For Portland City Councilor Tae Chong, enough is enough.
Chong, 53, announced recently that he is not seeking reelection after he completes his first term. In an interview last week, he didn’t mince words.
Chong described a divided council that has stalled and a city that he said is increasingly being manipulated by outside interest groups. While in his first two years on the council the city was able to accomplish several large projects, he said he felt “frustrated” and “worried about the future” for the last seven months.
“I don’t want to be on this council when all we do is resolutions and proclamations and we’re handcuffed by the Green New Deal,” Chong said.
He said the early accomplishments during his tenure included approving the redevelopment of Mercy Hospital on State Street into housing and the first co-op style apartments in the city, ultimately paving the way for what he estimated to be more than 1,000 new homes.
The council also approved a new emergency services shelter on Riverside Street, and new shelter licensing requirements. But the current council later repealed those licensing guidelines.
“I didn’t run for council for this to be a stepladder, I saw it as a community volunteering thing,” Chong said. “I don’t see how me being frustrated on the council will help anybody.”
Chong said political interests like the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and Progressive Portland have harmed the city and essentially become “ghost committees” that try to govern from behind the scenes and without being elected. He said a recent wave of citizen referendum questions – often promoted by these groups – are limiting the council’s ability to accomplish goals including housing creation and sheltering the city’s homeless population.
“I don’t want to be the angry guy on the council,” Chong said. “(But) I don’t see it getting better anytime soon before we hit the bottom. A recession and budget challenges will make you do that, and I think that’s what’s going to happen.”
Representatives of the DSA declined to be interviewed. However, the Maine DSA Livable Campaign Committee, which proposed several referendum questions that will be on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot, including an $18-per-hour minimum wage, provided this statement:
“We look forward to building a livable Portland with working-class leaders on the City Council who rise above petty grievances to enact a positive vision for our shared future.”
The DSA has said its referendum proposals are the result of inaction on the city’s part. Despite a block of progressives being elected to the council, the DSA said little was actually accomplished and councilors have not been receptive to feedback.
For his part, Chong has never shied away from taking on local progressive groups.
Last September, he publicly criticized several progressive groups he believes have not prioritized the academic racial gap in Portland. He previously slammed People First Portland for its alleged ignorance about racism against Asian Americans.
Chong said some city officials continue to add programs that don’t yield the same results for students of color as they do for white students. That kind of budgeting isn’t equitable, he said, and has resulted in a third of Portland students – many students of color – failing math and English.
“What kind of workers are we going to have in the next five years?” Chong said. “But the focus hasn’t been about that, and that means the city has to worry about what other services we will have to provide for people who can’t read or write.”
Governance and politics are so interconnected and complex, he added, that if you push one domino, four others fall.
Housing is an area where Chong is generally proud of work the council has done. He said he led the way on cooperative-style housing projects that failed at the committee level but ultimately passed following his lobbying efforts on the council.
The new homeless shelter on Riverside Street, which will replace the aging and overcrowded Oxford Street Shelter, is another accomplishment.
But while he is proud the council initially approved new licensing requirements for shelters – “the only large-ticket venue that doesn’t need licensing,” he said – the repeal of those requirements by the current council continues to disappoint him.
The shelter licensing amendment would have put in place fee structures for large and small shelters, set a density cap of 300 beds within a one-mile radius, added a buffer zone between shelters, and established a requirement for day space.
“If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but give me a good reason,” Chong said. “We can disagree, but give me a good reason. We haven’t done anything. We haven’t built new housing or created jobs or made investments to spur business, or come up with policies to improve the experiences of people experiencing homelessness.”
‘It’s going to get worse’
One of Chong’s biggest concerns for the city in the coming years is the budget.
He said city departments are understaffed and overworked. The city and School Department have roughly the same number of employees, about 1,400, but while the schools have about 40 vacancies, the city has more than 300.
If a School Board budget autonomy recommendation by the Charter Commission is approved, he said it would do more harm to the city.
“It just means we will continue doing what we’re doing, which is increasing fees, which hurts renters and second-shift workers,” Chong said. “… It’s those fees, like towing, that will get compounded and hurt renters and people in poverty more than anybody else. I can’t explain basic economics to people who don’t want to understand basic economics. You can’t have it all and not expect to hurt people in poverty. Can we focus on people who need it most, like (English language learner) kids?”
Chong said the city has had to repeatedly cut its budget, while the School Department has continued to increase its own spending. Because of that disparity, Chong said more low-income people will suffer.
“I believe if you’re poor, you’re in a recession now,” he said. “If you’re middle or upper class, you’re not there yet. If you’re a renter, you’re in a recession. And it’s going to get worse, the economy always does worse in the second half. City leadership and middle managers will have to look at cutting what’s already been cut and lean and hard for them.”
He said he anticipates a “catastrophic” situation when the city runs out of American Rescue Plan Act funds. And if special-interest groups continue to pose referendum questions that handcuff the city, he said, and the council remains fractured, he doesn’t see a simple fix.
“I’m one person,” Chong said. “I can’t fight that.”
Not surprisingly, he’s not a fan of what the Charter Commission is recommending.
He said with Portland often seen as a desirable place to live – recently ranked eighth in the country by U.S. News & World Report – he doesn’t understand why city government should be completely overhauled or why city services should be seen as “so out of control” that such major changes are needed.
