Will a scandal persuade Portlanders to elect a mayor?
- By: Colin Woodard
For centuries, New England has been celebrated for its participatory democracy, and Maine is no exception. Under the “home rule” provisions of our state constitution, every municipality is a republic unto itself, controlling everything from water, sewage, and police to land use planning and building permits. In many Maine towns, the people rule directly, convening at the annual town meeting to act as a local legislature, passing laws and budget items with a show of hands. Power is not only vested in the people, they get to wield it like a club.
In a state where representative democracy is looked upon as a necessary evil, the idea of having a powerful mayor is downright suspect, an autocratic contagion concocted in the lower reaches of the Empire State or (Lord Protect Us!) Providence. But a recent scandal has Portlanders considering a change to concentrate more power in the hands of the mayor. Some residents hope such a move will protect the city from special interests, others that it will help the city better serve them.
The catalyst: a bizarre two-year campaign by certain Portland officials to “repair” one of the working waterfront’s most important pieces of infrastructure — the city-owned Maine State Pier — by letting private developers build a $100-million hotel and office complex on top of it. The public and several of the councilors they elected to represent them were led to believe this was necessary because the octogenarian pier was in dire need of repairs, the costs of which were estimated at as high as $26 million. Only by leasing it to developers could the pier be saved they were told.
Some became suspicious that city officials were actually negotiating a sweetheart deal for the politically connected firm that came up with the idea: Ocean Properties of Portsmouth, which was represented by the governor’s brother, developer Bob Baldacci, and the Baldaccis’ cousin, former Senator George Mitchell. Conspiracy theorists had plenty to work with: When a competing firm responded to the official call for proposals in early 2007, the city let Ocean Properties re-design their plans not once but twice; Ocean Properties personnel gave generously to the campaigns of two successful city council challengers in 2008 — including one, Dory Waxman, who’d been their own paid community organizer — as well as to incumbent Jill Duson, who then became mayor, currently a ceremonial position the councilors pass around to one another.
The city council ultimately approved the project, but the controversy cost two members their jobs: James Cloutier (the most vocal proponent of the plan) and then-Mayor Edward Suslovic (its most outspoken critic). When the dust finally settled in January 2009, both developers had withdrawn, at least one the victim of the world financial crisis and associated credit freeze.
Only then did the public learn that the pier had never needed serious repairs in the first place.
Last July, city officials announced they’d finally paid $1,950 to have divers inspect the inner bowels of the pier, which turned out to be more or less fine. “Once you get underneath, it’s in remarkably good condition and for the most part quite capable for the loads it was designed for,” engineer Wayne Duffett told the Portland Press Herald. The newspaper did not ask the obvious question: Why hadn’t divers been sent before the city began negotiating a $100-million deal that would lease away a public asset for the better part of a century?
The answer is jaw-dropping. City staff had known all along that the pier didn’t need repairs to support its current uses, including dockage of cruise ships and other large vessels. “The dive that was done last year did not produce results different from past studies; it reinforced their conclusions that for their age and what [the pilings] are used for they are in good condition overall,” says Penny St. Louis Littell, director of the city’s planning department, referring to reports that estimated repairs at $1.6 million and recommended $5 to $10 million in long-term upgrades to prevent future deterioration. “I don’t believe any report says it was in dire straits.”
“We knew the pier was in pretty good shape, there was no question about that,” says Jeff Monroe, who was the city’s port director at the time. “It had longevity: if you used it moderately, you could use it for a long time.”
That’s not what proponents of the deal were saying at the time. “You don’t have a working waterfront unless you can accommodate the basic needs of the maritime economy we have here,” said city councilor Cloutier in a May 2007 interview, adding that the pier was no longer “suitable” for vessels more than six hundred feet long, a category which would include most cruise ships that visit Maine. “For that berth to be a useful will require $20 million to be spent, otherwise the [pier’s] concrete deck is going to fall into the water in ten or twenty years.”
