The simplest solutions often are neat, plausible – and wrong, says Tom Coward, quoting philosopher H.L. Mencken to explain why the South Portland City Council must give thorough review to most issues that come before it.

Coward, 54, is one of two first-time councilors elected in November to the seven-member board. The other newcomer is Patti Smith, a human resources director.

Coward also may be the least known councilor. He was the only candidate to run in the District 1 race, after incumbent Claude Morgan dropped out of the race. As a result, he did not need to do the usual meet-and-greet with constituents to win his race.

But the career attorney already is showing an ease in dealing with the thorniest issues that come before the council and a penchant for raising questions that other members may overlook or neglect to ask.

City Manager Jim Gailey says that Coward offers a “fresh perspective.”

“People know where Tom stands on all issues,” Gailey said. “His ability to eloquently communicate his position on a certain item is a strong suit. He is respectful of others’ opinions, even though he may not always agree.”

Coward – a self-described information geek – may be the rare scholar-councilor in an arena where rhetoric and shoot-from-the-hip solutions sometimes rule the day.

“I try to look at unintended consequences of things as I consider the issues,” Coward said. “My background and legal training have taught me to look at things very carefully, to make sure we are not creating more problems by our solution. A straight line is not always the quickest way to get where we need to go.”

It is common for lawyers to serve in all levels of U.S. elective office. In Portland, Mayor Jill Duson is an attorney. George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator from Maine, is a lawyer, as is former Gov. Angus King.

But in South Portland, small-business owners, retirees and educators more often fill council seats. One of the city’s most legendary councilors was farmer Bob Fickett, known for his homespun wisdom and populist views.

Coward’s self-professed passion for the law has landed him some key committee appointments that will influence policy decisions in South Portland for years to come.

Coward will sit on a committee that will revise the city’s comprehensive plan, a detailed blueprint that leaders will use to guide growth and development for the next decade.

His legal background will be tapped when he serves on a city committee that will rewrite the lease for the Spring Point Marina, a private-public partnership. He also will be the city’s liaison at Maine Municipal Association meetings in Augusta.

Coward’s legal background is apparent in council meetings. Most recently, as other councilors offered a detailed list of adult books, films and items that should be banned from a proposed indoor flea market, Coward offered a quick dissertation on the legal hurdles of defining pornography, a problem that vexed members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coward seems comfortable in his brand-new council post because he is no stranger to municipal government. He is a veteran of the Zoning Board of Appeals, where he served for 12 years. As an attorney, he has argued cases before city and town boards and also filed court cases involving municipalities.

“I’m used to public meetings and being on television,” he said. “I know how to follow procedure. Over the years, I’ve had a fair amount of legal practice representing towns. The process is not frightening or mysterious to me. I can concentrate on what needs to be done.”

Coward maintains a small private practice, but focuses most of his attention these days on real estate. He and his wife, Deborah, are partners at Keller Williams Realty, based in Portland. Coward handles a lot of the legal work involved in real estate transactions.

The Cowards have three grown children and are active in the community. Tom has sat on numerous boards that include Woodfords Family Services, a nonprofit assisting people with mental handicaps. He also was a volunteer with the Boy Scouts.

The council “welcomes both his legal and his real estate background,” Mayor Tom Blake said. “Combined with his tenure on the ZBA, Councilor Coward joins us with a wide breadth of wisdom, knowledge and experience.”

Added Gailey: “Being an attorney and a practicing real estate professional, Tom brings versatility and, to date, has quickly been able to bring himself up to speed on many of the issues coming at him as a new councilor.”

Coward said he sees his role on the council “as representing the voters and making the best decisions.”

He supported Blake’s recent proposal to open up the council’s twice-monthly workshops to public comments. Although the proposal passed and will be done on a trial basis, some veteran councilors complained that a large turnout by the public would be intimidating and slow proceedings.

But Coward offers a different view: “I just need to listen to what people think, even if I may have opinions that are different or more expertise in an area,” he said. “It’s not helpful to only listen to one side or get stuck in preconceptions. Hearing other views is a learning experience for me.”

Coward’s intellectual curiosity can take council deliberations on new courses, just as proceedings seem to be wrapping up. For example, Coward recently questioned a council proposal that would prohibit dog walkers from allowing pets to approach minor children without parents’ consent.

The council intended to protect young children from nuisance dogs that may jump and knock them down on Willard Beach. But Coward argued that “a minor child is any person under 18 … If that means my 17-year-old cannot pet a dog on the beach unless I say it is OK, well, that is absurd,” he said.

“We need to make sure we are not creating three more problems when we solve one,” he added.

As a new councilor, Coward says he sees the economy as the most critical issue before city leaders. “The immediate problem is getting our finances through this current recession. We want to get our budget in line with declining revenues.”

Coward noted the drops in state funding, as well as revenues collected from excise taxes as people buy fewer cars. “We will have some tough decisions before us,” he said about budget hearings that will get under way soon.

“There are no answers at the moment as the city staff try to come up with solutions that have the least amount of pain,” he said. “Ultimately, the council has the final word.”

Tom Coward

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