Four candidates hoping to fill an open at-large seat on the Portland City Council promise to bring very different skill sets to the job, while largely agreeing the city should be doing more to combat systemic racism.
The seat is currently held by longtime Councilor Jill Duson, who is retiring after two decades of service.
The Nov. 3 election is between District 4 City Councilor Justin Costa, an accountant; April Fournier, a member of the city Police Citizen Review Committee; Ronald Gan, a real estate developer, and former pediatrician Dr. Laura Kelley.
Costa, 37, said he decided to seek Duson’s seat because he recently married, and knows he may be looking to buy a house elsewhere in the city in the coming years. The current resident of Pleasant Avenue is completing his second term on the council and previously served two terms on the School Board.
Costa, an accountant with Auto Europe, said he hopes to remain on the council because it’s especially important to have continuity at this time.
“We have so many big issues we have to tackle,” he said. “Obviously the pandemic and the accompanying recession. Everything from racial justice to affordable housing, to climate change, homelessness, substance abuse, addiction. I think it’s going to be amazingly important to have people on the council who are intimately aware of the issues and the complexities of those issues.”
Costa said the council made the right decision in capping adult-use recreational marijuana business licenses at 20, after learning from the experience elsewhere that limiting the market when it first opens can be helpful in avoiding “boom and bust cycles.” He said the city’s licensing matrix was a “negotiated compromise no one was particularly happy with.”
“It is important to try to manage the market in the beginning, and the best way is a scoring system rather than just awarding the first person who applies or a blind lottery,” Costa said.
As the only Hispanic councilor, he said he takes the issue of racial justice seriously. He acknowledged deep societal issues like racism can’t be solved overnight, but said Portland has taken progressive steps, such as providing direct support to asylum seekers.
Costa said there is training bias in the Police Department and a level of disparity in arrest rates around the country, which need to be dealt with. He also said there needs to be a broader conversation on how law enforcement responds in situations involving mental health and substance abuse crises.
“When done correctly it’s not a controversial issue,” Costa said. “Police will tell you that you can’t arrest your way out of a mental health crisis.”
Costa said the upcoming Charter Commission will play an important role in the future of city government and he will “abide by the results.” He also said there are areas where the roles of the mayor and city manager could be better clarified. But he said he hasn’t heard a consensus from his constituents about whether they want a stronger mayor or the status quo.
“That’s up to the Charter Commission, and it’s up to the councilors to serve within that system,” he said.
Costa said the balance between housing and development is a big issue for everyone in the city, as well as around the country. He said the best course of action would be to continue to grow the economy, getting people into better-paying jobs, and in turn better housing.
He also said the city has a unique tool in its Housing Trust Fund, if projects make use of it, and can encourage more affordable housing by rewriting the land-use code.
“All those really make a difference for people who want to make viable projects,” Costa said.
Fournier, 40, said she is running after becoming angry about national politics, specifically President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as the country’s Secretary of Education.
She initially wanted to run for a seat in the state Legislature, but had to wait due to a health concern at the time. She said she became frustrated watching the council and city leaders, and decided since she had time now, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, she wanted to get involved.
“I have this time I can dedicate to something I’m passionate about,” she said.
Fournier said she initially planned to run in District 4, but after meeting with candidate Andrew Zarro decided to seek the at-large seat because facing Zarro “would be like running against myself.”
Fournier, who lives on Washington Avenue, said she only recently became knowledgeable about the city’s matrix for awarding marijuana business licenses. She said she’s spoken with industry members to see if this system is to their benefit, and is concerned about elements of the system.
For example, if an applicant is late in paying taxes, they are disqualified. Fournier said while she understands the idea behind this, she said it’s not fair to penalize people for circumstances that may have come up outside of their control.
“It excludes businesses that may have had a hiccup in their business model in their last five years,” she said. “If you can show me anyone who hasn’t had a hiccup in the last five years … I’d be impressed.”
As a member of the Police Citizens Review Subcommittee, Fournier acknowledged the panel lacks real strength, and because of that, she said she doesn’t think the city is doing enough to resolve issues of systemic racial injustice. She said she’s also interested in reducing the Police Department budget.
“We’re at the lowest level of intervention you can get, it’s frustrating, and it means our city isn’t prioritizing it,” Fournier said.
She said the new Racial Equity Steering Committee is a nice first step, but there must be tangible actions taken.
A member of the Navajo Nation who works as special services manager at a head start agency in Lewiston, Fournier said now is the right time for the city to reopen its Charter. She said there is an “imperfect balance of power” between the city manager and mayor, and it is time to reexamine whether the city wants a strong mayor and whether the city manager should focus on operations instead of policy. She said while she’s heard City Manager Jon Jennings say he works for the council, she believes his actions suggest otherwise.
To balance the need for housing and development, the city first needs to “elevate our most needy community members,” Fournier said, and the first step is to find permanent housing for the city’s homeless. She also said the city needs to do more to ensure developers employ sustainable resources and practices, as well as ethical hiring practices.
She said while it’s tempting for the city to go with a lower bid on construction projects, the better course to create more sustainable and equitable housing and development is to go with developers using better hiring practices. She also said the city needs to reexamine its zoning policies.