That was the message other city councilors remember receiving: without $20-million in repairs, the city’s only deepwater berth might be lost. “Cloutier and crew said the Maine State Pier was in need of a huge dollar amount in repairs, and since the city didn’t have that kind of money, the only option to preserve it was to lease it to somebody,” recalls Suslovic, who was then mayor. “Right away that had the effect of narrowing the options that were on the table.”
“What we heard was a constant drumbeat of the pier needing to have repairs, otherwise it would fall into the ocean,” says city councilor David Marshall. “That was the rationalization for the mega-development, but it wasn’t true.”
Meanwhile, the obvious solution to the pier’s problems stood right next door: the city’s new $20-million Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal, which could take much of the pressure off the pier if someone could come up with just $7 million to complete its berth so cruise ships could actually begin using it. With the recent cancellation of The Cat high-speed ferry service between Portland and Nova Scotia, the terminal has no real function and is costing the city about four hundred thousand dollars a year.
Cloutier, now a Cumberland County commissioner, says he does not recall his 2007 remarks, but that the goal throughout the process had been to reverse the “downgraded capacity of one of the most important pieces of working waterfront infrastructure in Maine.” When pressed, he admitted that the “capacity” he spoke of was the ability to support the construction of large structures on the pier, and he was unable to cite any recent maritime uses that would be imperiled by forgoing a $20-million refurbishment. “A full repair was necessary if anything of value was to be built on the pier,” he noted, adding that the loss of the project was “very unfortunate” and that “the city and its people, including the city government, would be measurably better off” had it gone forward. Two still-serving councilors who strongly backed the plan, Ms. Duson and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, did not respond to interview requests.
Councilor Marshall’s assessment is blunt: “I think it was a political strategy to get the pier in the hands of Ocean Properties.”
It was exactly the sort of mess Portland’s present form of government was engineered to avoid. Executive power lies in the hands of a hired city manager, a professional administrator heading a government of technocrats and presumably insulated from political intrigue. Voters elect the city council, which essentially functions as a nine-member parliament and chooses one of its own to act as a ceremonial mayor with a one-year term and little power. The system is supposed to confound special interests, since there’s no real boss and one needs five councilors to get anything approved (or to hire or fire the city manager).
The pier damaged public faith in this system. As the deal was coming undone in late 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to convene a “charter commission” to rewrite the Forest City’s constitution. Commissioners were elected last spring, charged with coming up with a better governing model to put on the ballot this fall. The presumed solution: a directly elected mayor with expanded powers and accountability.
“People read what they want to read into the elected mayor solution,” says councilor John Anton. “Folks who think that if the city hadn’t bungled the deal, we would have this fantastic hotel and buckets of revenue by now, think a stronger mayor might have pushed it through. Conversely, those who thought the process was intellectually dishonest and shoddily reasoned feel a political elected mayor would have prevented it all from happening.”
“The lines of authority in Portland are blurred,” says James Cohen, a former mayor and vice chair of the twelve-member Charter Commission. “Nobody really has the accountability to have to stand up for the consequences of their decisions.”
Cohen’s fellow commissioners have already agreed that future mayors should be elected, but they aren’t certain how much power they should have. “Most of us wanted a stronger mayor, but when we talked with constituents, they were pretty divided on the issue,” says commissioner Anna Trevorrow, adding that many residents fear a powerful mayor could become a tool of special interests.
The emerging compromise: a popularly elected mayor who sticks around for four years, but doesn’t have much additional power. Such a mayor would have a mandate and time to fight for it, but no new weapons with which to do so.
If such a system had been in place years ago, would it have prevented the pier fiasco?
Probably not, says Marshall. “With these sorts of projects, if you don’t do the due diligence and get good information as you’re moving forward, then you are not going to have a good starting point for the council to make good decisions,” he says. Maybe the system wasn’t the problem in the first place, but rather the failures of some of those running it.
But an elected mayor is a step in the right direction in any case, argues Will Everitt of the League of Young Voters, because he or she would have a popular mandate and, therefore, greater leverage over the hired help at City Hall. “Right now city staff is only accountable to the city manager, who has nine bosses,” he says, “which means essentially none at all.”
- By: Colin Woodard