SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors come and go, but Russ Lunt is forever.
Since his retirement from the Public Works department in 2012, where he worked for 34 years, Lunt, 57, has attended more than 100 City Council and Planning Board meetings and workshops. Just for kicks.
“Here’s the thing: I’ve always wanted to be involved,” Lunt said Tuesday at Council Chambers in City Hall.
After retirement, and no longer feeling restricted by a conflict of interest between being an interested citizen and a city employee, the Brigham Street resident said he cultivated his love for the local government process.
He still remembers the feeling after he attended his first council meeting.
“I go, ‘Wow, did I just discover something,'” he said. “I knew this was my calling.”
Since then, Lunt said, “It has turned into a nice little hobby for me.”
City Hall meetings can sometimes occupy up to three nights a week, but Lunt can be found in the second row on the aisle on the left side of Council Chambers, with a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand.
His status as a fixture at meetings has earned him some obscure perks.
For a time last year, when SPC-TV would replay council meetings, producers who grew to know Lunt’s face would add his name at the bottom of the screen when he rose to address the council at the public podium – a distinction normally reserved for city councilors and staff, but never members of the public.
Lunt has been told that councilors refer to him behind the scenes as the eighth councilor. Before a meeting in early April, when councilors arrived early to pose for a group picture, Councilor Tom Blake asked, “Russ, shouldn’t you be up here, too?”
Lunt revels in those small, but meaningful pleasures. “I don’t go looking for those things. They just happen,” he said, “and I think it’s great.”
He is sincere and effusive with his gratitude for the time city councilors and city staff devote to the city.
“I’m just enthralled with the process and the way things come together,” he said. “It’s wonderful; I love it. I’m telling you, I do.”
Not only that, but Lunt rises to speak during the citizen discussion portion of each council meeting, sometimes to just say that he thinks councilors are doing a good job.
“I like to give a positive beat to it,” he said. “And I’m very sincere about the praise. I know it’s a hard job.”
Mayor Linda Cohen said neither she nor the councilors accept their positions expecting to be praised, and while Lunt might not always agree with the action taken by the council, “he is respectful in how he voices his dissent with our decisions.”
“It’s great when Russ or anyone says they appreciate our service, and we do hear that from others, just not as frequently as we do from Russ,” Cohen said.
In many ways, Lunt said, his time in public works, and contributing directly to projects like the Greenbelt Walkway and Thomas Knight Park, can help him provide important insight on certain issues.
That, along with his love for the democratic process, contributes to his desire to stay involved.
“I like the procedure,” he said. “… Talking like this and going to meetings, this is my way of giving back to my community.”
At the end of the day, Lunt said he likes knowing that he actively exercises his right as a citizen to have a say and be in the know.
“I’m fortunate that I can express myself that way and (hopefully) get other people involved in the conversation,” he said. “South Portland’s just a dot on the map, but look what goes on here.”
As for whether he’ll ever consider running for City Council, Lunt said not so much.
He was approached by people who encouraged him to run in the last election, he said, but he wasn’t interested.
Shrugging his shoulders, Lunt said, “I just love being in the audience.”
South Portland resident Russ Lunt, in his usual seat in City Council Chambers at City Hall.