtail the use of Styrofoam containers and plastic and paper grocery bags.

“Other than that, we just need to try and find businesses that don’t do a whole lot of polluting into the water, to try and keep it a little bit clean. That’s about all I have to say,” he said.

Rose said the goal should include encouraging the creation of businesses dedicated to preserving ocean views rather than “the industrial wasteland it [the waterfront] has been for a long time.”

South Portland’s waterfront should be transformed from favoring petroleum companies to ones invested in aquaculture and “bio-remediation,” he said.

Cohen, like Rose and Snyder, celebrated efforts in recent years to separate stormwater runoff from city sewer lines, to keep effluent from overflowing into the bay. Now, she said, South Portland needs to focus on cooperative efforts with Cape Elizabeth and Portland.

“It’s not just South Portland. We can do everything we want to keep things from washing into Casco Bay on our side of the bridge, but if we are not getting the same commitment from the city across the bridge, it is not going to be very effective,” she said.

Snyder said South Portland must reach beyond its borders to prevent overfishing in the Gulf of Maine.

“There’s not much the South Portland City Council can do to stop that,” he said. “But we can be a voice and stand up and if we scream enough, loud enough, maybe somebody will hear us.”

Housing costs

Among those asking questions of the candidates were sitting councilors Tom Blake and Brad Fox. Blake asked what the candidates felt should be done to control housing costs within the city.

Based on his experience as a real estate agent, Snyder said residents of South Portland have to earn at least $30,000, per year just to get by at current housing costs. Therefore, the city should follow Portland’s lead and raise the minimum wage, he said.

“If you’re going to work 40 hours at something, you ought to be able to afford to live,” he said. “We have to have jobs where people actually get paid. That’s something the council needs to look at and if that means raising the minimum wage, that’s something we need to consider.”

Stanhope agreed that “service wages are not the greatest,” but added, ”they’re a stepping stone to bigger things, a lot of times.”

Working two jobs, he was able to save enough to open his own business and buy a house, Stanhope said, stressing the value of hard work over a government-mandated pay raise.

“If you increase the minimum wage, that’s going to put a hindrance on local businesses,” he said. “The cost of goods is going to go up and people might get laid off.”

The best thing government can do, Stanhope said, is to simply stay out of the way of free enterprise.

“It’s more of a community issue than a city council issue, I think,” he said.

Rose, however, said he is “absolutely in favor” of raising the minimum wage in South Portland.

“I’ve been in the trap of working tiresome jobs and coming home and having nothing, having no savings, having endless debt burden that you can never rise out of,” he said. “I know there are many who claw their way up. That takes pluck and grit, but it also takes an awful lot of luck and circumstance, as well.”

Although he said “it’s not my only issue,” Rose again turned to PPL, saying the city council should “work in a very focused way” to help the pipeline company transform itself into “something like a sustainable industries research institute,” because “the writing is on the wall and the world is changing to a green economy.”

“If we can change that one main pillar of the economy, all kinds of other enterprises can develop,” Rose said. “I think that can solve many of our problems.”

Cohen said the issue boiled down to supply and demand.

“We have 80,000 people in the state of Maine right now over the age of 60 who are living alone,” she said. “That means they are taking up housing stock. And, with the divorce rate that’s 50 percent or higher, you have people who are splitting up and taking apartments when, before, when couples stayed together, there were plenty of apartments available and that drove the price of them down.”

Cohen also faulted education costs for saddling young people with student loan payments “as big as a mortgage.”

That said, Cohen offered no solutions, saying only, “I think this is a much bigger issue than just the city of South Portland. It’s a state issue and a federal issue as well.”

Transparency

Fox, now in his first term on the council, said he was frustrated to discover how council members caucus behind closed doors to choose the mayor, and asked the candidates what they might suggest as “a more open process.”

Cohen said that back in the 1980s, when caucusing was done in public, council meetings sometimes dragged past midnight, “because there was no agreement on who was going to be mayor and they couldn’t get a majority.”

She acknowledged the current process “does involve people going behind the scenes to try and line up their votes,” but added, “I really don’t know what other way there might be. It’s been this way for so long, I don’t think anyone’s ever really thought about it.”

Rose said that although South Portland ‘s mayoral post is largely ceremonial, the mayor does wield great power in the ability to set meeting agendas. Rather than changing how the mayor is selected, he said, transparency could be had by wresting away control of the agendasetting process.

“There are a number of ways this could be done,” he said, suggesting, “a straw poll,” a “community caucus,” and “an Oxford-style debate,” as possible options of setting the agenda.

