‘At some point, we have to say no to something’: Departing Portland councilors discuss direction of city

Posted June 27, 2014, at 6:48 p.m.
Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman announced she would not seek re-election to the council after serving three decades in office.
David Harry | The Forecaster
Portland City Councilor Cheryl Leeman announced she would not seek re-election to the council after serving three decades in office.
Portland City Councilor John Coyne announced he will not seek a new, three-year term in November.
The Forecaster
Portland City Councilor John Coyne announced he will not seek a new, three-year term in November.

PORTLAND, Maine — City Councilors Cheryl Leeman and John Coyne sit opposite each other in City Council meetings, while agreeing on most fiscal issues facing the city.

“I don’t think there is any question I am fiscally more conservative,” Leeman said Friday.

“I’m probably the second-most conservative [member] on the council,” Coyne said Wednesday.

The two councilors announced within 24 hours of each other they will not seek new, three-year terms in November, creating open races in districts extending from Back Cove to the Westbrook border.

There was almost immediate interest from candidates who hope to replace the two City Hall veterans: former councilor, mayor and state legislator David Brenerman announced he will seek Coyne’s District 5 seat, while Leeman’s District 4 seat is being sought by school board member Justin Costa.

Leeman is leaving the council after 30 years, two one-year stints as mayor and three years on the school board.

Coyne was also first elected to the school board and was chairman of the board twice before he succeeded former Councilor James Cohen and served two terms.

“Although I have enjoyed my work on the City Council, I am calling it quits. I plan to spend more time with family and friends, travel and enjoy life,” Leeman, 66, said in a press release June 24.

Coyne, 45, expressed similar thoughts.

“I couldn’t commit to doing the amount of work and the style of work I am doing for another three years,” he said. “I think there is a balance of what goes on. For me, this wasn’t a lifestyle. I’m somebody who was fortunate to get enough support from my constituency.”

Coyne said his fourth-grade teacher predicted he would be elected to some office because of his ability to get along with different groups of students. Leeman, in an interview Friday, said she came to politics only because of a city decision to close the Presumpscot Elementary School.

“We’d all worked in the business community, so you identify the problem and work to the solution,” she said about the campaign to keep the school open.

For each of them, the City Council has presented a broad range of challenges.

“The thing I enjoyed in the transition to council was the wider variety of things you are dealing with,” Coyne said. “Every meeting seems to be a little different.”

Leeman said a fight in the early 1980s to prevent Washington Avenue from becoming a four-lane road became her unintentional path to a council seat.

“What we saw was a lack of our neighborhood being taken care of,” Leeman recalled. “So it made sense at that point to say, ‘Let’s deal with the bigger issue and get things done.’”

Leeman initially served with former Councilors Pamela Plumb and Linda Abromson. “We were a force to be reckoned with, we were there to get things done. And there were a lot of votes that were gender-based,” she said.

Leeman was a “stay-at-home mom” who also ran a daycare business when she was first elected. She later headed up the Portland office of former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Coyne supervises probation officers for the Maine Department of Corrections.

Both have found themselves on the minority end of recent issues in the city, including the denial of a liquor license for Sangillo’s Tavern at 18 Hampshire St. and the imposition of a 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags at stores, where food is at least 2 percent of annual sales.

Both councilors also supported the $524,000 sale of 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Park to Rockbridge Capital. To proceed after the passage of Question 1 on June 10, the sale must survive a citywide referendum.

Coyne supported this year’s $221 million budget, while Leeman opposed it.

“I came in as a wide-open liberal, but the city has got to understand it has to manage what it has. At some point, we have to say ‘no’ to something,” Coyne said. “When we talk about a plastic bag, it’s like, ‘Come on.’”

Leeman said the bag fee is a misplaced attempt at fixing a wider problem.

“The question was, do we want a fee on the bag or not? The question should have been, ‘How do we solve the problem of litter?’”

Leeman prides herself on thorough research and careful listening before arriving at decisions, and Coyne made listening and brevity a trademark.

“My style is to say what you need to say and get it over with,” he said.

Both agreed a focus on the city peninsula has caused some difficulty for their constituents.

“I think there is some notion and some conception that how the peninsula goes is how the city goes,” Coyne said.

“On the broader policy issues, yeah, there is somewhat of a divide,” Leeman added.

Coyne said he hopes his successor will be aware of the increased financial pressure on constituents because of increasing budgets, while Leeman said a long-term outlook is lacking. That includes how and where the city will be developed.

“We have not adjusted our policies to be consistent with the changing economic market out there,” she said. “When we are in the good times, we should not be giving tax breaks. People want to be in Portland; why are we giving them tax breaks?”

Coyne said he would like to see more public comment on the city budget.

“When I was on [school board], we had hours and hours of comment on the budget,” he said. “With the city, we are talking $200 million of budgetary items, and there are not a lot of people who are coming out.”

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