2017-12-08 / Front Page

New mayor promises ‘fact-finding’ tour

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen, right, takes a moment following inauguration ceremonies in council chambers at city hall Monday, Dec. 4, with her daughter, April. Cohen is serving her second term as the city’s ceremonial head, having previously held the gavel in 2015. Cohen will also spend 2018 as president of the Maine Municipal Association. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen, right, takes a moment following inauguration ceremonies in council chambers at city hall Monday, Dec. 4, with her daughter, April. Cohen is serving her second term as the city’s ceremonial head, having previously held the gavel in 2015. Cohen will also spend 2018 as president of the Maine Municipal Association. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — In her second turn as mayor of Maine’s fourth-largest city, Tamarack Drive resident Linda Cohen has promised to take the city council on the road, for a listening tour of South Portland’s many distinct neighborhoods.

Dates and times for the meetings, described by Cohen in her inaugural address Monday, Dec. 4, as a series “fact-finding” sessions, have not yet been finalized, but they will take place in January, prior to when the council holds its annual goal-setting workshop.

“I think it is important to hear the community’s goals before we set our own,” she said. “In an effort to do a check-in with the community, with which many say this council has lost touch, the city manager and I will be scheduling a series of district meetings across our city. I am hoping that we can hold these meetings in our elementary schools for consecutive Thursdays.


Surrounding Mayor Linda Cohen (who represents District 4) in the 2018 class photo for the South Portland City Council are, from left, Adrian Dowling (District 5), Kate Lewis (District 2), Maxine Beecher (serving at-large), Susan Henderson (at-large), and Claude Morgan (District 1). Absent from photo: District 5 councilor Eben Rose. (Duke Harrington photo) Surrounding Mayor Linda Cohen (who represents District 4) in the 2018 class photo for the South Portland City Council are, from left, Adrian Dowling (District 5), Kate Lewis (District 2), Maxine Beecher (serving at-large), Susan Henderson (at-large), and Claude Morgan (District 1). Absent from photo: District 5 councilor Eben Rose. (Duke Harrington photo) “The meetings will be open, allowing the city manager and department heads to update residents on what’s happening in the city, particularly in that district, and then opening up to those present to ask questions and express their concerns,” Cohen said, adding that each session will be chaired by the councilor who represents that district.

Leading the South Portland school system for 2018 are, seated from left, School Board Chairman Mary House (who serves at-large) and Superintendent Ken Kunin, and, standing from left, Nicole Petit (representing District 2), Richard Matthews (District 3), Matthew Perkins (District 4), Jennifer Kirk (District 1), Elyse Tipton (District 5), and Heather Johnson (at large). (Duke Harrington photo)Leading the South Portland school system for 2018 are, seated from left, School Board Chairman Mary House (who serves at-large) and Superintendent Ken Kunin, and, standing from left, Nicole Petit (representing District 2), Richard Matthews (District 3), Matthew Perkins (District 4), Jennifer Kirk (District 1), Elyse Tipton (District 5), and Heather Johnson (at large). (Duke Harrington photo)“We will bring back what we hear at those meeting and I think that will help us as we look forward to setting our goals for the upcoming year,” Cohen said. “There might be 10 people or 100 who come out to meet us, but I think it’s important to go where people live. I am asking my fellow councilors to please support this endeavor, to consider this a very important fact-finding mission, and to give it the priority it deserves.”

There may be few in local government who have come as far as Cohen. Now 62, Cohen first came to South Portland in 1974 when taking law enforcement classes at what is now Southern Maine Community College and stayed, she has said, because she “just fell in love with the city.” But it was not always easy, and she has spoken at past council meetings with great emotion about life as a single mother, living in subsidized housing, struggling to support both herself and, to the best of her ability, a homeless brother plagued by substance abuse issues. Twice, life interfered and she dropped out of school, also discovering after interning with the South Portland Police Department that a career as a beat cop, manning cruisers at 3 a.m., might not be her bailiwick as a young, single mom.