“That is an area where there could be a great deal of improvement in the governance of the city,” Rose said.

As a political neophyte, Stanhope admitted he had no idea how South Portland’s mayor is chosen.

“If they just sit around a table and talk, fine. I really don’t know anything about it,” he said. “I really don’t have any interest in being the mayor. I just want to sit on the council and give my voice as a conservative citizen.”

Snyder adopted Rose’s view, saying that with the mayor and city manager setting meeting agendas, “other councilors, on things they want to discuss or get going, they can be, essentially, stonewalled.”

While he said South Portland is not yet at the point where it should have an elected mayor, he said the process of selecting top seed on the council should be more open.

“We don’t really hear which councilors want to be mayor and why they want to be mayor,” he said. “So, maybe there needs to be more public discussion about that.”

Budget

Asked what level of increase in the city’s annual operating budget they might tolerate, none of the candidates would cite a number.

“It aggravates me that we go into the budget assuming there will be an increase, but there are things that are uncontrollable,” Cohen said. “If you have no control over things like insurance and union contracts, you can’t just sit there and say, ‘I will only accept a certain percentage increase.’”

“Council is in many ways very limited in how much it can get involved in what the professional staff is actually doing,” Rose agreed.

Stanhope said the goal should be to match spending to existing revenue, rather than raising taxes to meet program targets.

“As a business owner, I have to balance expenses around the revenue I have coming in,” he said. “Keep it simple. Revenue goes up, the budget can go up, revenue goes down, the budget goes down.”

Snyder noted that his tax bill has continually gone up, while his property value, in recent years, has gone down.

“Clearly, I’m paying more and more, and I’m not convinced services have improved in any way,” he said.

However, Snyder stressed the need for a full review of the budget, rather than starting at a bottom-line number.

“I’m not against paying more in taxes, when it can be proven that it’s needed, but I think there’s really a lot more work that needs to be done to be efficient in what we’re doing, that we’re not just putting out fires.”

Asked what areas of the budget may actually be underfunded, Cohen pointed to “streets and sidewalks.”

“I would like to go to LED lighting on the streets,” she said. “I want to be able to put more street lights onto some of the streets of South Portland that have gone dark since we cut back a few years ago.” Rose did not cite where the city should target more dollars, saying instead it should focus on ways to increase revenue streams beyond property taxes. He again suggested the city invest in “an innovation economy,” which would allow it to “get a little cut of every patent that’s made” from companies able to capitalize on public investment by creating new products.

Stanhope said certain labor pools could use more money.

“I come from a family of teachers and firefighters and policemen,” he said. “So, if anything is underfunded, I’m going to go with those guys. They’re the biggest supporters of our city. I’m all for them.”

Snyder pointed to “infrastructure” as a place in need of more spending, again raising the issue of the city’s two middle schools. While the conventional wisdom for years has pointed to putting up a new building on the site of Memorial Middle School and converting Mahoney Middle School into a new city hall, Snyder said that would mean a missed opportunity.

“If we’re going to consolidate two middle schools, then we have a big property that we could potentially do a commercial sale on and get an awful lot of the revenue we need to build that school,” he said, stressing, like Rose, a more creative approach to meeting financial needs.

When asked where they intended the hold the line in the next municipal budget, two candidates suggested ways to cut spending but none would name a specific area.

“There isn’t anything I would propose cutting back on at this point,” Cohen said.

“As for holding the line or reducing anything, I don’t think we should do anything right now on that,” Stanhope said.

Rose, meanwhile, said South Portland may be able to save money by cutting back on the amount of work in contracts out to third-parties.

“We have hired consultants to deal with issues that city staff should have dealt with on their own,” he said, pointing to his own recent complaints about the Rigby Yard propane project, which prompted the hiring of a engineering firm to rule on the code enforcement officer’s interpretation of relevant ordinances.

“If you’re hiring an outside firm and giving them a huge profit margin, I think some of those things can be done by city employees at a cheaper rate,” he said.

Snyder agreed, saying, “I think it was a mistake many years ago when we decided to contract out for our trash pickup.”

However, Snyder’s main concern was mission “creep” – the tendency of city officials to spend a little more each year, without ever seeming to solve a problem.

“There’s no one place I would cut,” Snyder said. “What I don’t want to keep paying for is mistakes and errors that are made again and again and again.”

Finally, Rose adopted what may have been the most unconventional stance of the evening, saying he’d entertain input on the budget from longtime local critic Albert DiMillo.

“As a councilor, I would actually like to sit down with him and see what the numbers are that he has. Maybe there’s something there,” Rose said.

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