Chong said cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, or Flint, Michigan, require overhauls, not a model city like Portland. He said the roles of the city manager and mayor – the two positions which could be dramatically changed if voters approve the commission’s proposed changes – are complicated, and a mayor can’t do what a manager does. He said a mayor is more concerned with short-term visions, while a manager is more concerned about long-term plans.
“Doing things based on popularity is dangerous,” Chong said. “(Donald) Trump taught us populist politics are dangerous. You can get a lot of stuff done if you govern on fear.”
Chong said he has tried to be logical in his decision-making, and if anyone could explain why Portland is in such a bad place that its government needs dramatic overhaul, he is open to hearing it. But he has not heard that argument.
“When you’re emotional that’s the worst time to make a decision,” Chong said. “That’s how I feel that the Charter Commission worked. … Changing everything when you’re angry is also pretty dangerous.”
Returning to his domino analogy, Chong said he didn’t want the city to continue to fall victim to populist politics, and he wants the people who run Portland to know how government works.
“I want somebody who is experienced, someone who knows what they’re doing, not just someone flashy,” he said. “I want someone who actually has put in the time, paid their dues, and knows how all the different levels of dominos work. I don’t see that in the Charter Commission or referendum questions (proposed by the DSA).”
Beyond city government
Chong, who moved to Maine from South Korea in 1976, said he is at peace with his decision to leave the council. After much “hemming and hawing,” he said he decided he has more than enough to keep him busy, and that his place isn’t on the Council.
For example, he’s been appointed to several boards by Gov. Janet Mills, including an economic recovery committee. He also volunteers with the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
While he will have served just one council term, Chong joked that “it felt like nine” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (He also served a previous term on the School Board.)
He’s worried about the upcoming general election, given the small lead in the polls that Mills has over her Republican rival, former Gov. Paul LePage. If LePage wins, Chong said, Portland will be “screwed.”
“He already said he won’t support asylum seekers, so there goes our budget,” Chong said. “He won’t take (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding. We’ll be bankrupt.”
What he doesn’t expect to have after leaving the council is a lot of free time. Between the boards and committees he sits on, and some personal projects he’d like to get to, he won’t be stopping community service anytime soon.
“I’ve always been community-minded,” Chong said. “I just don’t see being on the council as a way forward. It’s so gridlocked, groupthink and manipulating.”
Councilor says low morale, outside forces inflame City Hall job vacancies
Councilor Tae Chong said one of the biggest concerns facing the city is the number of job vacancies in City Hall, including eight department heads.
In total, the city is short about 300 employees – including the city manager and police chief positions, which are being filled by interim appointees.
Chong said the problem is further compounded when, in addition to coping with understaffing, the remaining city employees are disparaged by the public and sometimes by members of the City Council.
“Morale is horrible,” he said. “But how do you get people to stay?”
Chong compared it to a sports team, where it doesn’t matter how good the players are if the team president, general manager, and top scout all leave.
He said it’s not hard to imagine employees becoming frustrated to the point they would rather take jobs in other municipalities without the headaches or worries about their budgets.
Chong praised interim City Manager Danielle West. He said she could “write her own ticket” in any other municipality after the way she has managed Maine’s largest and most complex city.
“What I’m really worried about is losing key figures,” Chong said. “Just how is city staff being treated? If key staff are wondering ‘Why am I here?’ and we lose more institutional knowledge, that worries me.”
Finding a long-term city manager to replace former Manager Jon Jennings, who left last November, has been complicated by the work of the Charter Commission.
The panel has proposed several recommendations, including reducing the role and authority of the city manager to more of an administrator rather than a leader who can craft a vision for Portland.
The city has paused its search for a manager until after the November referendum on the commission’s proposals. And because West is serving on an interim basis, other key positions, including the police chief, are continuing with interim appointments.
— Colin Ellis
Nomination papers available for Portland elections
Nominating petitions for candidates in Portland’s municipal elections are available at City Hall.
Two City Council seats and three seats on the School Board will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, along with four Peaks Island Council seats and two seats on the Portland Water District Board of Trustees.
In council District 3, where Councilor Tae Chong is not seeking reelection, Regina Phillips and Nathaniel Ferguson have already taken out papers.
Incumbent Councilor Pious Ali has taken out papers for reelection to his at-large seat, along with Aqeel Mohialdeen and former School Board candidate Richard Ward.
For two at-large School Board seats, recently elected incumbents Sarah Lentz and Benjamin Grant have taken out papers, as has Denise Demitre. In District 3, incumbent Adam Burk has taken out papers, along with Juliane Opperman and Samuel Rosenthal.
As of July 14, only incumbent Trustee Gary Libby had taken out papers for a five-year term on the PWD board. Two potential candidates, Mary Ellen Marucci and Frederick McCann, have taken out papers for a one-year term.
No candidates had taken out papers for four Peaks Island Council seats.
District candidates for the City Council and School Board must collect at least 75 signatures but no more than 150, and at-large candidates must collect at least 300 signatures and a maximum of 500. For the water district, candidates must collect at least 100 signatures but no more than 150, and Peaks Island Council candidates need at least 50 signatures but a maximum of 100.
Papers must be turned in between Aug. 15 and 29.
— Colin Ellis