Belfast City Hall Credit: Nick McCrea

Amid a period of controversy with their own mayor, last week the Belfast City Council voted to end the city’s involvement with the Maine Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development.

The coalition is currently made up of nine other mayors representing municipalities from Portland to Bangor, who, through the coalition, advocate for common interests each town or city faces, ranging from general assistance to the opioid crisis.

So what does it mean for a municipality when it withdraws from the group? It loses an opportunity to be part of a collective voice advocating at the state level.

“What we’re doing is advancing the interests of these communities. It’s a way to highlight the issues that are important to them. So if they’re a member, they’re getting those amplified,” said Rick McCarthy, a consultant who has worked with the group since its founding.

The coalition started in 2012, born out of an idea honed by former Portland mayor Mike Brennan and former Bangor City Council chairman Cary Weston. In Bangor, the council chairman serves as mayor. Weston is still on the council, though he is no longer the chairman.

The two cities were facing similar problems, which at the time largely centered on state efforts to change the way it funds general assistance and reduce municipal revenue sharing, McCarthy said.

The founders “wanted to have a conversation with cities of like size about common interests,” said Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow, who has worked with the coalition since 2012 in her role as city manager. “We were able to, I believe, lock arms around issues of mutual concern regardless of political affiliation.”

Original members of the coalition included mayors of Bangor, Portland, Auburn, Augusta and Lewiston. The size of the group has fluctuated over the past six years, McCarthy said, with the number of municipalities being involved hovering around 10.

With Belfast now out of the mix, the group includes mayors from Bangor, Portland, Augusta, Lewiston, Biddeford, Rockland, Saco, Westbrook and Sanford.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said that participation “comes and goes,” but city managers — and McCarthy — have helped keep a level of continuity within the group as mayors go in and out of office. Rollins is going into his fifth year as mayor of the capital city, and said he has been very involved with the mayors’ coalition throughout his time in office.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said he believes the coalition “has gotten more credibility over the years,” adding that candidates running for state-level office have started coming to the group to understand its stances on issues.

Strimling called Belfast’s decision to withdraw from the group “short-sighted.”

Rollins said it’s helpful for Maine’s cities to have a “collective voice,” given that some of the issues they face might differ from smaller towns in largely rural Maine. Together, they can highlight common issues of housing, public transportation and homelessness, among others.

“I think we need to collectively speak up for common issues in an environment where our legislative delegation is approached from many angles and lobbyists,” Rollins said. “It gives us the ability to focus in on how [legislation] would affect our cities.”

The coalition’s lobbying focus changes based on what goes before the Legislature in a given year, McCarthy said, but overall the mission of the group has centered on promoting economic growth and maintaining state support.

McCarthy said the group has had success in gaining legislative support to preserve general assistance funding and in mitigating drastic revenue-sharing cuts. Currently, the coalition is focusing on advocating for a local option sales tax.

The coalition’s advocacy met resistance in recent years from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who “wasn’t always the biggest fan,” according to McCarthy.

With Democrats controlling both chambers of the incoming Legislature and a new Democratic administration coming into power Jan. 2, members of the mayors’ coalition hope their initiatives will encounter a better reception in the coming year.

“I think there is a feeling that with a little less division at the State House, and between the executive and the Legislature, that there is an opportunity to find consensus and find mutual ground for all of us so we can all prosper more,” Conlow said.