Challenger Jonathan Torsch is looking to turn more power over to the people in his bid to oust incumbent Spencer Thibodeau from the City Council District 2 seat representing the western half of the Portland peninsula.

Torsch, a dues-paying and executive board member of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, said he is frustrated that Thibodeau, a real estate attorney who is finishing his first term, has not embraced community-based initiatives such as rent control, paid sick leave and noncitizen voting rights. If elected, Torsch said he would work closely with activist groups like the Democratic Socialists and Southern Maine Workers Center on policy initiatives.

“The city needs to step back and realize they’re facilitators – they’re not judge, jury and executioner,” Torsch said. “They’re there for the community to work through and not hand it down from on high.”

Thibodeau said constituent services have been a priority, noting his attendance at neighborhood meetings and coffee hours and his prompt responses to emails. Based on constituent concerns, he helped pass changes to the city’s snow removal ordinance that increased fines and allowed the city to recoup costs of clearing sidewalks. He also worked with the city manager to make improvements to the entryway at Reiche Elementary and to the surrounding pedestrian infrastructure.

Thibodeau pushed successfully for a protected bike lane along Park Avenue, and the Sustainability and Transportation Committee that he leads drafted and passed a strict anti-pesticide ordinance. In a second term, he said he would concentrate on adding more protected bike lanes, adopting rules and regulations for bike share programs, and drafting a climate action plan with South Portland.

“I want people to see their municipal government as responding to their concerns in a tangible way,” Thibodeau said.

Torsch would like the council to focus on the larger issues facing city residents, especially the high cost of housing. While he largely blames capitalism in general for rising rents and a lack of wage growth, he wants the city to do more to push back against those forces.

He’d like the city to take another look at rent control. He also wants to beef up the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires 10 percent of units in developments over nine units to be affordable to middle-income earners. He thinks that percentage should be nearly doubled, the income threshold for what’s considered middle income should be lowered, and the fees that developers can pay not to build those units – currently more than $100,000 – should be increased significantly or removed entirely.

A similar proposal was shot down by the council. “It’s laughable that didn’t pass,” Torsch said.

While Thibodeau has been one of the councilors to clash publicly with Mayor Ethan Strimling over policy and his interpretation of the mayor’s powers, Torsch said he thinks the mayor is making all of the right moves in terms of policy.

“Generally I think he lands on the right side of these issues,” Torsch said.

Torsch said large budget requests from the school superintendent shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

Thibodeau said the council showed during the last school budget process that changes can be made to reduce the tax impact, without requiring drastic moves like closing schools. He supports examining whether some of the school budget, such as Portland Adult Education, can legally and effectively be funded through business license fees or tax increment financing funds earmarked for economic development.

Torsch would like the city to build several smaller shelters to replace the 154-bed facility on Oxford Street, but Thibodeau supports the 200-bed shelter being recommended by city staff, although he has concerns about the proposed location at the city-owned Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.

“If done correctly, a shelter in Bayside would work,” Thibodeau said. “I’d like to see us take a look at it.”

Both support a proposed charter amendment on adding a 42-day pre-election campaign finance report. Advocates, such as the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the Maine Women’s Lobby, asked candidates to voluntarily disclose that information for this cycle. Torsch complied, showing he has raised $1,300. He said he’s not taking money from out-of-state donors, real estate developers or political action committees.

Thibodeau said he didn’t think it was appropriate to accommodate a special interest group and that he was concerned they only asked for information on donations, rather than the full report. He said he had raised $1,600 from 11 donors and spent $4,255 since July 1, when his semiannual report showed he’d raised $8,100 and spent $4,615.


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