PORTLAND, Maine — It will be late August before the slate of mayoral candidates in Maine’s largest city is set, and perhaps it will be even later before the average Portlander really begins paying attention to the race.
But the key issues that will face the next mayor are in place, and the city’s residents are already talking about them.
There’s the rise in homelessness and the increasing visibility of the city’s destitute, whether they’re setting up tent cities or panhandling on Congress Street. There are ideological clashes over development and about what the Portland of the future should look like. There’s the increasing cost of living in a city where shifting economic dynamics catapult some residents to prosperity while leaving others far behind.
These issues and more will await the next man or woman chosen to be mayor in the second election since the city in 2010 turned to a ranked-choice voting system to elect its mayor. The Bangor Daily News spoke recently with Portlanders about what they want to see in the city’s next leader.
Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, says the next mayor will inherit a city that’s “having its moment.” Unemployment is low, new businesses open regularly, and the hospitality industry — hotels, restaurants, nightlife — are regularly celebrated by local, regional and national media.
Still, he said, there are challenges.
“We’ve got issues around development,” he said. “There are conflicts going on, and not everyone is on the same page when it comes to what is next for the city. There’s a need to do more to bring the community together.”
Recent reports based on information from the real estate listing company Zillow show that by May 2015, Portland rental prices — already among the highest in the state — had ballooned 17.5 percent over the previous year.
The need for more housing — specifically affordable housing — is acute, but development can be tricky business in Portland.
Several proposed development projects — including mixed-use residential and business proposals in the Bayside neighborhood and in the city’s waterfront district — have languished in a bureaucratic miasma as groups that oppose them have sprung up to fight the developers.
Those groups have waged public campaigns, staged protests and even sued to block major proposed developments, which they say are out of line with the city’s character.
For Steven Scharf, a fiscal conservative who keeps close tabs on Portland City Hall, the adversarial reaction some developers have faced in Portland is the single largest issue facing the city.
He called it “NIMBYism” — a term used to describe an anti-development attitude summed up by the slogan “Not in My Backyard.”
“This kind of NIMBYism makes developers not want to develop in Portland,” Scharf said. “They’ll find other places. That’s my biggest concern. That’s going on, and we have to deal with it. We have to fight that back. I think the next mayor could tackle it by being forceful in saying he won’t put up with it.”
Homelessness on the rise
Early on any given morning, homeless men and women can be seen waking up after sleeping on the ground in Deering Oaks, the signature park at the heart of the city. Reports in local media described more homeless people living in tent cities at the outskirts of town.
Nearly every person interviewed for this story counted the growing homeless population and the proliferation of panhandlers among the top issues facing the city today.
One of them was Leska Tomash, 40, who spoke to the Bangor Daily News recently while playing with her 3-year-old son, Henry, in Monument Square.
Tomash said the city should do more to tackle homelessness.
“It would be nice to see more awareness around that, some more resources for people struggling,” she said. “I wonder if it is representative of there not being enough services.”
Roger Goodoak leads the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, which distributes water, clothing and other essential supplies to former servicemen and women — and often to other homeless people he finds along the way.
“We need to address this,” Goodoak said. “We need more counselors. We need more proactive people in the homeless community.”
It’s not just about helping people in need, either. Some Portlanders feel the panhandlers who work the medians and sidewalks downtown are bad for Portland’s economy, too. Jonathan Silin, a 19-year-old resident, said he worried beggars would drive away the tourists and visitors who are Portland’s lifeblood.
Morgan Ditmars, 20, said it’s bigger than just homelessness. Poverty needs to be tackled head-on, she said. She hoped the city’s recent increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour — championed by Mayor Michael Brennan and recently enacted by the City Council — will spur economic growth enough so the city can spend more time and money on initiatives to help poor people.
“It’s not that it’s being ignored, but I feel like there are so many people on the streets, and so many people looking for jobs,” she said. “It’s something growing, and not being addressed.”
Can the mayor help?
While the top elected official in Portland will continue to face all these issues and more, there is some question about just what the mayor can do to solve any of them.
The mayor is weak by design. The mayor receives one vote in the City Council and controls its agenda. But he or she does not wield control over the city’s departments and agencies and, while he or she can veto the city’s budget, the mayor does not have any direct control over Portland’s purse strings.
The charter amendment that created the mayor, approved by voters in 2010, specifically states that the day-to-day operation of City Hall rests with the hired city manager, not the elected mayor. The mayor is charged, instead, with setting a “vision” for the city, working with the manager to achieve that vision, and representing the city in Augusta and elsewhere.
For some, that’s not enough power.
Goodoak, the homeless veterans advocate, said the next mayor should fight for expanded powers.
“He should have a little more teeth, a little more authority, to say, ‘This is an issue the public has brought up and we need to look at it,’” Goodoak said.
Expansion of the mayor’s authority would require further amendments to the city charter, which would be a drastic step, given the city has only held one election under the current system.
“Right now I’m hearing people are looking to continue to let this model work for a while,” said Hall.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.