PORTLAND — Three years ago, David Brenerman ran unopposed in City Council District 5 to replace Councilor John Coyne.
Now, with Brenerman not seeking election to a second term in the district covering northern and western Portland, three people are competing for the open seat.
Kim Cook, 45, of 70 Alba St., is an attorney who works in government and community relations. She was Brenerman’s campaign treasurer in 2014, and is married with three children.
Marpheen Chann, 26, of 5 Verrill St., is the digital communications coordinator for the Maine Center for Economic Policy Campaign. He is single, with no children.
Craig Dorais, 45, of 105 Lexington Ave., is a patent examiner. He is married, with no children.
Candidates were asked their opinions on the four referendum questions on the city ballot. Two pertain to rebuilding Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot, and Reiche Elementary schools for $64 million, or just Lyseth and Presumpscot for $32 million.
There are also referendum questions seeking to cap annual rental increases in certain buildings to the rate of inflation and property tax hikes, and to allow registered voters living near proposed zoning changes to overturn them by registering written objections.
The candidates were also asked if the sometimes-contentious relationships between Mayor Ethan Strimling and the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings have hindered city government. They were also asked if councilors needed to be more responsive to residents and how the city might address helping homeless and other vulnerable people in crisis while also addressing petty crime issues and other disturbances.
Council District 5 extends from Deering Center north and west of Stevens and Allen avenues to boundaries with Westbrook and Falmouth. Election Day is Nov. 7. City council candidates run without party affiliations.
Cook said of her first campaign for elected office came about because it was the right time for her to serve the community in a different way. “I felt like I had some experience and perspectives that would be good on the council,” she said.
Cook supports the $64 million bond to rebuild the four schools.
“I think four is the right decision at this point because based on the history of school funding, Portland only ever gets one school before the state closes the process,” she said.
Making the commitment to rebuild four elementary schools could also help get state funding to repair and rebuild high schools, Cook said. Along with the elementary schools, the School Department has applied for funds to rebuilt Casco Bay/PATHS.
Cook opposes the Fair Rent referendum.
“It controls how much landlords can raise their rent, which is why I call it rent control,” she said. “What we need more in Portland is people bringing forward practical solutions with a broad base of support.”
She agreed there is a city problem in creating more affordable housing, but said the better approach was in changing zoning to allow higher housing densities in well-traveled areas as an incentive for development.
Cook also opposes the proposed zoning reform.
“I call it the NIMBY zoning ordinance; it is very poorly written,” she said.
Because the ordinance would affect zoning language and zoning map amendments, Cook said it has wide implications.
“A very small number of neighbors upset about any given changes in our zoning can object and put a stop to it,” she said, adding it could make revising city zoning laws “virtually impossible.”
Cook said the relationship between Strimling and Jennings and the council has been a problem.
“There is only a finite amount of time to deal with our challenges. If we are focused on the challenge of not working well, it does inhibit us from moving forward,” she said.
Cook said the charter changes creating a popularly elected mayor created a post for the mayor who is “more than a ribbon cutter,” but should also be working with other mayors in the state on policies.
“I am disappointed how it has worked so far,” she said. “I think we need one more (mayoral) election to see how it will work.”
Cook is satisfied with the council’s level of responsiveness.
“I don’t think it is a matter of not listening, it is a case of people disappointed the council did not go their way,” she said.
Cook said the city has a diversity of opinions that need to be heard.
“I’m the moderate in the race, I feel comfortable with that,” she said.
Cook said she was glad discussions about issues on city streets are happening, adding local housing and Medicaid expansion in the state are two key steps to getting help to people.
“Get people off the streets into a home; it is your best chance to work with everything else going on with them,” she said.
Count Dorais among those who felt a call to action after Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., ran for president in 2016.
“He got me very inspired and got me very active. After his campaign got going, I had to get involved,” Dorais said.
Uncertain of where he could run because of his work as a federal employee, the lack of party affiliation in the open race for the District 5 seat drew him.
“I thought (Brenerman) did a good job even if they did not fully agree on everything,” Dorais said. “I want to represent the more progressive side of the Democrats.”
