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PORTLAND — City Councilor Jill Duson is challenged by two opponents as she seeks her sixth term as one of two at-large councilors.
Duson, 63, of 101 Pennell Ave., is retired after working most recently with the Maine Human Rights Commission. She is divorced, with two grown children, and has also served on the School Board, and as mayor when the post was selected by councilors.
One challenger, Joey Brunelle, 32, of 61 Kellogg St., produces web content and podcasts. He is single, with no children.
The other, Bree LaCasse, 42, of 296 Spring St., is married with a son, and works in development for Community Housing of Maine.
In interviews with each candidate, all were asked their opinions on the four ballot referendum questions: Support for a $64 million or $32 million bond to rebuild and renovate city elementary schools, a proposed ordinance capping some residential rental increases to the rates of inflation and property taxes, and an amendment to city zoning codes allowing residents near a proposed zoning change to block the request.
Candidates were also asked their opinions about the working relationships between Mayor Ethan Strimling, the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings; whether and how councilors could be more responsive to constituents, and how the city might address helping homeless and other vulnerable people in crisis while also addressing petty crime issues and other disturbances.
Election Day is Nov. 7. Candidates do not run with party affiliations.
“I am challenged by the work of making balanced decisions,” Duson said. “I am passionate about the work.”
Duson and Councilor Nick Mavodones wrote the alternative $32 million referendum asking voters to rebuild Presumpscot and Lyseth Elementary schools while seeing how applications for state funding to rebuild Longfellow and Reiche Elementary schools fare with the Department of Education.
If the larger, $64 million bond passes, four applications for state funding filed by School Superintendent Xavier Botana would be voided.
Duson said she is committed to getting a bond for school rebuilding not covered by the state on a future ballot, and confident the need has already been established.
“I cannot get to a place where it makes sense to say no to the strong possibility for state funding,” Duson said. “I want to be clear. I support fixing all four schools. This is a disagreement on financing it.”
Duson opposes a referendum to cap rent increases at the rate of inflation and property tax increases.
“If implemented as written, it will make more difficult access to affordable housing. I’m not sure it is legally defensible,” she said.
Establishing a local board of tenants and landlords troubles Duson, too.
“It upends the balance of power on one side,” she said.
Duson also opposes the zoning reform question.
“(In) Portland, we fight about everything. Those fights result in better decisions and outcomes,” she said. “It should not be in the hands of a few abutters to shut down a project.”
Duson said quarrels between Strimling and Jennings and councilors have not been a detriment to city government.
“I believe in the role as described in the charter as a collaborative mayor, the only way is to build relationships with the council, and he has not done that. The council had to stand its ground and it did,” Duson said.
Duson said the council is responsive, and she is open to hearing from constituents in and out of meeting chambers.
“I say sometimes I get my best feedback at the produce section at Shaw’s,” she said.
Yet as policy and regulations are first heard in neighborhood meetings, then at council committee meetings before public hearings and council votes, responsiveness may be in the eye of the beholder, Duson said.
“We fight about everything, we engage about everything, we get input on everything,” she said. “We have to make decisions, sometimes people disagree with the decision. It is not that we didn’t hear and listen to the proposal, we simply did not agree.”
Duson said quality-of-life problems have ebbed and flowed in her tenure.
“I think there was a spike downtown around the end of July into early August, and I have seen less of it lately,” she said of disturbances.
While confident city residents would not tolerate responses lacking compassion for anyone in need, Duson said city staff could prepare a “welcome wagon package” for business owners with listings on who to call to help people in distress.
Brunelle grew up in Kennebunk and lived in San Francisco. He came to Portland in 2013, and living in California imbues his candidacy.
“I am running to keep Portland affordable for everyone, whether you pay rent or property taxes,” he said. “I’ve seen how this ends and I don’t want to get there.”
Brunelle got politically involved in the 2016 shift of medical care for HIV positive and AIDS patients from the India Street Public Health Center to what is now Greater Portland Health.
“I think the councilors and city staff had good intentions, but there is a certain extra value of having someone who has lived these things and knows them first hand,” he said.
Brunelle said his campaign is about more than representing the entire city.
