From Sebago Lake to Casco Bay, the Portland area is thriving. People are back to work after finally shaking off the lingering effects of the Great Recession. New employers are finding opportunity in our region to build the foundations of our future prosperity, from craft brewing and local food production to the arts, high-tech and professional services. Our region is recognized nationally, and globally, as a vital entrepreneurial ecosystem, and our authentic tourism experiences and superb restaurant offerings are second to none.

But challenges remain – serious challenges that demand more from us than simple appreciation of all that’s good here. Our region faces demographic trends that threaten our ability to sustain what we have today. Poverty remains a persistent problem that denies economic and social equity to far too many of our fellow citizens. And climate change requires both adaptation and mitigation strategies for today and tomorrow.

In order to shape our future and overcome these and other challenges, we need leadership from our many strong institutions to build sustainable and shared prosperity. For almost 50 years, the Greater Portland Council of Governments has worked collaboratively to provide leadership alongside our partners, and we remain committed to doing so.

We face another challenge – one that we have to overcome in order to meet the rest. Civil public discourse is a hallmark of our heritage, but too often today data-based, respectful and inclusive dialogue is missing from our public exchanges. If we expect to find solutions to the challenges facing our region, and retain all that we love about our current successes, this must change. GPCOG is committed to doing everything we can to improve our public dialogue.

One of the many services that GPCOG provides is convening cities and towns to work together on complex issues. As conveners, we do not bring a preset agenda to the conversations we lead; on the contrary, we present data, define options for how to address challenges, and help citizens make their own informed choices.

That’s the GPCOG style: data-driven, community-based and respectful of all perspectives. Public dialogue in Maine needs this kind of approach, and we’re proud to contribute our expertise to constructive public debate and decision-making. But not everyone understands what we do, or how we do it.

A recent Maine Voices column (Nov. 28) took the Greater Portland Council of Governments to task for putting forward a “misguided ‘rail to trail’ plan” for a proposed walking and biking trail that would run alongside railroad tracks that would connect Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth.

Unlike the accurate news article by Staff Writer Peter McGuire the same day, the Maine Voices authors mischaracterized GPCOG’s role in this community discussion as well as our motives. Our role as neutral facilitator was defined by our member municipalities, who called on us to lead a complex discussion, and we were happy to do just that. I want readers of the Portland Press Herald to be clear: GPCOG is facilitating a discussion among all interested parties, including those who oppose the idea of a bike and walking trail.

We have no agenda other than ensuring a respectful discussion, informed by the best available data, designed to allow everyone to contribute their ideas, aspirations and concerns. Members of the four municipalities where the trail might run will decide what, if any, actions to take.

On Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Lunt Auditorium at OceanView in Falmouth, GPCOG will host a meeting where transportation experts, municipal land use planners and interested citizens will gather to discuss options for better connecting Portland and its northern neighbors.

Join us if you have an interest in this project and make your voice part of the community decision-making process. We particularly welcome new ideas, data-based reasoning and critical thinking. Every proposal deserves careful scrutiny, and our process is designed to give full and fair hearing to all perspectives.

I’ll be facilitating the meeting myself, and I’d love to see you there. If you come, you can see for yourself that today’s Greater Portland Council of Governments is leading civil discourse, bringing people together and providing the leadership needed to advance our region’s future, however our citizens and their elected representatives decide to shape it.

And after all, isn’t that what we all should be doing?