Retiring Portland City Councilor John Anton: 'I didn't want to get complacent'

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PORTLAND — While two political veterans have already taken out nomination papers for a three-year, at-large seat on the City Council, one name that won’t appear on the ballot is that of the councilor they hope to replace, John Anton.

Anton has said publicly that he will not seek re-election for a third consecutive term. So far, announced candidates for the seat are Jon Hinck, a former state representative who failed in a 2012 bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and Wellington Lyons, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign last year for the at-large seat held by Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr.

In an interview Monday, Anton said he endorses Lyons for the seat, noting the candidate’s “energy and perspective as an entrepreneur.” Anton also explained his decision not to run and some of his opinions about the council’s work.

“This felt like the right time (to leave the council),” Anton said. “I didn’t want to get complacent. The council needs people who are always putting out energy and looking at issues with a critical eye.”

He added that it’s been difficult to juggle the demands of serving on the council with his work and family commitments. Anton, 48, is a housing and urban planning consultant who lives in the West End with his wife and two children.

Since first winning election to the council in 2007, Anton has seen Portland’s governing body – and the city – undergo dramatic changes.

They include the 2011 election of Michael Brennan as Portland’s first popularly elected mayor in 88 years. City management also has been transformed, with seven new senior officials starting work in the past two years, including the city manager, police chief, fire chief and school superintendent.

All the change has created shifting and sometimes uncertain relationships among the council, the mayor’s office and city staff, according to Anton.

“The dynamics have changed,” he said. “We’re still kind of exploring and developing the relationships, and it’s challenging.”

One of the challenges for councilors is that they are policy-makers, not policy-implementers.

“You’re a councilor, you’re not (city) management,” Anton said. The distinction is precisely the issue with which councilors wrestled last year in a controversial attempt to ban the city’s purchase of fuel derived from “tar sands” oil.

The proposed ban “commingles issues and administrative regulation,” Mavodones said in December. The council ultimately voted to reject the ban, but in May passed a resolution expressing “concern” about the possibility of transporting tar sands near Portland.

Beyond the relationships between councilors, the mayor and city management, the city needs to forge stronger relationships outside City Hall, Anton said. He mentioned the state-city partnership to rejuvenate the International Marine Terminal as an example of such relationships.

In 2009, the council voted to turn over operation of the terminal to the Maine Port Authority under a lease agreement. Since then, the once-dilapidated IMT on West Commercial Street has been modernized. And in March, freighters from Icelandic shipping company Eimskip began berthing there – the first European cargo ships to do so since 1980.

A similar type of partnership could help the city improve other aging infrastructure, including the Portland Ice Arena, Anton said.

He also urged the city to create a closer relationship between City Hall and the School Department, whose administration is often seen as nearly independent of control by the mayor, council or city manager.

“The fact that we have two, separate human resource and finance departments, for example, creates unnecessary division,” he said. “We need to get both sides more invested in the operations and decision-making of each other.”

While Anton said he feels potential changes like these are important for Portland’s future, he’s also proud of other changes that were made during his time on the council.

For example, he said he’s pleased with the way the city has accepted greater building density on the peninsula, as well as the “greater consciousness” of the need for public transit.

As the chairman of the council’s Finance Committee, he has also been acutely frustrated by the city’s fiscal challenges.

“The hardest thing is that, since I’ve been on the council, we’ve been in an operating environment of constriction,” he said. “It’s been hard on city staff morale, and council morale.”

Federal sequestration and conflict over Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed state budget created uncertainty and distraction during the city’s own budgeting process this year, he said. Meanwhile, the economic recession has resulted in some human services being unfunded at the time when the need for them has been greatest.

“That’s been painful to see,” he said.

Despite that, and the time commitments of the job, Anton said he’ll miss his work as a councilor. And he has some advice for his successor.

“Stay skeptical, stay in touch with why you ran, and don’t get seduced by an insider perspective,” he said. “Remember how things looked to you before you served on the council.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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Portland City Councilor John Anton