The races are set for three City Council seats in Portland and all eyes will be on the at-large contest, where two progressive activists are challenging one of the most senior members of the council.

Councilor Jill Duson is facing challenges from Joey Brunelle and Bree LaCasse, both of whom argue it’s time for a change and have said Duson was wrong to support a scaled-down plan to renovate elementary schools.

There also is a two-way race for the District 4 council seat and a three-way race for an open District 5 seat, which Councilor David Brenerman is giving up after one three-year term.

Monday afternoon was the deadline for candidates to submit their nomination papers at City Hall. All of the candidates have already had their signatures verified by the city clerk’s office.

Although it is considered an off-year election with no statewide or national offices at stake, Portland is among the Maine communities that will decide on a full slate of candidates and contentious referendum issues.

In addition to the three council races, voters will decide how much money – if any – they want to spend on fixing the city’s elementary schools. They also will decide the fate of a citizen initiative calling for new limits on rent increases, and another that would require neighborhood approval of any land use rezoning proposal.

CAMPAIGNS AMID CITY HALL CONFLICT

The council races come as Mayor Ethan Strimling has repeatedly clashed with all eight of his fellow city councilors, as well as with city staff, over the breadth of power and influence he should have as the popularly elected mayor. The tensions at City Hall are sure to filter into the campaigns, and turnover on the council could provide Strimling with more support to allow him direct access to city staff, among other things.

The school bond referendum also is sure to play a role in the City Council races, especially the three-way at-large contest.

Voters will be given three options regarding elementary school improvements: Approve a $64 million bond to fix four schools; approve a $32 million bond to fix two schools while seeking state funding for the other two; or say “no” to both.

Jill Duson

Duson, who is 63 and finishing her 16th year on the council, opposed the $64 million bond because it would rule out the possibility of getting state funding for two schools that have narrowly missed the cut in the past. She, along with Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, withheld their support for putting the full bond before voters until the council agreed to offer an alternative scaled-down bond.

Duson also has been among the councilors who have clashed with Strimling, and recently said she would no longer meet with the mayor until after the election. She has described herself as a voice of stability on the council and an advocate for affordable housing, economic development and education, and for embracing immigrants.

“Over sixteen years on the council, I’ve worked to build a Portland where our diversity is our strength, where our local businesses can thrive, where our children receive the enriching, enabling education they deserve, and where we can overcome any obstacle that may arise,” she said in a written statement Monday.

DUSON RIVALS BACK FULL SCHOOL BOND

Both of Duson’s opponents supported the full $64 million bond for school renovations. They argue that the city has waited long enough for state funding, and there’s no guarantee that waiting any longer will pay off.

Bree LaCasse

Both Brunelle, a 32-year-old web designer and developer, and LaCasse, a 41-year-old development officer for Community Housing of Maine, are community activists who say they believe it’s time for a change. Both also say they are concerned about gentrification because of rising rents and the development of high-end housing.

LaCasse was involved in the 2014 citizen referendum to overturn the sale of Congress Square Park.

“I never could have turned Congress Square Park around had I not sought out the input of everyone, especially those who supported selling it. That’s the kind of leadership I will bring to the City Council,” LaCasse said in a media release last week. “We need someone on the council who will listen to everyone, and I will be that councilor.”

LaCasse had raised about $20,000 for her campaign as of July, setting a potentially record-setting pace for a council race.

Joey Brunelle

Brunelle led opposition to the city’s decision to stop offering HIV health services at the India Street Public Health Center.

He has criticized Duson’s leadership of the Housing Committee, which turned down aggressive proposals to protect tenants. And he has made campaign finance a major theme of his campaign, saying he returned donations from out-of-state friends and family and that he refuses to accept money from developers.

“The point of an election isn’t to raise money,” Brunelle said in a media release, “it’s to talk to people, share ideas, and build a movement around the issues people care about. My goal in this campaign isn’t to chase wealthy donors, it’s to engage the residents of Portland in making policies that improve their lives.”

SCHOOL BOARD, CITIZEN INITIATIVES

In District 5, which includes North Deering, Deering Center and Riverton, three people are running to replace outgoing councilor Brenerman: Marpheen S. Chann-Berry, a 26-year-old design and digital communications coordinator for Maine Center for Economic Policy; Craig C. Dorais, a 45-year-old patent examiner; and Kimberly M. Cook, a 45-year-old attorney and government and community relations consultant.

In District 4, which covers East Deering, the Back Cove area and parts of Deering Center and North Deering, incumbent Councilor Justin Costa, a 34-year-old staff accountant at Auto Europe, is being challenged by Kimberly Rich, 58, who said she recently left her job at Maine Medical Center so she could be more politically involved.

There also are three races for the school board, but all are uncontested. Incumbent Marnie Morroine is the only candidate to file papers for the District 5 seat, Mark Balfantz is the only filer for the at-large seat currently held by John Eder, and Timothy Atkinson is the only filer for the District 4 seat now held by Stephanie Hatzenbuehler.

Two citizen initiatives also are headed toward the ballot, although the City Council still needs to take a formal vote Sept. 6.

One measure would establish rent stabilization in Portland. It would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own six or more units. It also would establish a landlord-tenant board that would mediate disputes, assess fines on landlords who improperly evict tenants, and allow landlords to increase rents beyond what the ordinance allows, among other things.

The other measure would give neighborhood residents more leverage in the city’s rezoning process. It would prevent a zoning change from being approved if at least 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet of property proposed for rezoning sign a document opposing the change. A developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document within 45 days.

SCHOOL REPAIRS A HEATED ISSUE

The school bond referendum is sure to be the focus of an intense campaign.

Emily Figdor, the co-founder of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, has stepped down as a national campaign manager for MoveOn.org to focus her attention on running a campaign to support the school bond.

Figdor said she is not taking a salary to run the campaign, which recently received a $20,000 contribution from Progressive Portland, a nonprofit co-founded by her husband, Steven Biel. The donation came the day after other candidates and groups filed their semi-annual reports at City Hall.

Figdor said she’s also taking leave as chair of the Portland Democratic City Committee to run the bond campaign. Over the past year, Figdor’s leadership of the committee has sparked a debate among members, who are concerned that the committee officers are taking sides in local races among Democrats.

Last year, Figdor commissioned a poll, without the consent of her committee, that tested Mayor Strimling’s approval rating and policy positions as well as the at-large race between challenger Pious Ali and incumbent Jon Hinck, which was won by Ali. Earlier this year, Figdor endorsed LaCasse, appearing on stage with the candidate at her campaign kick-off.

LaCasse and Strimling are listed as having significant roles in the Protect Our Neighborhood group. LaCasse spoke at the group’s campaign launch in June, but Brunelle was denied a speaking slot by Figdor.

Biel, who temporarily served as Ali’s treasurer last year, is also supporting LaCasse. But he has said that Progressive Portland has not yet decided whether it will officially endorse a candidate.

Progressive Portland co-founder Patricia Washburn said in an email Monday that the group still has no plans to endorse candidates in the upcoming election. She said the group has not yet made a decision about whether it will poll any of the council races.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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