2016-12-09 / Front Page

Inauguration day

Outgoing mayor leaves list of 20 goals
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Having come out on top in a field of seven for two seats on the South Portland City Council, political newcomer Susan Henderson, left, and Maxine Beecher, a veteran now entering her 13th year, take the oath of office during inaugural ceremonies, Monday, Dec. 5, in council chambers. (Duke Harrington photo) Having come out on top in a field of seven for two seats on the South Portland City Council, political newcomer Susan Henderson, left, and Maxine Beecher, a veteran now entering her 13th year, take the oath of office during inaugural ceremonies, Monday, Dec. 5, in council chambers. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Following inauguration to her second term as South Portland city mayor on Monday, Dec. 5, District 2 councilor Patti Smith refrained from announcing any specific goals or objectives for the coming year. Instead, she urged her peers on the council to think about how they approach their work, asking that they create “respectful listening spaces” of “sharing, and caring” in all that they do.

Outgoing Mayor Tom Blake on the other hand, has been more vocal in compiling a to-do list. Although he limited his remarks at the Dec. 5 inauguration to thanking councilors and city staffers – Blake has been forced off the council by term limits set in the city charter, after three consecutive terms – he closed out his last business meeting with the gavel Nov. 21 by offering a punch list of 20 things he said remain undone after his nine years in office.

“I think we have accomplished a great deal here in our community and I feel very comfortable that we are equipped to move forward and sustain a progressive and healthy community for all of our citizens moving forward into the future,” Blake said.

For her part, Smith, who last sat as mayor from December 2011 to November 2012, is also up against term limits. Her current term as mayor will mark her ninth and final year on the city council, after which she will need to sit out at least one election cycle.

South Portland has a history of rotating its mayoral post, which is largely ceremonial, although the mayor does serve as chairman of all council meetings and has some power to set the agenda for meetings. Currently, a majority of councilors have held the gavel, including Smith, Cohen, Claude Morgan and Maxine Beecher. Apart from Susan Henderson, who was sworn into her first term on Monday, only Brad Fox (entering his third year on the council) and Eben Rose (starting his second and absent from Mondays inauguration) have never sat in the big chair.

Smith is a co-founder, past president and current board member of the South Portland Community Garden Collective. In her day job, she works as chief operations officer at Scratch Baking Company. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a degree in sport’s management, Smith earned an MBA from Drexel University in 2003. She was head coach of the University of Michigan field hockey program from 1989 to 1995 and director of strategic initiatives at Planet Dog in Westbrook from 2004 to 2012. She then served as “strategic ambassador and cultural steward” at Coffee by Design in Portland from 2013 until this past spring, when she was hired by Scratch to help guide its expansion to a second location and nearly 40 employees.

Smith opened her inaugural address – an 8-minute speech – by thanking Susan Chase, her wife and partner of 23 years, and her fellow employees at Scratch, who, she said, “make every day a feel-good community day, especially when we don’t run out of bagels.”

Smith then went on to compare municipal government to a vending machine.

“This analogy suggests that not too long ago residents had little say as to the type of services they would receive, yet they dutifully paid their taxes – put their money in the slot – and in return would receive some services that were typically pre-programed and very limited,” she said. “It is clear our local government is evolving very rapidly, due in part to societal, global technologies that inform and engage citizens instantly. We now have high expectations of our representatives and expect and deserve to be collaborators in shaping our community. This heightened expectation, (the need for) transparency, and our citizen’s passionate engagement, presents challenges for us as a council and a city government. If we are not prepared to adapt and embrace this strong desire for collaboration, we will be missing the boat.”

Smith them asked her fellow councilors to put themselves in the shoes of their constituents, asking them to empathize with everyone from the an elementary school student facing the day without breakfast, or the recent immigrant and “refugee from a war-torn country,” to the elderly resident faced with “a tax bill that is impossible to pay on a fixed income” to the person facing “the weight of responsibility of a daughter or son trying to keep a fifth generation business profitable.”

