Election signs on the fence surrounding the Cleeves Memorial on the Eastern Promenade in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Marijuana licensing and the roles of the mayor and city manager are among the areas where the four candidates hoping to represent City Council District 5 share little common ground.

The candidates are state corrections official and former City Councilor John Coyne; attorney and former state legislator Mark Dion; activist Kathryn Sykes, and Kenneth Capron, a former accountant and occasional candidate for elected office. 

The winner of the Nov. 3 election will fill the seat now held by City Councilor Kimberly Cook, who opted not to seek a second term.

District 5 represents the city’s North Deering, Deering Center, and Riverton neighborhoods. 

Capron

Kenneth Capron

Capron, 69, is an accountant and systems analyst who lives on Forest Avenue and is known for following and commenting on council activities over the years. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives and was a write-in candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018. Capron has also advocated for the city to buy a cruise ship to house the city’s homeless.

Capron said he is running because he’s “frustrated” with the process the council uses, saying councilors routinely waste time “patting each other on the back,” or individually explaining why they’re going to support something rather than just voting.

“I don’t see them as an effective body and I tell them this all the time,” he said.

Capron also said the council doesn’t spend enough time listening to constituents and said its three-minute public comment rule “is not enough.” He said the council is “very inefficient,” and considers it a “waste of time to watch their shenanigans.”

“They’re joking around,” Capron said. “Let’s get down to business.”

Capron said he does not support the city’s points matrix for marijuana business licenses. He said if a person is going to put down the money to rent a place and hire workers, it doesn’t matter how many of the same kind of business there are because the market will sort that out.

“I know they felt compelled to limit it,” he said. “I’m not compelled to put artificial restrictions on businesses. They’ve got enough problems.”

He said while there are good aspects of the matrix, he is also concerned about various disqualifiers in the process.

“We’re not all exactly clean-living Christians,” Capron said. “There are people in city government and big business who have blotches on their records.”

He said he believes claims of institutional racism are more about discrimination that plagues everyone in the city, and “if you’re a poor white person you’re treated as poorly as a poor Black person.”

Capron said he doesn’t think the city will accomplish what it hopes to with the Racial Equity Steering Committee, because most committees “talk for a while, issue a report, and nothing happens.”

He said there must be changes in policing, and he would support a system in which most police officers do not carry guns. “I don’t think we should defund the police,” he said. “I think we can reeducate more of the police to be more socially skilled.”

Capron said there’s never a bad time to look at the roles of the mayor and city manager, and said the City Charter needs to be “current and responsive.” He said the city still hasn’t figured out the relationship between the two jobs, which has resulted in questions about who is in charge.

“It almost seems like the council is afraid to make some decisions because it would upset the manager,” he said.

Capron said housing is a very important issue. He said it was ridiculous the city was looking to build an additional shelter or trying to rent the Cross Insurance Arena to shelter its homeless, when he estimated his cruise ship plan would cost much less. He also said City Manager Jon Jennings and former Mayor Ethan Strimling are responsible for a lot of damage towards the city’s homeless by “standing in the way” of the Preble Street Resource Center.

Capron said what is considered low-income housing is still out of most people’s reach. “I don’t know where the city’s priorities are,” he said. 

Coyne

John Coyne

Coyne, 52, previously represented District 5 for two terms before stepping down in 2014. He said Cook’s decision not to run again pushed him towards running, as well as a desire to “invest back into my city again.”

“Sitting on the bench for a while, I got energized again with the goings-on in Portland,” Coyne said. “Some things have changed for good; some things are interesting.”

The regional corrections administrator for the Maine Department of Corrections said he liked what the council did with the marijuana licensing matrix. He said it gives the city the opportunity to take a look at how the business model goes, and make improvements as needed.

He said a ballot question before voters that would amend the process would “take away some of the city’s flexibility,” and said he’d rather see the city be able to use its current process and make changes as needed.

“They did a decent start,” he said.

Coyne, who lives on Saugus Street, said the city is going the right direction in taking steps toward studying and gathering data on institutional racism. He said the local data will provide a better perspective than reacting to national events, and applauded the city for putting together the Racial Equity Steering Committee and is looking forward to its recommendations.

“And can we improve practices not only where it’s related to where people say law enforcement, but in city government,” he said. “How can we improve life for everyone? How can we help improve the way staff performs with every group of our citizens in Portland?”

Coyne said he didn’t support the creation of a Charter Commission, but voters clearly thought it would be a worthy exercise. He said Portland went almost 100 years without a popularly elected mayor, which was a system he was comfortable with.

He also said if the goal of the Charter Commission is to fire the city manager, there’s already a mechanism in place for that, by simply not renewing Jennings’ contract.

“The other problem I have with the mayoral position and the city manager position is there’s a pretty big financial impact,” he said.

Between three mayors and the city manager’s contract since the last charter revision, he said, the city has spent an “astronomical” amount on those two positions. Ideally, the city should choose one or the other, he said, although giving the mayor more power could further politicize city government.

“We’re not a big city,” Coyne said. “People from outside trying to come in and influence sometimes isn’t a great fit. … I didn’t support the Charter Commission, I don’t think there needs to be change, I think we need more evidence to say the structure doesn’t work.”

Coyne said the city needs a better definition of what is affordable housing when trying to strike the balance between housing and development. He said it seems to be a regionally based definition, and not what actual people looking for housing can afford.

“The people looking for housing in Portland aren’t making that kind of money,” he said.

He said the city needs to work with developers to create the kind of affordable housing city residents can actually afford, not just a few market-rate apartments scattered in a larger building with more expensive units.

