Election: Rich challenges Costa in Portland City Council District 4

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PORTLAND — Incumbent City Councilor Justin Costa is being opposed for a second term in District 4 by Kim Rich, who is making her first run for elected office.

Costa, 34, of 11 Sawyer St., is 34, single, with no children, and works as a staff accountant with Auto Europe.

Rich, 58, of 65 Copley Woods Circle, is married, and does not have children.

Costa and Rich were asked their opinions on four referendum questions that will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

They include a $64 million bond and a $32 million bond to rebuild four or two city elementary schools, respectively; a cap on annual rent increases at a combination of increases in the Consumer Price Index and local property taxes, and zoning reform that would allow people who live within 500 feet of a proposed zoning change to block the request.

Candidates were also asked their views on the City Charter and relationship between the mayor, city manager and council; how they might improve the council’s responsiveness to constituents, and whether petty crimes and disturbances are harming quality of life in the city.

Council District 4 extends north from Back Cove through East Deering and out along Stevens and Allen avenues. Council terms are for three years and the elections are run without party affiliations.

Costa

Costa replaced Councilor Cheryl Leeman in 2014, after serving six years on the School Board.

“When you look at housing, education, property taxes, addiction crises, there are a huge number of complex issues that need people who know about them,” he said.

His support for a bond to rebuild and repair Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche schools dates to leading the School Board Finance Committee.

“If we don’t authorize right now, we will delay and end up spending more money,” he said.

Costa said the alternative – funding repairs at two schools while seeking state funding for other school projects – is illusory.

“I think it is important to understand we are going to have a number on a list,” he said, adding he is unsure how low a state placement would be to restart a local bond process.

Costa said he is still evaluating the Fair Rent and the Give Neighborhoods A Voice referendums, but is wary of both because citizens’ initiatives passed by voters cannot be amended by councilors for five years.

“It is a high bar for me to support them because of (that),” he said.

Costa has criticized Mayor Ethan Strimling’s approach to working with councilors and City Manager Jon Jennings, and said the contentious relationships have been a detriment to the city.

“I think what is happening is, we are dealing with really complex issues and you have to bring people together and have trust in your colleagues,” Costa said. “I have to emphasize at the end of the day, there are three appointed officials and nine elected officials and 11 of 12 of us get along very well.”

Costa said the governing model with a mayor, council and city manager works in other regional cities.

“It is just going to be about rebuilding trust. I think Jon is a very good manager with the trust of most the members of the council,” he said.

There may be room for improvement, but Costa said council responsiveness needs definition.

“It is important to differentiate between people asking about issues and getting help, versus the type of things people will bring forward about how every time the council does not agree with them, they are not being heard,” he said.

A closer look at policy is needed, Costa added.

“Putting things forward to stir the pot is not effective,” he said. “If policies have not been researched or violate state statute, you are not helping, you are just fostering the sense of disenfranchisement.”

The complex web of housing, substance use disorders and unmet mental health needs are keys to understanding quality of life issues, Costa said.

“We know what we can do in the short term is not really going to solve the problem,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out, and shelter providers are not mental health care providers.”

A new approach to homeless shelters is a “core issue that needs to happen,” Costa said, as is improving housing options.

Rich

“I was energized by the (2016) presidential election season, it got my attention and I was actually a little disappointed by the rhetoric,” Rich said.

A former administrative assistant at Maine Medical Center, Rich said she “recalibrated” her priorities as 2017 began, and also decided Costa should not be unopposed in the race.

“We should encourage everyone to get involved, wherever they feel called, whenever they can,” Rich said.

Rich also supports the $64 million school bond.

“The rebuild of four schools has made sense, it is almost a gut-level thing,” she said. “I would not put my faith in the state coming in to help the most needy schools. I feel it postpones them and it is not fair.”

Rich also supports the Fair Rent ordinance referendum.

“I feel it is one of the primary issues of our times. I hear it at the doors from parents whose kids are still living at home,” she said.

The seven-year sunset clause for the proposed ordinance and statistics on rental increases in Portland since 2011 are keys for her support, Rich said.

“Nothing is going to be perfectly fair, and I don’t like to curtail the market, but I see this as well thought out,” she said.

Rich has worked to ensure the solar farm at the old Ocean Avenue landfill near her home is safely constructed. She said she values neighborhood activism and providing expertise to city officials, but opposes the zoning referendum.

“I oppose it because I think it is a democracy issue,” Rich said. “It shuts down a lot of discussion and seems very restrictive.”

A July 24 city council meeting gave Rich an understanding of the sometimes contentious relationship between Strimling, Jennings and councilors and how it overshadowed government.

At the meeting, Rich and others spoke briefly about the solar farm, and then watched a protracted argument on when and how to move inclusionary zoning proposals made by Strimling to the Housing Committee led by Councilor Jill Duson.

“I feel this was an awful, awful distraction,” she said of the squabbles, adding she thought the city charter delineating the roles of mayor, council and city manager needed more clarity.

The meeting contributed to her overall sense that council demeanor needed some improvement, Rich said.

“I admire anyone serving, and the city council especially, it is not a job you could live on,” she said. “It is truly a service to your community.”

Yet she “did not see enough appreciation for the people who stepped forward (at council meetings) and may have been anxious about doing it.”

Rich said the quality of life concerns can be found off the city’s peninsula as well, and are exacerbated by a failure to take a longer look at substance use disorder and mental health services at the state and federal levels.

“Everyone is affected by the opioid crisis. They don’t feel unsafe, but I do hear about it,” she said of discussions with district voters.

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

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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.