Picking Portland's mayor: The candidates on strengthening neighborhoods
Third in a weekly series on where Portland's mayoral candidates stand on issues facing the city.
PORTLAND — It may be a city of about 65,000 residents, but Portland can seem smaller at times because of its many distinct geographic neighborhoods.
Besides Peaks, Cliff, Great Diamond and Little Diamond islands, the city's website lists 21 different neighborhood associations, which are primary vehicles for sending concerns and ideas to City Hall.
Associations are typically the front lines of issues large and small – from trash and graffiti to pot holes to commercial and residential development.
But many of the candidates running to be Portland's first popularly elected mayor in 88 years said this week the city needs to do a better job reaching out and listening to neighborhood residents.
They offered a range of ideas to strengthen communication with neighborhoods, including informal coffee-shop talks, door-to-door fact-finding tours, protecting neighborhood schools, setting up "community houses" and encouraging community yard sales.
Democrat Jodie Lapchick, 49, said the mayor should help neighborhoods organize. As a founding member of the West End Neighborhood Association, she it was difficult getting that group off the ground. She would like to create a centralized website with tools offering advice and best practices for residents looking to do the same.
Lapchick said one resident told her that "every neighborhood needs a truck," meaning residents need to find ways to share resources and help one another.
Markos Miller (unenrolled), a former president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he believes his experience sets him apart from other candidates. The 43-year-old teacher said the group took hold of the visioning process for the former Adams School, which lead to the creation of 16 units of affordable housing.
Miller, who also cited his work on the Franklin Street redesign committee and work on the Bayside vision, said the city should put more effort into neighborhood-based planning. The city should reinvest in the city's neighborhood services department, he said.
City Councilor and Green Independent David Marshall also supports neighborhood-based planning, which seeks residential input early in the planning process. He said he would use that feedback to develop a vision and then work to secure funding to implement the plan.
Marshall, 33, said he would use his work with the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association, which tapped planning students at USM's Muskie School for street and intersection improvements, as model for other communities.
Democrat Jed Rathband, who served in the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization, said North Deering could have benefited from neighborhood-based planning. He said the Walgreens and Rite Aid stores on Washington Avenue don't improve livability, and actually drive down property values.
Instead, Rathband, 39, said the city should work with neighborhoods, as they did in Bayside, to identify potential parcels for development and ask residents what they want, using that information to help developers. Associations should be allowed to pre-approve projects, giving them more ownership in the planning process, he said.
Democrat Ethan Strimling, a former state representative, said he would also have the city manager's neighborhood advisory group meet on a regular basis to get input.
But Strimling, 43, said he would also go door-to-door in each neighborhood, much like his election campaign, to get input from residents who may not have a well-organized neighborhood association.
"It's really about getting out of City Hall and going out to talk to people," he said.
Like Strimling, Democrat Michael Brennan, a former state senator, said the mayor must balance neighborhood preservation with development. He said he would look to Munjoy Hill and Deering Center as models, suggesting that businesses like Rosemont Market and Siano's "promote commerce and protect neighborhood integrity."
Brennan, 58, said it's also important to have quality schools in "all neighborhoods," so he would work closely with school officials during the budget season, while also helping to reassure parents who children attend "failing schools" under the federal No Child Left Behind act.
Green-Independent John Eder, 42, said he is an "ardent localist" who sees residents as the first unit of government. He would look to uses neighborhoods as a proving ground for ideas in an effort to "move feet to City Hall," Eder said.
Eder said he would like to expand neighborhood centers like those in Parkside and Munjoy Hill to other neighborhoods. He would look to bolster public safety by increasing the number of police cadets, where non-sworn staff patrol the streets and use radios to call in suspicious and illegal activity.
Democrat Ralph Carmona, 60, said neighborhood associations could benefit from a more standardized approach, so they can be better integrated into the planning process. He said he has met with four different associations and "none of them feel effective."
As an example, Carmona cited Walnut Street on Munjoy Hill, which the city turned into a one-way street, only to reverse course later after public opposition.
While he would identify community leaders and rely on them to get feedback from the neighborhoods, Carmona said he would also attend neighborhood meetings on a regular, even quarterly, basis.
City Councilor Jill Duson, a 57-year-old Democrat, said people shouldn't have to "light the torches and storm the castle" to get the city to listen. The mayor needs to be accessible in each neighborhood, she said.
To do that, Duson said she would hold formal coffee talks in each neighborhood, continue to attend community events and keep talking with residents she meets at the grocery store. She would also make her schedule available online, so people would know where to find her.
Duson said she would also call a summit of neighborhood associations to solicit feedback and develop an action plan, to which both she and the groups would be held accountable.
City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who is the council's last appointed mayor, said he would make sure each neighborhood is well represented on the city manager's advisory council and would meet with it regularly.
In addition to being available at City Hall, Mavodones said he would like to also hold neighborhood walks, possibly with the Police Department's senior lead officers, to speak with people who may not be active in their neighborhoods.
Christopher Vail (unenrolled) said the city has "dropped the ball" in getting public input, which has lead people to feel "disconnected" and "intimidated by City Hall." He said the city is only having a one-way conversation too late in the process, when a two-way conversation is needed earlier.
In addition to neighborhood organizations, Vail, 40, said he'd meet with representatives of other interests, like the homeless, ethnic groups and others, as though they were their own associations.
Vail, a native of Peaks Island, said he understands islanders' concerns about paying high taxes and receiving fewer services. He said the city needs to listen to those concerns, like other neighborhoods, and show that it's being responsive.
"Once people see progress, they tend to get on board," he said.
Richard Dodge, 59, said he would listen to residents' concerns, but would be careful to separate needs from wants. He thinks the city should concentrate efforts on public safety and helping the elderly, who sometimes must chose between mortgage payments and medication.
But Dodge, a Republican, said the city can't help unless it has revenue from economic development. He lamented that a proposal to build a new civic center near the Back Bay Tower was squashed years ago by neighborhood opposition.
Democrat Peter Bryant, 68, said neighborhoods could be strengthened by encouraging residents to organize clean-ups of small brooks and parks. He would also encourage community yard sales to build community. He said the city should do more to inform residents about issues at City Hall by posting notices in corner stores.
Hamza Haadoow (unenrolled) said the city does a good job of collecting community feedback, but is not really reaching all stakeholders in the city. Rather than relying on news outlets to relay official information, more direct contact with neighborhood and business leaders is needed, the 37-year-old said.
Charles Bragdon (unenrolled), 43, said he would call for a "big workshop" with neighborhood associations, including the islands, so they all will have an equal voice. He said he would take core ideas from that meeting and make them a bigger part of economic development and neighborhood stabilization plans.
This article was updated on Sept. 28 to correct an error. Charles Bragdon is unenrolled in a political party.