ROCKLAND, Maine — Voters in Rockland are choosing from a slate of five candidates to fill two seats on the city council on Nov. 3. None are incumbents.
Much like recent council races, tackling the city’s affordable-housing crisis and economic development are among the top priorities for candidates.
In 2018, 59 percent of households in Rockland couldn’t afford the median home price of $168,000, according to the Maine Housing Authority. There are no current rental properties listed below $1,000 a month in Rockland, according to Zillow.
The two open council seats are currently held by Mayor Lisa Westkaemper, who is finishing her first term and is not seeking reelection, and Valli Geiger, who is running for Maine House District 93 after serving two terms on city council.
Sarah Austin, Ian Emmott, Adam Lachman, Louise MacLellan-Ruf and Ryan Smith are vying for the two seats. The top two vote getters will serve a three-year term on the council.
Here is where the candidates stand on the issues.
An upstate New York native, Austin has lived in Rockland full-time since 2018, after making stops in the city’s harbor over her decade-long schooner career.
Austin now works as an office manager for a local accounting firm, serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit One Less Worry and serves as chair of the city’s parks and recreation committee.
As the city becomes an increasingly expensive place to live, Austin said creating affordable housing opportunities needs to be a priority.
Since there is minimal space left in the city for new residential development, she said exploring the creation of multi-family homes and infill development could help add more affordable units to the city’s housing stock.
“There’s not a silver bullet solution to this, but we can’t throw up our hands and do nothing. There are a lot of creative ways we can look at it,” Austin said.
Austin did not respond to an interview request from the Bangor Daily News. Information in this section was pulled from an October candidates’s forum.
Emmott has lived in Rockland full-time since 2015. He first came to the city in 2003, when he was stationed at the Rockland U.S. Coast Guard base for two years. After leaving the Coast Guard, Emmott worked for the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but left his post in September. He is in the planning stages of opening a distillery.
Emmott first ran for council in 2019. While he didn’t intend to run again after losing that race, he said he was motivated to throw his hat in this year after a petition to defund the Rockland Police Department was circulated within the city.
With his background in maritime law enforcement, Emmott feels he has an understanding of how law enforcement works which could benefit the discussion regarding police funding.
“I wouldn’t be a rubber stamp for their budget. But there needs to be an even keel. I believe there needs to be a moderate position there,” he said.
Emmott is in favor of creating economic relief for Rockland residents on a fixed income, especially its older residents. Emmott said he would like to explore creating a tax-increment financing district around a newly proposed assisted-living facility that would ideally offer additional tax relief for older residents.
He also would like the city to revive its waterfront redevelopment plan.
“Right now I feel like we’re stagnant on economic development,” Emmott said.
Lachman has served as a senior aide on economic development and innovation for U.S. Senator Angus King, I-Maine, since 2012. While he previously split his time between the midcoast region and Washington D.C., he has lived in Rockland full-time since 2019.
Lachman has never served in a municipal role before, but decided to run for city council because he was concerned about the lack of dialogue between the council and the public. He also feels the city doesn’t have a very clear answer to where it wants to be in five or 10 years.
“Being able to make sure that people are talking to each other, that’s sort of step one,” he said. “Step two is bringing in ideas around how we can advance our city through economic development.”
Lachman said Rockland needs to develop an economic plan and vision to help reduce the tax burden on residents and make the city more affordable.
Smart development, such as focusing on underutilized parts of the city and pursuing public-private partnerships on development projects, would be ways the city could create additional tax revenue, he said.
MacLellan-Ruf has lived in Rockland since the early 2000s, after working as a social worker and therapist in southern New England.
Beginning in 2013, MacLellan-Ruf served one three-year term on council. During that time, she served as mayor for a year. After not seeking reelection, she shifted her efforts to working on the harbor trail committee and the harbor management commission, which she chairs.
MacLellan-Ruf said she is seeking to rejoin the council because over the past six years, councilors largely ignored the recommendations brought forth by residents on the city’s committees and boards.
“When the council ignores its committees and commissions, it is ignoring the community,” she said. “Councilors are not experts on anything. The committees and commissions should be listened to and acknowledged.”
Additionally, MacLellan-Ruf feels the council gets too wrapped up focusing on global and state issues rather than what actually needs to be addressed in the city, such as affordability.
While there is no sweeping fix for affordability, MacLellan-Ruf said the city needs to figure out different ways to “support the haves and haves not” which might come down to a “family by family or house by house,” solution.
Smith is originally from Swans Island, but his family moved to Rockland in 1983. He also has spent time in Arizona, California and Washington. Smith, who calls himself a serial entrepreneur, is a certified personal trainer and has worked as a mushroom forager and a handyman.
Smith was motivated to run for city council after realizing how “commodified” his neighborhood had become due to short term rentals and people from out of state who have bought property but rarely live there.
While he said he has nothing against these types of property owners, he said it makes Rockland less accessible to the people who have lived here their whole lives. The city should focus on how to make the city more inclusive of all classes, he said.
“Life has become very expensive in this town,” Smith said. “Housing is a necessity and I think anyone benefiting from the rental economy should be leveraged.”
Additionally, Smith feels the city zoning and building codes are too stringent and are failing to adapt to people needing to run businesses out of their homes or needing to build smaller places to live.
“We really need to relax [building codes] a lot,” he said. “We need this emergent, evolving code.”