“Young professionals can’t afford that,” he said. 

Dion

Mark Dion

Dion, 65, is an attorney and former Portland police officer with several years of elected experience. He was elected sheriff of Cumberland County in 1998 and served 12 years before being elected to the state House of Representatives in District 43 from 2010-2016. He was elected to the state Senate in 2016 and served until 2018 when he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor. 

Dion said he decided to run for the council because his experience will enlighten its decisions. “I’ve demonstrated a history of public service to the city of Portland,” he said.

Dion, who lives on Allison Avenue, said he does not support the city’s matrix for awarding marijuana business licenses, which is “more complicated than necessary.” He said many communities in Maine have a more straightforward process, and regulated zoning creates its own cap.

“I don’t think government does a good job when they go in and try to engineer outcomes for economic activities,” he said. The city and state should vet applicants, he added, but otherwise, the matrix “is just too complicated.”

Dion, who spent 21 years in the Portland Police Department, said members of privileged groups fail to understand that interactions with police don’t only impact an individual, but can send a message through an entire less-privileged community.

“If it’s a mile into the woods, it’s going to be a mile out of the woods,” Dion said. “There’s not going to be overnight success. I think the city working with the police chief takes steps to address that.”

He said systemic racism exists but is “invisible to the majority of the community.” He said he hopes the city can collect “hard data” to educate itself on this issue.

“The Police Department has to be open to being transparent, and try to develop some way the community can have some responsible oversight on how the police make decisions on their practices,” he said.

Dion said he sees merit in undertaking the process of reopening the City Charter. He said it’s a fair reading of the history of the mayor’s office that it “just doesn’t seem to connect with the city manager as maybe the commission members who created the platform anticipated.”

He said both the mayor and city manager positions were too important for there to be confusion on how the two should engage. He said the issue has little to do with the personalities of the people in those roles, and more to do with a lack of clarity. Dion said residents shouldn’t have to make guesses about the authority vested in either position.

“I think the first Charter Commission tried to split the baby,” Dion said, “and that didn’t work out too well for the baby.”

Dion said he believes developers want to build affordable housing, but the question always comes back to cost. He said the city needs to see if it can increase the density and type of buildings allowed in various neighborhoods, especially those that have historically had “one-type-fits-all” housing.

“We need to look at mixed uses,” he said.

He also said there is a problem that the term “affordable housing” doesn’t always mean affordable to those working in the city. As sheriff, he said, he frequently had people working for him who couldn’t afford to live in Portland.

“We need to make it economically feasible for developers to enter (the workforce housing) market,” he said.

Sykes

Kathryn Sykes

Sykes, 51, is a freelance writer and editor who has been helping the People First Portland campaign, which is responsible for several questions on the city ballot.

Sykes, who moved to Portland from Burlington, Vermont, said she became involved around the time President Donald Trump was elected. She said she saw a chance to create change at the local level and began working on issues like ranked-choice voting, and on the campaign of former council candidate Joey Brunelle.

She also worked with the Fair Elections Portland group. The city’s response to the charter revisions requested by the group was a factor in her decision to run for Council.

“The council governs the people, and acts as a rubber stamp for big business, corporations, and developers,” she said.

Sykes said she has problems with the council’s approach to awarding marijuana business licenses, which has “nothing to do with the quality of the workplace (and) has everything to do with making sure a business owner can extract profits through the exploitation of labor.”

She said if elected, she will do “due diligence” to see how these businesses can benefit their communities. She also said one item of the matrix she had a problem with was points being given to an applicant with $150,000 in assets.

“I don’t think that’s a reasonable criterion,” Sykes said. “The only people who have those kinds of assets are criminals or already extremely wealthy. It already skews towards Big Weed and cuts out the little guy.”

Sykes said the council has not done enough towards systemic racism and policing in the city. She said the way the city has responded to these issues has been “deeply disrespectful to the Black community.”

“The demands they made have come from lived experiences,” she said.

Sykes said councilors want the “type of civic engagement” they want to see, but not from the Black community. She said it was unfortunate the city’s answer to combating racism was to convene a committee, “when the people who’ve had their noses rubbed in it have (already) told them what to do.”

Sykes described herself as a police and prison “abolitionist,” and said the city is asking police to do far too much. She said there needs to be more money put into social services and more reform put into public safety.

“If we invest in society, we will no longer need the kind of police force we have now,” she said.

Sykes said this is absolutely the right time to reopen the City Charter and look at the roles of the mayor and city manager.

“It’s clear the city government is working against and above the people, and it’s time to retool that in a way that puts people first and removes barriers to democracy,” she said.

Sykes said the current system has a city manager with too much power who is unaccountable to residents, and she wants to see that changed. She said past councilors and mayors, including Strimling, sought to make changes to the system, and Jennings blocked them.

“When you have a captive council, there’s no possibility for real democratic conversations,” she said.

Sykes said there are a number of systemic issues facing the city, none of which exist in a vacuum. She said like the climate crisis, the city’s housing crisis is systemic. She said the housing affordability issue isn’t because of lack of housing, it has more to do with gentrification pricing people out.

“When we look at the affordable housing crisis, and partly we have a council so beholden to developers, we think we’re going to build our way out,” she said. “That’s not true.”

Sykes said the city needs to bring short-term rental units back into the long-term market, which would “instantly” create more housing.

She also said she isn’t against future development, acknowledging that “humans build.”

“But the way we build affordable, workforce housing in this country is deeply inefficient,” Sykes said.