South Portland mayor: 'We need to be more creative, begin a dialogue'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — In a tearful speech at Monday’s inauguration, incoming Mayor Patti Smith spoke of the need for unity, inclusion and empathy across the city. 

At the Dec. 5 event, City Clerk Emily Scully swore in returning City Councilor Maxine Beecher, first-time Councilor Susan Henderson and new School Board members Jenn Kirk and Otis Thompson.

Smith presented outgoing Mayor Tom Blake with his portrait, which will hang in the council chambers alongside paintings of the city’s other former mayors. Blake, who served on the council for nine years, was also presented with a commemorative plaque, his gavel and a book about the history of Maine.

Blake, a history buff and instructor at Southern Maine Community College, often referenced the history of the city in council discussions and decisions. 

“Tom always enlightened us on history – he came from a historical background, and we will always remember his historic remarks and bringing us to the future through history, and because you’re an avid, avid history fan, and I thought you might use this,” Smith said. 

Smith, who previously served as mayor in 2011, moved to the city from Michigan in 2004. At Monday’s inauguration, she thanked her longtime companion and wife, Susan Chase, her family, friends, and co-workers at Scratch Baking Co.

One of her primary goals as mayor over the coming year, Smith said Wednesday, will be “to find balance” in all the decisions the council makes.

Selected unanimously by councilors Monday to begin her second nonconsecutive term as mayor, Smith said during her mayoral speech that not too long ago, the perception of city government could be compared to a vending machine – “residents had little to say about the kind of services they would receive,” which would be pre-programmed and very limited, she said. 

But government and the input residents now have in how it functions are “evolving very rapidly – we now have high expectations of our elected representatives,” and residents “expect and deserve to be collaborators in shaping our community,” Smith said. 

“In the coming year, let us as a council strive for openness to new ideas and for thoughtful consideration for the ideas presented to us,” she said.  

Smith urged the council to “look beyond the obvious list of stakeholders,” and to welcome those with new interests. She also recognized the role teachers have in the community, and acknowledged that, for many people, “values and behaviors” can be traced back to lessons learned from educators. 

Smith stressed that empathy is crucial in creating a functional, productive government.

“I invite us to consider what it might feel like to go to elementary school without breakfast, or dinner the night before …,” she said. “Can we consider that a house you have lived in for the past 60 years has a tax bill to pay that is impossible to pay on a fixed income?

“Can we consider what it feels like to be in South Portland as a refugee from a war-torn country? … May we consider the difficulty in learning English as a fifth language? May we consider the weight of responsibility a daughter or a son experiences in trying to keep a fifth-generation business profitable?”

“May we consider the daily challenges of a special education teacher who recognizes the serious impact and detrimental effects on his or her students when resources are restricted or significantly diminished?” Smith said. “It is likely that we know many of these people. I ask that we bring this awareness to all we do as councilors, as neighbors, to bring understanding and compassion to the issues brought before us.”

Smith said her goal is to solicit as much public input as possible in issues that come before the council. To make herself available, Smith might start meeting with the public through “Coffee with the Mayor,” when, on a weekly or monthly schedule, she will go to a local coffee shop and invite constituents to stop and talk to her informally. 

She intends to float the idea with other councilors, too. “I personally think we should all be in the nooks and crannies of South Portland,” Smith said. 

“I think we all share that responsibility of getting out of our comfort zones and reaching out to people,” the mayor said. “We need to be more creative in how we find each other and begin a dialogue.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

At inauguration ceremoinies Dec. 5 in South Portland, Mayor Patti Smith presented former Mayor Tom Blake with a portrait, his gavel, a commemorative plaque and a book about Maine history. 

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.