PORTLAND — Mayor Ethan Strimling did not expect that a move to honor former City Manager John Menario Monday would be contentious.
“I thought it would be a sleepy agenda item,” Strimling said of renaming the plaza outside the Temple Street parking garage to John E. Menario Plaza.
But Councilors were unanimous in their support at the meeting for two public health measures that were also taken up.
Menario served from 1967 to 1976, and began his work in city government in 1962. Lobsterman Park, outside the Nickelodeon Theater, will keep its name and iconic waterman statue.
Councilor Jon Hinck was the sole opposing vote.
“One thing that is very apparent is, City Manager John Menario was a great leader,” Hinck said, but Menario’s role in urban renewal projects led to Hinck’s opposition.
There was also public criticism of Menario for the widening of Spring and Franklin streets while portions of neighborhoods were torn down. In recent years, new plans have been suggested or are being implemented to reverse those decisions.
“We don’t need another space named for an old white man, and that is exactly what we are doing,” former mayoral candidate Tom MacMillan said. He found it more appropriate to name the actual Temple Street garage for Menario.
While standing on his record of service, Menario noted the city was very different when he first went to work in City Hall in 1962, saying conditions were of “deterioration and blight.”
This was especially true of the Old Port, he said.
“Very few people went into that area in the daytime, even fewer went through at night,” Menario said.
Councilors Jill Duson, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau said his work encompassed more than the fates of Spring and Franklin streets and needed to be viewed in context.
“This man served our city well and implemented decisions made by our council at the time,” Duson said.
Ray noted the council documents contained six pages of achievements under Menario’s tenure.
“He closed the open burning dump in the West End, which deserves recognition.”
Thibodeau and Duson said they would both begin working on naming city spaces for people of color and women, specifically with former state Rep. Gerald Talbot and former Councilor Cheryl Leeman in mind. Talbot was the first African American elected to the Maine House and Leeman served District 4 for 30 years through 2014.
Holm Avenue resident Robert Hains made his first appearance at a council meeting in six months to speak in support of Menario.
“I don’t think there is a finer person than John Menario to start the new process of naming public spaces,” he said.
Councilors unanimous voiced their support for two public health measures. The first amends the municipal employee health insurance policies to include health care services for transgender employees, effective Jan. 1.
A vote to increase the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21 was also approved and goes into effect in 30 days.
The amendment covering employees was co-sponsored by the entire council and was moved forward by Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings after a meeting with members of the LGBTQ community.
The policy amendment was supported by speakers that included state Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who is also executive director of EqualityMaine; and Gia Drew, speaking on behalf of the Maine Transgender Network.
Before voting in favor of the amendment, Councilor Justin Costa apologized that the council action had taken so long and asked for more guidance to ensure the LGBTQ community needs are met.
No one spoke in opposition to the tobacco amendment, which covers smoking materials, smokeless tobacco products and vaporizers and electronic cigarettes.
Among those speaking in favor were Casco Bay High School students and sisters Tiana and Sophie Urey. They said the change would help prevent their peers from getting tobacco and developing addictions that could take years to break and possibly have severe health consequences
“My only regret is, we didn’t do this sooner,” Councilor Ed Suslovic said, but he conceded. “I’m not under the illusion this will prevent every teen from accessing tobacco.”
Former City Manager John Menario thanks councilors Monday night in City Hall after the plaza on Temple Street outsiude the parking garage was renamed in his honor.