“It is likely we know many of these people, our friends and our neighbors, who are in these circumstances,” Smith said. “I ask that we bring this awareness to all we do as councilors, and as neighbors, to bring understanding and compassion to the issues brought before us, to be the best we can, to be our best selves.

“There is a common phrase that is used – ‘bringing together all stakeholders’ – that is often used for a project or community issue that needs to be addressed,” Smith said. “I am asking that we as councilors and city employees, and community members, look beyond the obvious list of stakeholders and welcome new and different ideas and perspectives into the conversation and the process.”

Citing two specific items known to be on the council agenda for the coming year – redevelopment of the highway garage on O’Neil Street and the creation of a West End master plan – Smith said each “will provide us with excellent opportunities to practice this approach and commit to broad inclusion of all voices and perspectives.”

“As councilors, my hope is that we will bring thoughtful and careful consideration to all matters, as opposed to judgment or preconceived notions,” Smith said, adding, “I do know this is easier said than done. It will take mindfulness, practice, and diligence, to become more comfortably with uncertainty and the unfolding of our community as it grows and changes and flourishes.” Smith, who has sometimes been derided by council critics as an environmental crusader, during recent battles over tar sands, plastic bags, and pesticides, also took a moment to address business growth.

“As we become a more sustainable and resilient community, conscious and thoughtful economic development is imperative,” she said. “We have a wonderful and diverse array of businesses that call South Portland home. As we continue to grow our economic base, thoughtful planning and intentional development and redevelopment must include the determination of community fit and scale that enhances our unique and cherished neighborhoods and public spaces.”

Finally, in the closest her speech came to specific policy objectives, Smith closed it by voicing support for the school budget.

“As we welcome newcomers to South Portland, whether they are preschoolers or adult learners, we must be diligent in advocating for and sustaining our educational systems,” she said. “From preschool to grade school to high school and our local community college, future generations are depending on us to provide them with the best education possible. Investments in education allow for the creation of a virtuous cycle that results in an entire community benefiting for generations to come.”

Smith then brought her address full circle to her vending machine analogy by celebrating teachers.

“Teachers connect, share and care,” she said. “Teachers provide us with the building blocks so that we can build a solid foundation for continuous growth and for personal accountability. So, in contrast to that local government that resembles an old-school vending machine, I ask that we create respectful listening spaces and let our desire for the greatest good and the broadest benefit guide our discussions, our decisions, and our actions. Maybe we can all take a page from our teachers’ playbook and demonstrate connecting, sharing, and caring though our community service.”

Also at Monday’s inauguration, new school board members Otis Thompson and Jennifer Kirk were sworn into office. With Elyse Tipton, who was appointed by the city council last month to fill a vacant seat, and Libby Reynolds, elected to office last year, a majority of the school board now has one year of service, or less, under their belts.

“It’s been a while since the board has had so many new members. It is a significant change over the last few years,” said board Chairman Richard Matthews said.

On Monday, Matthews was elected to his third consecutive year as chairman of the board, a streak unprecedented in recent years. As Thompson and Kirk took their seats, Matthews bid farewell to longtime school board members Rick Carter and Sara Goldberg, calling their departure, “the end of an era, or at least a decade.”

Turning to the future – a year that will include establishment of a proficiency based grading system, a probable change to later start times for middle and high school students, and continued work on renovating one or both of the city’s middle schools – Matthews said, “I look forward to working with our superintendent and the school board, to continue moving forward the best school district in the state, because I do mean that – we are the best school district in the state.

“I also look forward to working with

Mayor Smith and our city councilors to ensure our children are given what they need to succeed,” he said.

Parting punch list

Meanwhile, in his Nov. 21 comments, Blake addressed “items that are problematic or need attention.”

Blake said he thought about putting his punch list in an email to fellow councilors, “but I also want to the public to hear what I have to say.”

The list of 20 things he urged the council to address began with the middle school renovation project.

“I think the council needs to stay keenly aware of that situation, as it may have a direct impact on South Portland City Hall,” he said, referencing one plan floated for many years, to build one new middle school on the site of Memorial Middle School, and the take over Mahoney Middle School as a new city hall.

