pnms-frank City Council fiddles while Portland sinks
Everyone agreed that the 89-year-old Maine State Pier needed repair. Everyone agreed that Portland could not afford to pay for the work itself. The city didn't have the revenue even before the economy collapsed. Almost everyone agreed that it made sense to have someone else repair and maintain the pier in exchange for the rights to develop and operate it for a term of years.
But that was the extent of the agreement. The entire process of getting a developer to do the work was plagued with problems, infighting and controversy, much of it along party lines.
At the outset, the City Council had to exempt the city from its working waterfront restrictions to allow for the type of non-marine-related use that would be profitable enough to attract a developer. This understandably generated resentment among other waterfront owners, who didn't think it fair of the city to exempt itself while continuing to prevent them from making more profitable use of their properties.
Councilor Jim Cohen recused himself from the decision-making process because one of his law partners was consulting for one of the two developers competing to win the project. Apparently, he did so to avoid a conflict of interest. While that may have been principled, it reduced the number of councilors voting from nine to eight, and increased the chances of a deadlock.
Accusations of conflicts of interest followed. So did stalemate. Councilor Nick Mavodones was supposedly conflicted because his employer, Casco Bay Lines, might gain from the project. Council candidate (now Councilor) Dory Waxman was supposedly conflicted because she had worked for Ocean Properties.
There were intimations that the fix was in, favoring Ocean Properties, because of all the Democratic heavyweights lined up on its side. There were accusations that the process was capricious because Ocean Properties was given extensions and allowed to modify its proposal after seeing the competition's.
The council ultimately deadlocked, primarily along party lines. The stalemate was only broken by the November 2007 election of a third Green Party member, John Anton, who gave The Olympia Cos. faction a majority. That begged the question of why we need a council at all if the people are, effectively, going to have to make every major decision on Election Day.
The Olympia faction was unimpressed by Ocean Properties' ability to fund the project on its own. It found Olympia more responsive to community input and it preferred Olympia's design. It was not concerned about Olympia's need for financing or questions about title to the sea floor on which the pier rests.
Payback was swift and the economy was harsh. Mayor Ed Suslovic paid for his mega-birth monkey-wrench and lack of fealty to his party's line. He was targeted for defeat and portrayed as irresponsible. The solidly Democratic legislative delegation from Portland refused to lift a finger to help Olympia solve the title problem that impeded its financing. The economy crashed in October and Olympia was done. Ocean Properties had moved on. The pier continues to deteriorate.
In the wake of this fiasco, some have called for more process. I disagree. This process has been going on since at least October 2006, when the city issued a request for proposals. We don't need more process. We need action. Someone has to make the tough choices between what we want and what we can have. Those choices may not be popular, but they are necessary.
Over the past few years, Portland's supposedly nonpartisan City Council has struggled with several other important decisions, such as the need to do something about Clifford Elementary School. Those struggles have exposed the fallacy of nonpartisan government. It would be better to have a political structure that acknowledges human nature's tendency to be social, tribal, partisan – and one that harnesses those forces for good.
One of the virtues of a multi-part form of government is that some branches can be more political than others. Legislative branches tend to be more political. Legislators get a sense of the public will in campaigns and by holding hearings, and translate it into broad, general terms.
Executive branches implement their legislature's acts. They are relatively insulated from the pressures of popular opinion. That distance allows executives to take direction from their legislature and combine that direction with a relatively dispassionate assessment of the facts in order to get things done.
It's better than endless frustration.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee. His column is published monthly.