Still, Cohen knew she wanted her daughter April to be proud of her and, with that motivation, buckled down to earn a bachelors degree at the University of Southern Maine. With her degree in hand, Cohen landed a job in South Portland’s code enforcement office. Looking for extra work, she was tapped to take the minutes for city council meetings, later moved to the assessor’s office and finally, two years after graduating, landed the job of city clerk. Cohen logged 12 years as head of the city’s municipal office, from 1989 to 2001, before jumping the river and serving for another decade, to 2011, as city clerk in Portland.

After retiring from that to go into business with her daughter selling real estate, Cohen won election to the South Portland City Council in 2012. She served as mayor in 2015, and also that year was president of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce.

In November, Cohen took a job as marketing and membership manager of the Greater Portland Board of Realtors. Now, her second go-round as South Portland mayor will constitute a rare two-fer for a public official as she will also serve during 2018 as president of the Maine Municipal Association – an organization that counts on its membership roster about 480 of Maine’s 494 organized cities and towns. Now the association’s vice president, Cohen will take the gavel for the top job Jan. 1.

“Those jobs compliment each other very well, because Maine Municipal is launching this new workforce initiative to try and attract people to municipal government and I’m all about that,” Cohen said, following Monday’s inaugural ceremony. “We’re trying to fill positions here locally because we’re seeing turnover of people who have been with the city for 20 or 30 years and we’re not getting applications for those positions like we used to, and so we’re just trying to make sure people know how great it is to work for municipal government.”

During her inaugural address, Cohen was complimentary of workers in city hall and elsewhere on the public payroll.

“We have professional and dedicated employees who do the hard work every single say of making this a great city in which to live and work and play,” she said.

Cohen also lauded the many residents who serve on South Portland’s many volunteer board and committees, as well as her fellow councilors, although she did take the time to issue a call for togetherness in the face of tensions that have stressed relations, at meetings and behind the scenes, over the past three years.

Based on emails and other private communications, this year’s mayoral race came down to Cohen and District 4 Councilor Eben Rose.

Rose says he did not actively campaign for the job, but he did send a lengthy email to new councilors Adrian Dowling and Kate Lewis, prior to their election Nov. 7, detailing a “list of reforms” he felt the next mayor should institute.

“If there is no other reason to place importance on who becomes the next mayor, it is at least in recognition of this – a mayor that deferred to staff for everything – especially in abdicating any oversight role in curation of (information packet) materials – diminishes the role of the council and thus diminishes the strongest democratic inroad we have in local government,” Rose wrote. “Curation of packet materials is absolutely critical in this regard. Information overload, strategic omissions of germane facts, over-packed agendas, false expertise and transcendent authority presented as disembodied staff recommendations all encroach on the deliberative authority of the council.”

An email from Franklin Terrace resident George Corey, which faulted members of activist group Protect South Portland for allegedly lobbying councilors to support Cohen over Rose, referred to her as “an overt racist” with “no boundaries,” who is “not an environmentalist,” “has no hesitation about putting neighborhoods at risk of harm,” and is “consistently against all affordable housing proposals.” The email also claimed Cohen has, “voted on matters when she had a clear, admitted, financial conflict of interest.”

Asked to respond, Cohen said in a Nov. 10 email, “I’m really sorry to see something like this being circulated in our city.”

Cohen said she made sure the accusations were shared with all current and incoming council members, who would decide in caucus on the next mayor, but otherwise said, “No further comment is warranted.”

By the time the formal election for mayor came Monday, the tally was unanimous, excepting only Rose, who was not at the meeting. Chairing her last session after nine years on the council, Patti Smith announced Rose had called ahead to say he’d been held up at a job site and could not make the 4 p.m. vote.

During her address, Cohen did take up some of Rose’s bullet points, calling on her peers to think about what they need to address as a group and what can be left to staff, in the interest of streamlining meetings and refocusing attention on policy and off minutia.

