SOUTH PORTLAND — Pursuing alternative energy options, preserving open space, and overcoming divisiveness on the City Council were some of the issues discussed by the seven council candidates Tuesday night.
The Oct. 4 forum was hosted at City Hall by the South Portland Land Trust, and included all the candidates in this year’s election of two councilors: incumbent Councilor Maxine Beecher, Richard Carter, James Gilboy, Susan Henderson, Kate Lewis, Louis Maietta Jr. and Michael Pock.
The candidates are for Beecher’s seat, and a seat being vacated by Mayor Tom Blake, who will term out in November.
Members of the public had the option to ask candidates questions near the end of the forum, and Ross Little, of Day Street, asked whether the public could trust that each candidate, if elected, would be trustworthy and not beholden to outside groups.
“Last election cycle, we elected a couple of councilors whose objective it was to always vote in a block (and) to change the way the city does business,” Little said. “Before we elect any of you, are you affiliated with any other candidate?” he asked, and “can we trust each of you to use your independent judgment?”
Each of the candidates said promised trustworthiness, and that any affiliation with outside groups would be discarded if they are elected.
“There are two people on the council right now that are out of control,” Maietta, a former state representative, said. “I’m here on my own to make this city better.”
Henderson, who is affiliated with Protect South Portland, said she would distance herself from the group, but that it’s unrealistic to expect any candidate to discard their values if elected.
What the council needs, she said, “is to hear both sides of issues. I am who I am and I value listening to everyone. Our best decisions are going to be made when we take in diverse input.”
“We have a couple of councilors that seem to be on their own agenda,” said Carter, the current chairman of the School Board, who called himself a moderate. He said the council has displayed divisiveness, and said it prompted him to become a candidate.
Carter said he often gets asked by constituents why he would want to run for a seat on the council, when it seems to be so divided.
“The fact that people are concerned that people want to run for City Council in South Portland offends me,” he said.
Most of the Tuesday night forum focused on environmental issues and solutions.
When asked whether they support alternative energy options like solar power, geothermal heating and wind energy for city buildings and smaller commercial and residential buildings, the candidates’ opinions were varied.
Pock, a former councilor, said he supports alternative energy on the city side if it were “economical.”
Pock said what he does not support are measures like the energy benchmarking proposal included in the Mill Creek Master Plan that failed to gain traction with the Planning Board earlier this summer, but still must be vetted by the council.
The measure, proposed by Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, would make public annual water and energy use of city buildings, privately owned commercial buildings larger than 5,000 square feet, and residential buildings with 10 or more units, as an incentive to reduce consumption.
Even though the requirement would include monetary and licensing incentives for building owners, Planning Board members called the proposal invasive.
Pock said the requirement is “Orwellian.”
Only Henderson said she “maybe” would support the measure, depending on the specifics of the situation.
Gilboy, a former School Board member, said “there is a place for solar and wind energy throughout the city, but the key component is education.”
He also noted that alternative forms of energy are cost-prohibitive and not an option for everyone.
Candidates were also asked about the prioritization of open space across the city and how the council should go about balancing input from the public and retaining open space, versus selling it to developers.
Lewis, who is also vice president of the land trust, said the process must begin with drafting concrete guidelines for how the city makes those decisions.
She also said there must be a more concerted effort to engage the public on these decisions, to “get them in on the ground floor,” and have “more and earlier opportunities” for neighbors, neighborhoods and the general public to weigh in.
Carter agreed and said, “This is not a black-and-white issue; each parcel has to be looked at individually.”
Beecher, who called herself an environmentalist, said the act of preserving land comes down to adequate funding and tax dollars. She referenced the city’s land bank as a major asset in allowing the city to preserve land and said retaining open space is important.
“We need open space, so everybody can actually get outside and know and feel the environment,” she said.