Although he has no children in city schools, he said he supports the bond to rebuild four schools because of its benefit to the city as a whole.
“It seems absurd to me the two worst schools would have to be put off getting repaired, and I have my doubts about state aid to get the schools repaired,” he said of his choice of the bond over the competing $32 million bond.
Dorais gathered petition signatures to get the Fair Rent ordinance on the ballot, and called the referendum question “an improvement over status quo making the city so unaffordable for people right now.”
While he would not support a hard cap on rent increases, he said the question contains enough flexibility to protect owners of smaller buildings and likes the sunset clause.
“It is a really thoughtful piece they put together,” he concluded.
Dorais said he is “generally supportive” of the referendum to reform zoning.
“We are in a situation where it is a growth for growth’s sake mentality, and we need to balance that out,” he said.
Dorais said he has heard a great deal about the relationship between Strimling and Jennings and city councilors as he campaigns.
“I am a big supporter of the elected mayor,” he said. “As city councilors, we are all part-timers, it means we don’t have time to adequately look into details of the things that happen in the city.”
Dorais said he would have voted to keep the post of special assistant to the mayor in the city budget, and can envision a new staff position that could be shared by the mayor and councilors.
“We need to balance will of people and the power in the hands of people who are not elected,” he said. “The city manager should be getting marching orders from the city council; we are the ones who are elected.”
Dorais said the councilors may be missing a changing political climate.
“I would like to think everyone on the council is acting in total good faith representing what their constituents want/need,” he said. “It is clear we have a pretty progressive city, just look at the last Democratic caucus.”
“As people’s economic fortunes decline, you have homelessness,” Dorais said of quality of life problems. Solutions require balance.
“We have to provide more places for people to go and we have to be smart of how we do it, to make sure placements are evenly distributed,” he said.
As a gay man born to Cambodian-Chinese refugees, and after living in foster care, Chann said he looking to strike balances in the city.
“Portland is a very hipster city, a lot of young professionals with pretty good jobs are moving here, coming here because it is a lot more affordable,” Chann said.
The influx and gentrification can make things harder on longtime residents, he added.
“What kind of balance can you strike with growth and trendiness, how do we keep it a place affordable for people? he asked.
Chann supports the bond to rebuild four schools.
“All the issues have dealt with core maintenance and infrastructure,” he said. “For me, it hit home that kids really are affected by what they are surrounded by and the atmosphere.”
He attended Reiche Elementary School and does not like the two-school bond question that does not fund repairs there.
“We have already put this off for 20 years,” he said. “It is unfair to kids going to schools now and speaks to the long term to keep families here.”
Chann agreed with Cook that repairing the schools with local funding could also free up state funding to address other city school needs.
While looking at it carefully, Chann said he supports the Fair Rent question because of its scope and because it addresses issues the council has not.
“Do I think it’s perfect? No. But the high cost of property taxes and rent are driving the middle and working classes out of the city and turning Portland into something entirely different,” he said. “I’ll be voting yes, but look forward to working with both sides on long-term solutions that lay the foundation for a sustainable housing market.”
He will not support the referendum to reform zoning.
“I am completely against it. I get where they are coming from, the way it is written right now is very dangerous,” Chann said. “We’ve seen how neighborhoods have opposed affordable housing, the danger here is it could raise the ire of segregation.”
Chann said tensions in City Hall do create problems.
“It is creating a toxic environment that makes it hard to make things happen,” he said. “The drama takes up more of the front page than the problems that need to get solved.”
Changes in the city may have outpaced the charter changes approved by voters in 2010, Chann said.
“I think it is time for new people to come in and lay out a new vision for the city,” he said.
Chann said his council service will extend from City Hall.
“I really do see my role differently. Door knocking is not going to end. I will sample different neighborhoods; it is all about meeting people where they are,” he said.
While supporting housing first initiatives to help people in need of services, Chann again pushed for balance.
“To me, it is sort of ‘let’s have the city share the burden,'” he said. “But the question is, how will people access the services, how will neighbors be affected?”
Cook, Chann, Dorais