[JAN. 6 UPDATE: Yesterday evening, Gov. Baldacci announced plans to merge the Department of Professional and Financial Regulationwith the Department of Economic and Community Development to create a new Department of Commerce. No announcement was made regarding the commissionership of this new department. – Ed.]
School board seat may stay vacant
Duson rumored to be resigning Council
By Chris Busby
June is shaping up to be a busy month in city politics. Voters citywide may pick a new city councilor and decide the fate of the law limiting franchise businesses downtown. And voters in Stroudwater, Libbytown, Rosemont and neighborhoods near the University of Southern Maine may vote to elect a new representative to the school board – even though the winner would have to run again just a few months later.
The Portland City Council will soon decide whether or not to hold a special election to fill the school board seat being vacated by District 3 representative Jason Toothaker, who resigned his post Jan. 3. Toothaker had been arrested for skipping out on a five dollar cab fare after a drunken night in the Old Port. The special election to fill his seat could cost as much as $15,000, said City Clerk Linda Cohen.
Not every councilor is convinced it’s worth spending that much public money to hold a special vote for a post with a six-month lifespan. The District 3 school board seat will be up for grabs again in November, regardless of whether a special election is held in June. Even Peter Eglinton, a Nathan Clifford parent who’s already announced his candidacy for Toothaker’s seat, acknowledged, “there’s a real question of whether or not it’s necessary.”
As school board members alluded to last Wednesday, this question may be complicated by the need to hold a citywide vote to replace an at-large city councilor.
City and school officials are well aware of rumors that City Councilor Jill Duson may resign her post should she be appointed to a high-level state job by Gov. John Baldacci this winter. Duson, currently director of the state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, is said to be a candidate for the job of Commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (DPFR).
A spokesperson for the governor, former television news reporter Crystal Canney, declined to comment on the appointment, but said Baldacci’s decision on the commissionership “will become clear” during a major speech he’s scheduled to make this evening on budget matters. Baldacci recently announced a plan to save money by radically consolidating the number of superintendents in the state. Asked if a similar consolidation could eliminate the commissioner position at DPFR, Canney declined comment.
Duson did not return a call seeking comment. Baldacci appointed Anne Head, of Yarmouth, to serve as acting commissioner of the department last September; Head has been the director of an office within that department for 10 years, according to the state’s Web site.
Duson’s seat, like Toothaker’s, would also be up for grabs this November, regardless of whether it’s filled in June. It costs over $50,000 to conduct a citywide election, said Cohen.
Councilors may have no choice but to hold such a vote this summer. Proponents of a citizen-initiated effort to repeal the formula business ordinance are gathering the signatures necessary to force a citywide vote on the law, which limits some types of franchise or chain businesses in parts of downtown, the Old Port and Bayside.
A measure sponsored by City Councilor Ed Suslovic calling for the limits to end this summer, pending the results of a study group’s work, was referred to the Community Development Committee for further consideration at the Council’s Jan. 3 meeting. Support for Suslovic’s measure appears to be eroding, as some councilors previously considered “yes” votes have questioned the practicality of this approach.
Duson is clearly not among this group. In a remarkable lapse of Council decorum, Duson made a show of ignoring Suslovic while he introduced his order to “sunset” the limits, audibly whistling a tune while he spoke. She then challenged whether Suslovic could even bring such a measure up for consideration, since he had been on the losing side of the vote to implement the limits last November. City attorney Gary Wood confirmed that Council rules allow such legislation to be brought forward.
A simple majority of councilors could vote to nix the business limits in March, thus eliminating the need for a public repeal vote. But it requires a two-thirds majority – six of the nine councilors – to hold a special election for a school board or council seat, and several councilors are expressing misgivings about replacing Toothaker so soon before the November elections.
“It’s hard to justify that as a worthwhile expense,” said City Councilor Jim Cloutier, whose own Council seat is up for a vote this November. Cloutier pointed out that the winning candidate in June would have to begin campaigning for the November election almost immediately. And because the vote would take place in June, traditionally a slow time for school board business, “the first thing [the winner] would be doing, probably, is taking a good deal of the summer off. Then we’d be within weeks of an election.”
The $10,000-$15,000 price tag for a district election “is a good chunk of change,” said Councilor Dave Marshall. Though Marshall, like Cloutier, hasn’t ruled out the possibility of holding the vote, he added, “it’d probably be better to wait ’til November.”
In addition to Eglinton, another parent of public school students, Julia Finn, has announced her candidacy for Toothaker’s seat. Finn lost the District 3 race to Toothaker by a single vote two years ago. Local activist Carol Schiller is also mulling a run for the post.
Among those said to be interested in Duson’s seat, should she relinquish it, is former District 1 City Councilor Will Gorham.
“I’d heard a few weeks back that [Duson] may likely get an appointment from the governor,” said Mayor Nick Mavodones. “Then I heard that may not happen. I don’t know the status of any of that.”
City Councilor Kevin Donoghue had also heard word of Duson’s potential departure. “It’s not that people are necessarily quiet about spreading those rumors – including the object of those rumors,” he said.