SOUTH PORTLAND — First-term City Councilor Brad Fox has been absent or left early from at least a dozen – or about 11 percent – of all council meetings and workshops in his 13 months as an elected official.
Fox is not in the official council photo on the city’s website, and he did not attend the inauguration last November. He also missed the council’s annual Freedom of Access Act workshop, and the annual goal-setting workshop.
Fox has left abruptly in the middle of at least two meetings and one workshop, each time after an issue he advocated for failed to get council approval. Most recently, earlier this month, Fox left after his proposed appointment of a Muslim Somali woman to the Civil Service Commission was rejected.
As a result, he missed a subsequent vote that night on the decision to restore two-way traffic on Ocean Street in Knightville.
From where Fox sits, there’s only one way: his.
Critics say it is important for councilors to admit blame and error when necessary, and to show humility, and they say Fox has demonstrated his reluctance to do so. In some situations, he has balked at adhering to council procedures, despite being publicly harangued for his noncompliance.
At the end of a council meeting that lasted more than five hours Monday, March 21, Jeff Selser, of Summit Street, scolded Fox.
“If I don’t like the way something comes out, if I don’t like a vote, I get to go home,” he said. “But you know what? When you’re an elected official and you don’t like the way a vote turns out, you don’t get to go home. You stay and govern because that’s what you were elected to do.
“We want our elected officials to govern, so govern,” Selser said. “And when you govern, govern in the public eye, so that everyone understands what’s going on. But that’s not what’s happening here.
“A pattern where a councilor is abdicating his responsibilities and storming out of the room because he’s pissed off that he didn’t get his way is inappropriate.”
City councilors are required to attend 75 percent of “all meetings” according to the Code of Ordinances. The requirement doesn’t include workshops, because attendance is only taken during official meetings, City Clerk Emily Carrington said.
Over coffee at Cia Cafe in Knightville last week, Fox defended his decision to leave the March 7 meeting.
“I just didn’t think I could think about traffic,” he said, after his proposed Civil Service Commission appointment was rejected in favor of reappointing a white man to the panel. Fox said the council’s vote perpetuates “structural racism” in city government.
The conflict captured the difference between how most councilors see their jobs, and how Fox sees it.
“It’s about doing something to change what happens,” he said. “I do what I have to do to bring attention to the issues that need attention.”
People will criticize his actions no matter what they are, Fox said, “because that’s what people do.”
Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, last week said there is no formal MMA recommendation when it comes to attendance policies; instead, municipalities tend to adopt standards on an as-needed basis. Neither Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook nor Falmouth have attendance requirements for councilors, probably because there has been no reason to adopt standards.
Fox’s laissez faire approach to council standards goes beyond attendance.
As the City Council continues to defer adoption of a new, more extensive set of rules regarding councilors’ use of electronic communication, Fox admits he is still using his personal email account as a primary means to communicate about council business.
Fox has also stopped using his city-issued iPad, and instead uses personal devices. Criticism of this behavior leaves him shrugging his shoulders.
“I don’t have a problem being criticized about anything,” he said.
Last year, in violation of city policy and the spirit of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, Fox routinely used his personal email to try to persuade other councilors to join his opposition to the pending NGL Supply Terminal Co. application. Fox said he chooses not to comply with rules prohibiting the use of his personal email because he doesn’t see the merit in the city or state policies.
“If I was a city employee, I would always use a city (email) server. But to me, it’s just a different thing,” he said. “I’m just a citizen-elected guy, and I’m not trying to conduct any secret negotiations.”
But what about the argument that “secret negotiations,” kept from the public’s eye because they are not on the city computer system, are exactly what the city policy and state law are trying to prevent?
Being required to communicate only on one city-assigned email server, Fox said, “just makes it harder for us to do our jobs. I just don’t agree with the policies.”
“I’ve been concentrating on important issues, not emails,” he added.
Fox said the propane issue, his environmental advocacy, and his concerns about rent and minimum wage are “what’s important to people in this town, in general, and especially to the people in my neighborhood.”
