SOUTH PORTLAND — Diversity on city committees and divisiveness on the City Council were among topics discussed by council candidates at an Oct. 13 forum.
The forum, held at the Betsy Ross House on Preble Street, included six of the seven candidates who are seeking election to the council on Nov. 8. Incumbent Councilor Maxine Beecher was absent because the City Council was interviewing city manager candidates.
The other candidates – Richard Carter, James Gilboy, Susan Henderson, Kate Lewis, Louis Maietta Jr. and Michael Pock – took questions from residents. The candidates are running for two at-large seats: Beecher’s and one being vacated by Mayor Tom Blake, who is termed out.
Caroline Hendry of Knightville asked the candidates how South Portland can be more inclusive of immigrants and people of other races and nationalities.
Over the past year the City Council has gone through two diversity training sessions, following a conflict in March over a committee appointment.
Pock said South Portland is very diverse and is accepting of all people. He said if people want to serve on committees, they should apply.
“All you have to do is put in an application blank and apply for the job,” he said.
Gilboy noted that not many non-white people are applying for positions on boards and committees.
“From the looks of it, Caucasians are the ones that are involved with politics,” he said. “Is that right? Probably not.”
Nearly 10 percent of South Portland’s approximately 25,000 residents are non-white, but of the city’s nearly 300 paid, full-time employees, all but four – or about 99 percent – are white. Also, the city’s three most influential volunteer and elected boards are 100 percent white.
Gilboy said elected officials need to do more to encourage minorities to participate in local government.
“As a city councilor, you have to extend that hand to bring diverse people into the discussion and how much they want to be involved, they have to decide. … You can’t force something on somebody.”
Lewis agreed that the city needs to do more outreach and said forums should be held in various neighborhoods.
“I think we have an entire population of people in the Red Bank and West End neighborhood who are under-represented in the city government and are probably somewhat excluded because of where they are geographically in the city,” she said.
Maietta disagreed and said “they’ve got to want to come to us.” He said not enough people are running for positions and noted only one candidate is running for the two open seats on the School Board this year.
“You’d think with all the kids we got going to the schools from all the different ethnics, that parents from them were going to jump on it, and we can’t get anybody to fill the seats,” Maietta said.
Carter and Henderson both talked in general about accepting people.
“If at the heart of it we understand that we’re all people, we’re going to be a much better community for it,” Carter said.
Henderson said more should be done for immigrants moving to South Portland.
“As a start, they need affordable housing and that makes more opportunities for people to come here,” she said.
Another resident asked the candidates whether the behavior of current councilors has been productive or disruptive.
“The difference is between arguing and debating, and if you watch the City Council right now, there’s a lot of arguing going on,” Carter said. “They’re not debating.”
Maietta agreed that “there’s a lot of disagreements and arguments,” which Henderson echoed.
“I think there’s been rudeness on the council,” she said. “There’s been anger.”
Pock said councilors must put their differences aside and focus on what the city needs.
“We need less infighting and more work going on,” he said.
Gilboy said the councilors are thinking too much about their own desires.
“I think the City Council gets sidestepped by those certain agendas that derail everything from moving forward,” he said.
Lewis agreed that when councilors feel strongly about an issue and stop listening to others, they are less productive. She also said, however, that councilors care a lot.
“When I watch the council, I see seven people who are very passionate about the future of South Portland,” she said.
The next City Council candidates forum is scheduled for Oct. 19 from 7-8:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall.