Mayor Michael Brennan was in the cross-hairs during the first mayoral debate Wednesday night, with his two opponents taking aim at his leadership and policy positions.

The candidates touched on development, immigration and homelessness during the debate before a crowd of more than 50 people in the historic ballroom of Mechanic’s Hall.

Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling and Portland Green Independent leader Tom MacMillan frequently criticized the mayor for ignoring the concerns of Portland residents, who they say have been trying to govern through referendum and are worried about increasing rents.

The mayor’s opponents also highlighted Brennan’s support for banning panhandling in street medians and selling Congress Square Park.

“It was clear people were not listened to. This happened in essence behind their backs,” Strimling said about Congress Square. “We need development. We need jobs. But we have to make sure we listen to everybody and we collaborate and that everybody’s voices are at the table.”

Brennan defended his record, noting his efforts to build coalitions to increase local food used by institutions, address workforce development, prevent hundreds of immigrants from becoming homeless and advocating for the city in Augusta.

Brennan said divisions among the council are being exploited by his opponents. Four sitting councilors have endorsed Strimling.

“I think the council has functioned well,” Brennan said. ‘We’ve made important decisions about the budget, minimum wage and asylum seekers.”

Strimling criticized Brennan for only being able to muster a 5-4 vote in support of continuing to provide assistance to asylum seekers, when the state was poised to cut off funding. He said all nine councilors wanted to help, but the mayor couldn’t reach a consensus.

“I have been disappointed we haven’t had the leadership that can bring this city together,” Strimling said.

Brennan, however, noted that not all councilors supported the idea, and that he was ultimately successful in preventing hundreds of immigrants from losing aid for housing and food.

“What I won’t do tonight is allow Ethan to rewrite the history of the Portland City Council,” Brennan said.

Brennan also said that the council has had to make some difficult decisions because Gov. Paul LePage has targeted the city in unprecedented ways.

MacMillan repeatedly talked about the institutional failures of the city – whether it was low wages or racial profiling by the police. He conceded he wouldn’t be able to fix those issues, but said he would advocate on behalf of people of color, who comprise 7 percent of the population but account for 18 percent of the arrests.

“These are the silent group of people who are facing harassment,” MacMillan said. “We need to bring accountability to the police force.”

MacMillan also suggested that the city adopt a rent stabilization policy to prevent rents from sharply rising, and have residents elect Planning Board members rather than having them appointed by councilors to increase accountability.

“The city needs to take action so working families can remain in the city and landlords can’t gouge us out of our homes,” MacMillan said. “The City Council has been tone deaf to concerns of people in their neighborhoods.”

Brennan said his initiative to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in January, with subsequent increases, is one way to make the city more affordable. He also noted an ongoing evaluation of city owned lands that could be used for affordable housing. He pointed out that his Growing Portland initiative is studying ways to establish a health informatics cluster in the city, which would provide good-paying, sustainable jobs.

Brennan said he remains interested in exploring restrictions to people standing in medians, even though recent court decisions deemed a previous effort aimed at panhandlers to be unconstitutional. He also supported trying to craft a buffer zone to prevent women from being harassed when entering the Planning Parenthood Clinic.

MacMillan and Strimling criticized the mayor for his continued support of some sort of median ban, and Strimling hit Brennan for not acting more quickly to craft another buffer zone around Planned Parenthood. “We know there are constitutional ways to do this around the country,” Strimling said. “We should have put something else in place. Now six months later, still nothing. If I’m mayor it won’t take six months.”

Herb Adams, a former state representative and a professor of social sciences at Southern Maine Community College, moderated, asking questions during the first hour, and reading questions from audience members during the last 30 minutes.

The debate was sponsored by the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association, formed in 1815 as a guild to support the city’s tradesmen. It has about 300 members and it provides scholarships and hosts community events.

The event is the first in a series of forums and debates that will be hosted by community groups leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

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