2018-01-19 / Front Page

First stop on listening tour deemed a success

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan and Mayor Linda Cohen, Thursday, Jan. 11, on the first stop of a five-session city council listening tour, held at Skillin Elementary School. Six councilors and 14 city staffers turned out to hear concerns and answer questions from the nine city residents who attended the event. The tour continues Thursdays through February 8. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan and Mayor Linda Cohen, Thursday, Jan. 11, on the first stop of a five-session city council listening tour, held at Skillin Elementary School. Six councilors and 14 city staffers turned out to hear concerns and answer questions from the nine city residents who attended the event. The tour continues Thursdays through February 8. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — An effort to reach out to the 25,000-plus South Portland city residents who are not part of the vocal minority who turn out regularly to have their say at council meetings met a sparse but enthusiastic response in its first iteration, held Jan. 11 at Skillin Elementary School.

Six of the seven city councilors, and 14 city staffers were on hand to hear concerns and field questions from residents of South Portland’s westernmost voting district, home to the city’s lowest median income and highest immigrant population. Nine people attended the event, not all of whom live in District 5.

Still, those who did turn out declared the idea a rousing success, just based on the idea of it, and its implementation.

“The first thing I want to do is thank you for coming into our community to talk with us about what’s going on, and where we stand,” Broadway resident Brian Leonard said. “I don’t know of another community that does that. I really want to commend you all.” Leonard commented on various city projects mentioned in updates provided by department heads, but ended up not having any questions.

“I love this city. I think that all I needed to come up here and tell you, is thanks for all that you are doing,” Leonard said.

The listening tour is an initiative of newly elected Mayor Linda Cohen, now serving her second year-long term in that office since joining the council in 2012.

“I think it is important to hear the community’s goals before we set our own,” Cohen said in her Dec. 5 inaugural address, when announcing the plan, which she said was, “an effort to do a check-in with the community, with which many say this council has lost touch.”

“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.”

Among those who spoke at the Jan. 11 meeting was Hobart Street resident Jeff Woodbury who asked for details about the city’s new composting program. He also questioned a fence along the Greenbelt Trail near the recycling center on Highland Avenue. Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach the fence was a temporary measure erected by contractors building the city’s new solar array to guard their equipment, and will come down soon, if it has not already.

Thompson Street resident Peter Cooke came over from District 1 to urge that the city to carefully consider the needs of property owners in equal proportion to a recently vocal contingent of residents as it considers the ongoing question of how to regulate so-called short-term rental properties. City Manager Scott Morelli promised that would be the case.

Augusta Street resident Marilyn Reilly asked that officials work on updating the demographic data in the city’s comprehensive plan, which currently give past data only, with no projections or the future.

“I don’t know how we can determine master plans for the city unless we know who we need to plan for,” she said.

Reilly also asked officials to consider adding “visibility standards” to South Portland’s zoning regulations, to mandate that a least some portion of all new private homes be made handicapped accessible.

District 5 City Councilor Adrian Dowling, who was chairman of the meeting, assured Reilly her requests would be taken under advisement.

“Well, it seems we have a bit of extra time this evening,” Dowling later said, after 10 minutes had elapsed and the nine attendees appeared to have talked themselves out. Dowling had allotted just 15 minutes at the beginning of the session to hear updates from department heads, but with so few questions coming from the audience, opened the door to city staffers for additional comment.

Among those who spoke, Police Chief Ed Googins talked about his department’s new behavioral health liaison, City Planner Tex Hauser updated attendees on efforts to update street lights with LED fixtures, Transportation Director Art Handman spoke about the expanded public bus service, and Morelli gave an update on the status of the short-term rental issue, which will be the subject of a future council workshop, while Public Works Director Doug Howard address upcoming renovation work due this summer on Westbrook Street.

After the initial meeting, Cohen declared the experiment a success.

“I had hoped for more, but I don’t think we knew exactly what to expect the first time,” she said. “I’m kind of comparing this in my mind to the summer movie series at Bug Light Park. When that first started, we saw very, very light attendance. But over time, as people got used to having that down there and knowing about it, the attendance has grown astronomically.

“If the council decides after this year to keep doing this going forward, I think as word gets out that it’s happening, I’m hoping more people will come out.”

Cohen also noted, as did Dowling, that even with the sparse turnout, the meetings were useful as they will be aired on South Portland Community Television, which will help to disseminate the information provided by the various department heads.

Cohen predicted attendance would grow as the traveling show moves east toward District 1.

“Some districts are just traditionally more active than others. It’s just always been that way,” she said. “We reached out in every way we possibly could. We posted it on Facebook, the school department sent stuff home with students, and we’ve certainly talked to the press. I don’t know what more we could have done, other than as word of mouth gets around. But there’s nothing to stop someone from District 5 from popping up at the District 2 or 1 meeting, if they’ve missed this meeting.

“All things considered, I’m glad that we did have some folks, and some questions,” Dowling said. “And I think it was a great opportunity for staff to just talk about what they’re doing, to update the public about what’s going on. I think the new and different thing was part of it, why we didn’t get as many people as we might have hoped. But now that this one has happened, that may act as an advertisement for the others going forward.

“And the idea of these meetings is that it’s an open mic. People can ask us about anything they want,” Dowling said. “So, by no means are we only going to talk about that district at future meetings. People from District 5 can come to any of the sessions and talk to us about anything they want.”

Still, Cohen said, there is one thing no councilor or city official should take away from the first listening session, based on the light turnout and few public comments:

“I would never ever take the fact that people don’t show up as a sign that things are great,” she said.

Listening Tour

The South Portland City Council is in the midst of a five-week listening tour, in hopes of hearing concerns and questions posed by residents in each of the city’s five voting districts.

An initiative of Mayor Linda Cohen, the informal meetings are attended by many department heads, on hand to provide updates on recent projects and activities.

All meetings, which are taped for broadcast on South Portland Community Television, are held on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m, Locations are as follows:

• January 18 — at Dyer Elementary School (District 4),
• January 23 — at Brown Elementary School (District 2),
• February 1 — at Small Elementary School (District 1),
• February — at Kaler Elementary School (District 3).

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