Today we celebrate good government.

No, I’m not talking about Washington, D.C., and our perennially paralyzed Congress, or Augusta and our perpetually p.o.’d governor.

I’m talking about the city of South Portland and its brand new, three-member Draft Ordinance Committee.

Don’t let the drab title fool you. The committee’s job – to come up with an ordinance that prevents tar sands oil from flowing east from western Canada all the way to Portland Harbor – has the undivided attention of Big Oil interests hellbent on keeping their options open, an environmental movement determined to stop them and a community that will be left to live with the eventual outcome.

Put more simply, appointment to the Draft Ordinance Committee comes with a guaranteed hot seat. Yet none of these guys – Michael Conathan and David Critchfield, both from South Portland, and Russell B. Pierce Jr. of Portland – seems to be squirming.

“The skills sets of these folks are phenomenal,” South Portland Mayor Gerard Jalbert said in an interview this week. “All three have gone through some very complex situations in their careers – and that’s absolutely fantastic.”


More on those resumes in a minute. First, a look back at what brought this trio into the limelight.

In November, South Portland voters went to the polls to decide on the city’s proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance. The citizen-initiated measure – aimed at stopping the possible use of the Portland Pipe Line as the last link for pumping tar sands bitumen from vast reserves in Alberta to outbound tankers on the Maine coast – drew heavy opposition from the deep-pocketed American Petroleum Institute and thus was expected to fail miserably at the polls.

It didn’t. In fact, with 8,716 ballots cast, the ordinance fell just 194 votes short of passing.

Talk about a wake-up call for local officials, several of whom had opposed the ordinance because they felt it too broadly targeted the city’s working waterfront.

By mid-December, again over the loud objections of the oil industry, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium on any tar-sands-related development. At the same time, it approved the creation of a small, all-volunteer committee with a crystal-clear mission: propose a new ordinance that keeps unrefined tar sands out of South Portland without jeopardizing other waterfront enterprises.

Twelve people applied for the job. Last week, the council had its first face-to-face meeting with the three who made the cut.


We have Critchfield, who moved to South Portland in 1997 and co-founded EMSOURCE, a Portland-based firm that specializes in assessing and managing environmental risk and liability. Before that, he worked on the environmental design team for the Alaskan natural gas pipeline and spent 15 years helping International Paper manage its Superfund hazardous waste sites.

We have Pierce, an attorney with the Portland firm Norman Hanson and DeTroy whose practice includes constitutional, environmental and administrative law. He represented the Natural Resources Council of Maine before the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission during its long deliberations on Plum Creek’s housing-and-resort development near Moosehead Lake – arguably the most complex and controversial land-use proceeding in Maine history.

Finally, we have Conathan, who scored highest among all the applicants. He moved to South Portland last summer from Washington, D.C., where he is the director of ocean policy for the Center for American Progress.

Before moving to the left-leaning think tank in 2012, Conathan spent five years working for Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe on the Senate’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

“I had the good fortune to work in Washington before compromise and bipartisanship became dirty words,” Conathan mused to the council last week. “That’s an attitude I hope to keep alive.”

So is total transparency.


To the credit of all involved, most of the committee’s 70-minute, introductory workshop session with the council centered on how to keep the process open from start to finish. The same topic took up a good chunk of the committee’s inaugural meeting two days later.

From an outright ban on hitting the “reply all” button on their municipal email accounts (too close to a virtual meeting) to the channeling of all correspondence through committee facilitator Jeff Edelstein (who at $200 per hour is the only person being paid to complete this project), the committee thus far appears borderline obsessed on staying out of the shadows.

Every word will be taped and Internet-accessible via South Portland Community Television. Whenever possible, the meetings will include time for public comment. Committee members will not comment individually – to the media or anyone else – between sessions.

There’s even talk of a website dedicated to the committee’s work. That’s no small feat, considering the members’ determination to do their own fact-finding rather than be spoon fed data from one special-interest group or another.

As Critchfield put it last week when Edelstein asked how the committee might define its own success, “Success is due diligence. It will be a success if we’re proud of what we’ve done and it’s very well researched.”

Success, they agreed, also will require unanimity.


“I don’t think it does anyone a favor if we go to the City Council with a 2-1 decision,” Conathan noted.

The heavy lifting, to be sure, has yet to begin. (Alas, heavy snow postponed Thursday evening’s meeting, at which the committee had planned to begin its assessment of the current state of play up and down South Portland’s waterfront.)

What’s more, the committee’s finished product will hardly mark the end of this high-stakes battle. Few doubt that a new-and-improved waterfront ordinance, once approved by the Planning Board and enacted by the City Council, will be challenged in court by the oil industry, which spent more than $600,000 fighting the last one.

But worth noting – and applauding – for now is that the future of South Portland’s waterfront no longer has an entire community fighting itself.

“Folks are quite pleased and very congratulatory, actually, of our City Council,” said Mary-Jane Ferrier, a recently retired psychologist and spokeswoman for the anti-tar sands group Protect South Portland. “They have really proceeded carefully but openly and they’ve done a marvelous job.”

As for the new committee, Ferrier said, “They appear to be people who really know how to work as a team. And that’s wonderful.”


Mayor Jalbert said he’s been pleasantly surprised not just by the committee’s collective expertise, but by its quiet camaraderie.

“They meshed instantly,” Jalbert said. “They’re not spending time debating philosophy and ideology. They’re getting down to work.”

The way government should be.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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