“I’m asking councilors to be thinking about whether we are spending our meeting time constructively,” she said. “Are we having too many workshops? Are we putting items on our agenda that can be handled administratively? Are we stuck in the old ways and financial times and not trusting our employees to handle more of the routine issues that appear on our agenda? That’s our assignment.”

One potential change in the immediate offing is a move of meeting days from Monday to either Tuesdays or Wednesdays. City Manager Scott Morelli lobbied councilors in a Nov. 21 email to make a swap with the planning board, moving its meetings from Tuesday to Monday, saying that, “getting a packet of materials on a Friday and then meeting on Monday night is a fairly quick turnaround.”

On Monday, Cohen said a change of meeting days may be discussed at a council workshop before the end of the year.

Her public address, however, was focused less on process changes and more on healing relationships in a city that some say has grown increasingly divided since the battle over tar sands oil blew up in 2013.

“We must always remember that each of us has a constituency that put us in our seats and we represent those diverse constituencies,” Cohen said. “There will always be disagreement among (city) councilors and with members of the public. We have been experiencing months of nastiness and accusations, and outright lies at all levels of our society. Productive deliberation and discourse can only happen when we treat each other with civility.

“Every councilor at this dais cares deeply about this community,” Cohen said. “But we all approach the issues at hand in our own way. As we saw in the recently passed retail marijuana ordinance, the only way we can complete the task is with give and take, and that can only happen when each of us is willing to move from positions on the left and right. True compromise and collaboration can only happen in the middle.

“I would ask all of us on this council to determine what we want out individual legacies to be,” Cohen said, addressing her peers. “Do we want to be remembered as someone who obstinately clung to a position without considering all sides, or as a member of a team that successfully ushered in positive change that kept the city on a path of livability, prosperity and sustainability, while still upholding the time-honored traditions that weave the fabric of our great community and keep us strong.”

Saying that she hopes the next year will be marked by “The Four Cs – civility, common-sense, compromise and collaboration,” Cohen also turned to the audience, asking residents to also “keep an open mind” and remember that, “while an issue may be very personal to you, this council has to keep in mind the physical and financial well-being of over 25,000 people.”

“We may not always do what the people who come to our meetings would like us to do, but we will always respectfully listen and consider what is best for the whole city when making our decisions,” Cohen said. “And we might get it wrong. Councils are not infallible or all-knowing. We make the best decisions we can based on the information and circumstances as we know then. That’s why we need everyone at the table.”

Board of education

Monday’s inauguration ceremony also featured the swearing in of five school board members as well as the final vote of Karen Callaghan after 12 years on the board, a tenure that included a fight to retain her post that went all the way to Maine’s Supreme Law Court after then city-manger Jim Gailey moved to block her campaign, as she was employed at the city library at the time.

Celebrated by her peers for her graciousness, as well as an uncanny ability to, as school board member Mary House said, “always ask just the right question and the right time,” Callaghan said she will continue to work on the committee tasked with planning construction of a new middle school.

“Public service is wonderful. We do need voices and I’m glad other people have come forward,” Callaghan said. “I hope that each and every one of you will have your convictions and follow them through.”

House was unanimously elected as chairman of the board of education, following an unprecedented three-year run by District 4 representative Richard Matthews.

House, 46, of Elderberry Drive, is a project manager at Portland-based civil engineering firm Woodard & Curran. She first won a spot on the school board in late 2012, beating out six other applicants for a city council nod to fill out an unexpired term. She then won election the following year to fill out the last year of that term, and again to her own three-year term in 2014. She then came out on top this past November in a three-way race for two at-large seats on the board.

“As chair, I am truly committed to working collaboratively to make sure that in our constantly changing world we, the board of education, continue to provide a framework that helps out students excel and accomplish their goals and continue to do great things,” House said in her acceptance speech.

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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