As for the concern over a lack of due process and ignoring the public’s right to know, “if that’s what’s important to you, then good,” Fox said. “The emails are not important to me.”
Mayor Tom Blake rejects the assertion that Fox’s obstinacy, the lack of consequences or accountability for his behavior, and the divisive, convoluted handling of charged issues, have contributed to a deterioration of the public trust and perception that the City Council is increasingly dysfunctional.
“To hear people in South Portland say we’re dysfunctional, messed up, inept, I don’t agree with that,” Blake said last month. “No government is perfect.
“We have a lot of problems federally, (at the state level) and locally – no matter where you go, people aren’t happy with American government,” he said.
All things considered, in a city that’s the fourth-largest in the state, with an $80 million budget, 900 employees and a wide variety of resources and industry, “we run a pretty good business,” Blake said. “We’re not going to get it right every time. When you have that level of diversity, issues are going to arise.”
However, the city’s new Economic Development Plan, which was formally adopted by the council earlier this week, notes the city’s “political climate poses a threat to the long-standing perception of South Portland as a desirable place for businesses to locate.”
“Several people believe that insufficient communication, transparency and community engagement around development proposals contributes to distrust and resident opposition,” the report stated.
Blake said he doesn’t “consider it serious” that this perception exists. No matter where one ventures, he said, “American citizenry is unhappy with government at any (and) every level.”
But Blake also admitted the first couple months this year “certainly have been rough,” and said he has had to “constantly” remind some councilors of the “big picture.”
In a New Year’s Eve letter to the council, Blake called for more respect and understanding among councilors.
“Our actions and how we handle issues are directly impacting how the public responds. We set the tone, and we need to set a more positive tone, councilors,” he said. “I have heard from numerous members of the public that we are not doing a good job when it comes to professionalism, respect and understanding.”
Blake blames the council’s problems on the friction generated by what he calls “petroleum versus the people.”
Most of the council’s biggest conflicts in the past few years – the Clear Skies Ordinance and ongoing litigation with the Portland Pipe Line Corp., the controversial handling of NGL Supply Terminal Co., and now the adoption of amendments to the fire code ordinance – have been the result of the city traveling down the “dirty-energy route,” Blake said.
“If you take away all of these conflicts,” he said, “we’re not that different than other cities.”
Without the NGL application, Blake suggested, the city wouldn’t have had to deal with Fox’s controversial use of private email.
But others aren’t willing to blame the council’s problems on the petroleum industry, and are worried about the path the council seems to be following.
With “such an erosion of due process, the standards have been so lowered that we now splash through shallow waters to get from one side of the pool to the other and don’t even know that we’re not swimming,” Councilor Claude Morgan said Tuesday.
“As a councilor you don’t get to pick and choose the issues that come in front of you. You have to govern them all,” he said, referring to Fox’s early meeting exits.
Given Fox’s attendance record, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if he leaves the City Council before his term expires. And that could happen.
Fox is the only candidate in the June Democratic primary that will pick a challenger to incumbent Republican state Rep. Kevin J. Battle in House District 33. He said this week he hasn’t decided if he will try to do both jobs if South Portland voters also elect him to the House of Representatives.
Fox said he would like to do both, but would only remain on the council if doing so is “in the best interest of the community.” Before making any decision, he said, he wants to “get a better feel for what my constituents and others think.”
Until the election, however, he sees no reason to change the way he works as a councilor.
“If I thought that I was doing something that’s really wrong, of course I would apologize to the community,” Fox said. “But based on what the community tells me, at least in my neighborhood, they’re pretty happy.
“I know that that’s probably not the case with everyone in the city, and I know I’m a little different than other councilors. We’re all trying to do the best we can.”
South Portland City Councilor Brad Fox: “I do what I have to do to bring attention to the issues that need attention.”
The City Council page portrait on South Portland’s website includes City Manager Jim Gailey, left rear, Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett, second from right rear, City Clerk Emily Carrington, front right, and six of seven city councilors. Councilor Brad Fox is absent.