Voters’ Guide 2008: City Council District 5












Movin’ on up?: School board chairman John Coyne faces challenger Naomi Mermin in the District 5 Council race. (photos/courtesy candidates) 

Voters’ Guide: City Council District 5 
Mermin vs. Chairman Coyne

By Chris Busby

Compared to the fracas that is the campaign for the at-large Portland City Council seat this year, the contest for the seat representing District 5 (Deering Center, North Deering and Riverton) is a tea party. However, beneath the staid veneer of this race, the same political power struggle causing quakes in the at-large campaign could be a decisive factor in this one. 

As with the Ed Suslovic/Dory Waxman match-up, here we have two Democrats going head-to-head — a relatively rare situation in Portland, where parties tend to anoint one candidate. In this case, Portland School Committee chairman John Coyne is considered the favorite of the party powers-that-be, and challenger Naomi Mermin the upstart backed by figures like Councilor John Anton, a Green Independent who gives Dem party honchos fits.

Coyne, a 40-year-old juvenile corrections officer with one term on the school board under his belt (including two successive years as its chairman), was encouraged to run by Councilor Jim Cohen, who decided not to seek a third term this year. Mermin, 42, is an environmental consultant making her first run for public office. 

Councilors outside the Democratic Party fold think Mermin’s less likely to be swayed by party allegiances and alliances than Coyne — that she’ll be a Suslovic-style maverick, only more predictable. Coyne hasn’t seemed to be getting the coordinated support of party faithful that Waxman (who’s running a much bigger campaign) has, but former Mayor Cohen’s endorsement is big in this district.

Coyne is a married father of two who lives on Saugus Street. He attended the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and has two associate degrees from Southern Maine Community College, in hotel management and culinary arts. His civic work includes a stint as president of the Riverton School PTO, board service for a little league baseball organization, and efforts to help the alcohol-control coalition 21 Reasons get off the ground. 

Mermin, a married mother of two who resides on Madeline Street, has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management from Cornell University and an MBA from Boston University in public administration. Her civic and community work includes service on the Deering Center Neighborhood Association, election to the board of the U.S. Green Building Council, work with the Longfellow Elementary School PTO and ongoing work on the board overseeing construction of a new elementary school off Ocean Avenue.

As we included in the guide to the at-large race, here are a few notes on this year’s questions…

• A “megaberth” is a large dock capable of supporting cruise ships.Then-Councilor Suslovic famously (notoriously, some would say) made construction of a megaberth at the new Ocean Gateway marine passenger terminal part of the Maine State Pier debate. After initially agreeing to set aside money to build it, The Olympia Companies decided they could not afford to do so, so city officials are trying to find another way to get the job done.

• A question on the Portland ballot this November asks voters if they want to have a charter commission formed. Such a commission would examine and make recommendations about the structure of city government, including the role and powers of the mayor, who is presently appointed by fellow councilors to a one-year term and has little additional authority. 

• No local officials are presently suggesting the city sell Riverside Municipal Golf Course. In the wake of the ongoing global credit and financial system meltdown, some cash-strapped municipalities are selling non-essential public assets and property. Portland is poised to face another tight fiscal year, so our question assesses the candidates’ willingness to consider sale of the city-run golf course and city-owned clubhouse to help balance the budget. 

If negotiations with The Olympia Companies to redevelop the Maine State Pier don’t produce an agreement, what should the city do next?

“The city should evaluate what happened in order to not make the same mistakes, then create a process that’s much more compatible with a transparent way of doing it…. Make sure the [next request for development proposals] is for companies that can actually get the work done.”
Mermin: Would confer with fellow councilors to “reaffirm what our vision as a city is for that site.” Favors issuance of a request for qualifications from interested developers, rather than a request for development proposals.

Should a megaberth be built at Ocean Gateway, and if so, how?

Coyne: Perhaps. Would consider the amount of business the berth would do and whether it’s a viable piece of infrastructure in the long term. 
Mermin: Undecided.
Do you support any restrictions on chain or franchise businesses?

Coyne: Would consider restrictions based on location and whether the chain would “squeeze out the local businesses.” 
Mermin: No. “I do not in any way think the very fact of being a chain is a reason for restricting” a business. 

Should Portland have a directly elected mayor who serves for more than one year and has more power than under the present system?

Coyne: Supports formation of a charter commission; would seek guidance from that commission.
Mermin: Leans in favor of a directly elected mayor; strongly supports formation of a charter commission. 

Should smoking be banned after 10 p.m. on bar and restaurant outdoor decks and patios?

Coyne: No. Is skeptical of the effectiveness of efforts to monitor compliance with the current ban.
Mermin: Not at this time; is also skeptical of enforcement efforts. 

Should the ban on smoking in and around city playgrounds and athletic fields be extended to include city parks and public squares?

Coyne: No. “That’s a little bit Big Brother-ish to me.”
Mermin: Not at this time; expressed similar skepticism of enforcement efforts. 

Do you support repeal of the law prohibiting bars and restaurants with liquor licenses from offering entertainment if their entrance is within 100 feet of a similar establishment? 

Coyne: No. “I think the 100-foot dispersal rule is great. The Old Port is much more manageable than in the past, especially in the summer months.”
Mermin: “I believe I am in favor of the repeal…. I have grave concerns about limitations on free speech and limitations on free expression.”

Would you support any further reduction in library hours or branches?

Coyne: Would need to see more data before deciding. 
Mermin: “We may have to take some cuts [in hours], but I’m not in favor of closing entire branches.” 

Should the city sell Riverside Municipal Golf Course?

Coyne: Would need to see more data before deciding; would be concerned by the prospect of major new development there.
Mermin: No. 

Should councilors make resolutions supporting or opposing national issues beyond the city’s control?

Coyne: No. “We’ve got enough on our plate here.”
Mermin: No.

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