Blake also said he believes the council needs to decide which city staffers, if any, need to attend its workshop sessions, while stiffening the process by which items get added to workshop agendas. With workshop time “becoming overloaded,” he said, it may come to requiring the assent of at least three councilors to put an item on the agenda, or at least a position paper filed by a sponsoring councilor, to explain with a given topic should be addressed.

“As it is, we are creating a problem of pushing staff too fast,” he said, noting the number of items already scheduled for future workshop sessions.

Blake also said that the council needs to assess its legal services contract. Last month, the council agreed not to conduct a formal performance evaluation of city attorney Sally Daggett, but Blake said it’s time to decide if South Portland should continue to hire out her job, or bring it hack in house as it was nearly a decade ago.

Blake said it’s also time for South Portland to hire an economic development director, rather than continue to expect those duties to be performed by the assistant city manager.

“Our economic development committee has been after us for years to create some sort of entity to promote economic development,” he said. “I’ve been slow to come to this conclusion, but we definitely need to go in that direction. We need to relieve our assistant city manager of economic development responsibilities.”

Among a host of environmental issues, Blake said the council needs to address the gully behind Evergreen Credit Union on Broadway, which he called a “cesspool.”

“It is terrible that we have let this go the way it is,” he said.

Blake also urged the council to press the city of Portland for access to Barberry Creek Woods, an 8.4-acre parcel that is part of Forest City Cemetery off Broadway, to which South Portland has been trying to gain access for more than 30 years.

Blake also urged the council to complete city acquisition of the so-called “Old Joe’s Pond” property in Ferry Village and to complete connection of the city’s Greenbelt Trail to the Eastern Trail.

“We have had $200,000 in the bank for two years and we just can’t seem to make that extension,” he said.

The city also has $200,000 in a compensation account, into which developers pay when wetlands are disturbed. That money is supposed to be used to restore and maintain other wetlands areas, Blake said, but he predicted the fund is in danger of being raided for other uses.

“I’m sensing that money might be going elsewhere in the future and, in my opinion, that money can only be spent with council approval,” he said. “I also believe that money should be used to fix wetlands, because that’s where that money came from, and I see potential circumnavigation of that.”

Blake also urged the council to complete drafting of an open space plan.

“If you ask five different people where we are with the status of that, you are going to get five different interpretations,” he said. “It’s rather chaotic. I think you need to start from scratch.”

On economic development issues, Blake urged the council to create a waterfront advisory committee, in part because “of the continuing nagging issues we are getting from heavy industry and petroleum on our waterfront. They’re not going to go away.”

Blake also said it’s time to take waterfront director duties away from the parks and recreation director, where there were vested when Tom Meyers retired in 2013. Meyers had been both transportation director and waterfront director, but the waterfront job was shuffled when Art Handman took over the transportation department as a contract employee. At that time, then city manager Jim Gailey was reluctant to hire a new transportation director because there was talk of merging services with the Portland Metro bus line.

“Here we are going on four year and that positions is still on a year-to-year contract,” Blake said.

Another key issue for any waterfront advisory group will be the future of a 23-acre lot near Bug Light Park owned by New York developer John Cacoulidis.

“We’re getting calls,” Blake said. “Something is going to go there. Within in the next couple of months we are probably looking at a major on our waterfront.”

Other waterfront issues include redevelopment of the Portland Street Pier and the potential purchase of a $10 million “at least” dredging unit.

Further inland, Blake urged the council to pay close attention to the former Hamlin School and the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets. Last year resulted in a “fiasco,” Blake said, when a neighborhood revolt over a Martins Point Health Care plan to redevelop the site saw the firm decamp to Scarborough instead. However, the school is not going to be occupied by the city planning office forever, Blake said, and someone else will want to move in.

“The problem still exists,” Blake said. “We are going to see a duplicate of what we say a year ago.”

Finally, Blake praised interim city manager Don Gerrish on the “openness and transparency” he has preached to city staff during his brief tenure. It’s an attitude Blake said he hopes will remain once a new permanent manager is in place.

“I am hoping that as you all proceed with a new city manager, that those two words – openness and transparency – are paramount,” he said.

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