Changing of the South Portland guard: Blake exits, Smith takes gavel

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SOUTH PORTLAND — With City Councilor Patti Smith slated to become the next mayor, she and Mayor Tom Blake reflected on where the council has been and where it’s going.

Blake, a three-time mayor and longtime civil servant who has been a councilor for the last nine years, will exit city government Monday, when Councilor Maxine Beecher and Councilor-elect Susan Henderson are sworn in, and Smith is formally elected mayor by her fellow councilors.

Councilors caucused for a candidate to replace Blake as mayor at their Nov. 16 workshop. Councilor Linda Cohen nominated Smith; the motion was seconded by Councilor Eben Rose and no other candidates were nominated.

Smith, who moved to South Portland from Michigan in 2005 and is the chief operating officer of Scratch Baking Co., served three consecutive three-year terms on the council before taking a mandated one-year break in 2014 and returning to the council as an unopposed candidate in 2015. She previously served as mayor in 2011.

She said Wednesday night that a successful council is one that is “all about working together,” rather than pursuing a specific agenda. Rather than elucidate what her goals are for the council, or shine the “spotlight on one person,” she said the council’s collective goals and decisions about how it should function are most important.

Blake, in a sort of farewell address at the Nov. 21 council meeting, urged constituents to keep an open dialogue – “an involved constituency is a healthy constituency,” he said.

In the last six months, Blake said, “our council has … morphed together. Let’s maintain that civility, let’s maintain that positive spirit, and let’s work together.”

Blake’s civic engagement technically began in 1970, when he ran in a mock City Council election as a senior at South Portland High School.

He eventually became an emergency medical technician and firefighter in the Fire Department, served on city committees, and was president of the Ferry Village Neighborhood Association.

But the last year as mayor has been “too time consuming,” and the climate too negative, Blake said recently.

“People no longer have faith in government,” he said. A lot of people running for public office “really care” and “want to do good for their constituency,” he said, only to be called “crooked” by the same constituents they want to serve.

Blake, 65, said he was gratified to serve the community. In approximately 300 meetings he led as mayor, “not once have I had to use my gavel,” he said at the Nov. 21 meeting.

During the last nine years, Blake said, some of his proudest accomplishments have been helping the city move toward a more environmentally sustainable future, and what he sees as progress in better protecting the health and well-being of the city’s residents.

Blake said he spearheaded or played a part in seeing to fruition the 2014 Clear Skies Ordinance, which prevents Portland Pipe Line from bulk-loading tar sands onto tankers in the city; helping South Portland become one of the first municipalities in the state to hire a sustainability coordinator; prohibiting synthetic pesticides on public and private land, and a move by the city to purchase four electric vehicles and install five charging stations.

He said these are all incremental steps toward ensuring that subsequent generations will grow up in a healthier city.

Cohen, who has known Blake since the late 1980s when she was city clerk, said Wednesday that while the two of them have not always been on the same side of discussions on the council, “whatever (Blake) does, however he casts his vote, it’s always coming from a place of care and love for the city of South Portland.”

When asked what he will do next, Blake said he has plenty on his plate, including a teaching position at Southern Maine Community College, where he has been an instructor since 1985. Blake, who has been married more than 40 years, has four grown children and is a grandfather of 14; he said he also likes to spend time at his family’s camp on the coast.

Blake said he’s never been one to give absolute answers, like “always” or “never,” but this is probably the end of his career as an elected public servant.

“I’m one for cutting the cord,” he said. Life is too short to dwell on one aspect for too long, and too exciting to not look ahead and focus on the future, he added.

“It’s not like I’m dying, or moving to Arizona,” Blake said. “I’ll still be here.”

As for any advice he would give to present and future leaders, he said people should simply listen to one another: “That’s one of the best things we can do.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Outgoing South Portland Mayor Tom Blake at his home in Ferry Village.

South Portland City Councilor Patti Smith will become mayor Dec. 5.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.