2017-02-17 / Community

My side of the bridge

New managers and increasing challenges
By Don Russell

Greetings and fair winds to Matt Sturgis and Scott Morelli, the new town managers of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland respectively. Gentlemen, we do have a question from the back of the room though, “Do you know what you have gotten yourself into and is it worth it?”

Granted, the pay and bennies are quite good and your impressive resumes to date have earned you the top rung at these regarded addresses, but I would contend it is harder than ever to do your jobs these days and do them unfettered and well.

It appears Jon Jennings, the strong and highly effective city manager of Portland, would tend to agree.

“The biggest and increasing challenge for all of us is to avoid the DC-style politics that is not conducive to good local government administration. A good manager needs to be apolitical and have blinders of sorts to work effectively,” Jennings said.

Not an easy thing to do when polar politics is the order of the day. Sturgis at least will have ample reference of 16 years of direct Cape experience under Mike McGovern. That doesn’t mean there won’t be issues. The town center vision is in dire need of better organization and planning that provides enhanced, smart mixed use updates (one can’t be stuck in Mayberry RFD nostalgia forever), and pay to play proposals (just say no) at Fort Williams are not going quietly into that good night.

Morelli on the other hand might want to pitch Rolaids as his tenure sponsor. If his recent post in the Press Herald online comment section is any indication (though I greatly respect and am refreshed by his public attempt to calm a moderate resident’s concerns – something former City Manager Jim Gailey would have never done), he might not be certain of what walks his way. With a rogue council starring the Fab Four of the Way Too Left, regular demands from the cloudy skies and protect the bees folks, often unhinged like William Duffy- Dufris latest letter salvo, and the never-ending pipeline lawsuit hangover, his inbox will be jammed. Throw in the inevitable Mary Jane retail roll out (anyone want to join me on a small social club investment near Griffin’s), coming to a street near you, and the fun keeps coming.

I wonder if our managers need more cover, some written back up (tighter rules on how a manager can manage or be dismissed) to keep purely political agendas of any one councilor or megaphone group from cutting them or a department head at the knees. Jennings offers, “As a last resort, I suppose the power of resignation exists vs. any specific charter change to better insulate and allow a manager the ability to do their job.” Has the current climate come to that?

Off in the near distance, Strother Martin’s character from the classic and always relevant “Cool Hand Luke,” drawls out, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Indeed, our biggest collective concern should be a lack of communication and shared dialogue. Whether managers with council, council with all their residents and businesses, or vitally, citizens with their town leaders, a community functions best when listening most, and engaging more than the most vocal and politically active among us. Why should four people on camera or 40 in the room rooting them on be the final word on any town management decision? They should not.

Jennings offers a final tip (or warning) to our newbies: “Do what is right for the entire town, not what is politically apparent. Don’t let one faction determine how you manage.” Seems like solid, well-worn advice to me from the mayoral-potted foxholes across the bridge.

Cape or South Portland should be equally motivated to redouble its effort to include, gather and debate all its shareholders regularly through balanced forums, surveys, events, research, general outreach and more. The timing is more than appropriate, not only with the dual changing of the guard, but the ongoing pressures and necessary evolution of both zip codes. Greater Portland’s popularity is ever-increasing, and Portland’s current action pace under Jennings’s keen leadership will only provide more unintended growing pains for its neighbors. To paraphrase another movie classic, buckle up kids, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Don Russell is an associate broker with The Maine Real Estate Network, and founder of BrandME Marketing. He has proudly lived in South Portland for more than 20 years. Contact him at don@brandme.net or send a letter to the editor to editor@inthesentry.com. His column appears in the Sentry once a month.

Return to top