“I don’t want to be a one-trick pony, to be known as the gay councilor,” he said. “But it is a part of me, I’m proud of it.”
Brunelle supports the $64 million referendum to rebuild four elementary schools.
“I feel we have made decision in Portland to have smaller neighborhood schools because they are not just where learning happens, they are community centers,” Brunelle said.
He opposes the $32 million question to fund rebuilding two schools while waiting to see if the Maine Department of Education will fund rebuilding the others.
“If we didn’t get (funding), there is no way to guarantee a future council will bond for the other two schools,” Brunelle said.
Brunelle supports the Fair Rent referendum question.
“I actually think it is fairly restrained,” he said. “It is fair to small landlords, allows for renovations, (exempts) new construction, has a sunset clause.”
He opposes the zoning reform.
“The fact that the number of abutters required to stop a zoning change can vary widely between low-density neighborhoods and the Peninsula means that it would create totally different burdens for developers to overcome,” he said.
Brunelle said the contentious relationship between Strimling and Jennings and councilors has hampered city government.
“I have been disappointed in how personal it has become on all sides. I think personalities have really gotten in the way of progress. Ultimately the problem lies with the (City Charter) not being clear,” he said.
Brunelle said the council approach needs changing.
“We are in a 1950s, top-down mode where we tell you what is best for you,” he said.
Quality-of-life problems in the city are increasing, he said.
“It is new for us, people are unused to it here, because we were able to take an out of sight out of mind approach,” he said. “But the problem is so big we can’t hide it now.”
Solutions require more shelters, housing first initiatives and better access to recovery services, Brunelle said, adding that funding could come from local-option taxes or increased assessments on homes used for short-term rentals or as second residences.
“If you talk to people in social services or public health, they say we are still treating symptoms, not diseases,” Brunelle said.
“I’m excited to take action and work on the issues that matter to Portlanders,” LaCasse said. “During this time of rapid change, I am able to remember our roots.”
LaCasse’s advocacy includes working to prevent the sale of a large portion of Congress Square to the owners of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. It was an effort that preserved the space and ultimately brought hotel management into the process of reinvigorating the area, she said.
LaCasse is one of the “decision makers” listed on finance reports from Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which advocates for the $64 million bond to rebuild four schools. She attended Reiche Elementary School, as her son does now.
“When I walked through, I was shocked there had been no upgrades in those years,” she said. “We are losing, not attracting families because they walk through schools and think this a community that does not value education.”
A $32 million bond to rebuild two schools is unacceptable to LaCasse, she said, because the time has passed to wait for state funding approvals on the other two.
“We get state funding when our schools are the worst,” she said, adding it took a 2012 fire at Hall Elementary School to move it up the state funding list.
LaCasse is ambivalent about the Fair Rent referendum.
“I applaud the efforts of Fair Rent Portland and understand their frustration with the lack of action by the council,” she said, but added she was uncertain it was the best way to keep housing affordable.
LaCasse also said she understood, but does not support, the zoning referendum.
“I think it will make it very challenging to create and build more affordable housing,” she said.
Another Charter Commission “might be necessary at some point,” LaCasse said, but she supports having an elected mayor.
“I focus on issues and solving problems and working with people who do have different perspectives and trying to bring them to the table,” she said. “I am not going to take sides, I am not going to refuse to meet with people.”
LaCasse’s campaign centers on a council that better responds to constituents.
“I do think it is a question of vision and thoughtful planning. I have a sense people think the council is always reacting and not leading,” she said.
LaCasse said she will push for more communication and outreach.
“People show up in hearings and don’t feel they are being heard because councilors already know how they are going to vote,” she said.
LaCasse said Congress Square is a microcosm of quality-of-life problems and how to find some solutions.
“Certainly the opiate crisis is worse,” she said. “Income inequality across the country is worse than it has been since the Gilded Age, and worse in Portland.”
LaCasse said more comprehensive services are needed for people with mental-health and substance-use disorders, while ensuring those in need are not shunted away.
“Part of the solution is what we have done here in Congress Square Park,” she said. “We have created a place where everyone is welcome.”
Duson, LaCasse, Brunelle