Cohen promises South Portland 'civility, common sense, compromise, collaboration'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — It took city councilors and School Board members as long to say goodbye to departing leaders as it did to say hello to new ones.

In two City Hall meetings Monday that lasted a total of 40 minutes, Councilor Linda Cohen was elected mayor by her peers, while School Board members elected Mary House their chairwoman.

Cohen will be serving her second, one-year term as mayor; she last held the post in 2015. She replaces Patti Smith, who left the council because of term limits after serving nine years.

“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you have given me,” Smith said in a tearful farewell. “It has been a huge gift.” 

District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan was sworn into a second consecutive term (his third overall), joined by newcomers Kate Lewis of District 2 and Adrian Dowling of District 5. Lewis replaces Smith, while Dowling takes the seat formerly held by Brad Fox.

Seating arrangements with three women on her left and three men on her right led Cohen to joke about “a battle of the sexes.” But she then set a course for the upcoming year promising to be guided by “four C’s of civility, common sense, compromise and collaboration.”

“Productive discourse can only happen when we treat each other with civility,” Cohen said.

The mayor also promised more efforts to reach all city residents with a series of district meetings she expects to be held on five Thursdays in early 2018.

At the same time, Cohen said she will be looking to re-evaluate how heavily the council is involved in city affairs, whether there are too many workshops, or a need to step back and let city staff work more independently.

“Councils are not infallible or all-knowing,” she said.

House, who was sworn in to serve a new three-year term, was then elected to replace Richard Matthews as leader of the School Board. Matthews had served three years as chairman; House had been vice chairwoman.

Along with House, new board members Heather Johnsonand Nicole Petit, and returning members Matthew Perkins of District 4 and Elyse Tipton of District 5 were sworn in. 

Petit replaces Otis Thompson, who resigned from the District 2 seat in August. Johnson replaces Karen Callahan in an at-large seat she held for 12 years.

“You ask the right questions at the right time, the time that makes us all pause and reflect,” House said as she thanked Callahan for her service.

Callahan said she will continue to work on getting a new middle school.

“I like this job so much I went all the way to the Supreme Court to keep it,” Callahan said of her tenure.

In 2013, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided in favor of Callahan after she sued the city over its attempts to keep her from running for the board because she also worked part time at the South Portland Public Library.

“Public service is wonderful; we do need voices,” Callahan said. “I’m glad other people have come forward.”

While thanking her family and employers and Woodard & Curran for giving her the time to serve in a seat she has held since 2012, House also praised Matthews for his “endless dedication to our schools.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen, right, hugs former Councilor and Mayor Patti Smith on Dec. 4 during inauguration at City Hall.

South Portland School Board members Mary House, left, Nicole Petit, Heather Johnson, Elyse Tipton and Matthew Perkins take their oaths of office from City Clerk Emily Scully on Dec. 4.

After three years leading the South Portland School Board, Richard Matthews, left, turned over the gavel to Mary House Dec. 4 at City Hall.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.