“How can we create more housing in the spaces we have without destroying our environment here?” she said.
Gan, 70, is the owner of the real estate development company Fuego Blue. He is originally from Chicago, has lived in Portland for 15 years, and now resides on Washington Avenue. He said he is running because the City Council lacks real estate development expertise.
He said for years he and others have been trying to get “attainable housing” built in the city, but they are routinely blocked by zoning restrictions. “It’s just a mess with our land-use policies,” he said.
Gan said there’s often a misconception about what “affordable housing” means. He said housing costs in the city are often much higher than what the local workforce can afford, especially when people get to the age when they want to live alone.
“So we have to have cheaper land and much more flexible zoning,” he said.
He also said the city should provide incentives for development in areas like East Bayside, where there are concrete and brick buildings already existing that can be built up for affordable housing.
Gan said the city’s approach to awarding marijuana business licenses is another “perfect example of our non-experienced business policies.”
He said there was “zero reason” for the city to do anything other than simply award any business that applied for a license, adding the city doesn’t restrict the number of hair salons, law offices, or restaurants that can open. He also said given the revenue shortfalls from the pandemic, the system is bizarre since it limits revenue growth.
“They’re just making things more restrictive with rules and regulations,” he said.
Gan said he supported and voted for creation of the new Charter Commission. He said the city can’t have a mayor with a vision who “has to grovel” with the city manager to get things done. He said the council has given its responsibilities to the city manager.
“I would want a city manager who, No. 1, is all about counting the beans, and is a manager of people who creates a working culture where there is an expectation of excellence,” he said.
Gan said he’d also like the city to create a department of real estate planning and vision to be part of the mayor’s office, because the mayor needs to be able to implement a vision and needs people who understand real estate and long-term planning.
He said he also sees systemic racism as an economic and land-use issue because even something like single-family housing zoning is designed to be racist by keeping people out of the suburbs.
He said something like the push to create a Munjoy Hill Historic Preservation District is tricky. While there is some history on historic districts being used to keep out Black homeowners and renters, he said something like the historic district freezes out anyone who can’t afford to live there.
“If you want to start the process of having a much more equitable environment to live in, it starts with housing security,” he said.
As for policing, Gan said the Police Department hiring process is very “old school,” and needs to be modernized. He said he doesn’t believe the department is always picking the best candidates; it says it wants candidates with higher education, but also wants officers to “dumb it down” in the department.
Gan also said the idea that someone who was in the military will make a good police officer isn’t always accurate, and they shouldn’t be selected over other candidates based only on that experience.
“You can follow orders,” he said, “but that doesn’t make you a good (officer).”
Dr. Laura Kelley
Kelley, 48, is a former pediatrician who lives on Great Diamond Island. She said she’d been “baby-stepping” towards a policy-making position for a while, especially around health for children and families.
“Until different kinds of voices come to do that work, maybe people who didn’t think of doing that before, maybe people who didn’t previously like the idea of politics, we won’t make meaningful changes we’re capable of,” she said.
Kelley said she was encouraged to run for the council after her support of pro-vaccine legislation and thought this is a meaningful chance to make a difference in the community.
Kelley acknowledged the decision-making process she would have as a councilor is different than the one she would have as a doctor or a mother, especially in terms of the marijuana market. She said this market is something the voters wanted, and she didn’t like the idea of limiting the market or creating policies “that set up a restrictive thing where only certain stakeholders can come to the table.”
“There’s a feeling that it’s unjust and inequitable,” she said of the 20-license cap.
Kelley also said she wants the city to capture revenue from the recreational marijuana market and put it towards education that increases “awareness on why marijuana is dangerous for developing brains.”
She said the city has taken good steps so far towards racial equity, but there is still work to be done and she appreciates the “experienced, strategic, and thoughtful leaders” in the Black community who have been trying to bring an end to institutional racism.
“To solve any problem, we have to have awareness and education to make sure people have an understanding of the history that was left out,” Kelley said. “It’s where we begin to make changes in our society.”
She said an example of that education is quantifying the evidence that shows Black people in Maine have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Beginning with awareness and education, and make sure they will be effectively targeted and measurable,” she said. “This is how policy can assist us to do the work we need to do as a society.”
Kelley said the vote to reopen the City Charter is proof people want change in government, especially young people who feel “that we have failed to do meaningful things.”
She said she voted to create a Charter Commission but now recognizes this is a vulnerable time for the city to reexamine its Charter.
“A lot of good can come from it if we proceed with the utmost care,” she said. “It’s something I’m mindful of. In the time I’ve spent talking with constituents, what I hear over and over again is about a breakdown of communication and a feeling that processes are not transparent.”
Kelley said the keyword when discussing development and housing is “balance,” and how can the city achieve things that meet people’s needs and bring Portland into the future.
She said she looks at it from a community health perspective, but also from a parental perspective: a parent routinely has to balance the wants of the family versus the needs. She said the city has to make choices not only to balance housing needs but also climate needs and economic needs.
“We have to prioritize individual and community health and wellbeing in all our decision making,” Kelley said. “There’s always something that can come out in the end where everybody feels like they were acknowledged.”