Four candidates are running for an at-large seat on the Portland City Council being vacated by Jill Duson, who is not seeking re-election after two decades in public office.

City Councilor Justin Costa, a 37-year-old accountant, is leaving his District 4 seat to seek one representing the entire city. He is facing April Fournier, a 40-year-old member of the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation and special services manager at a local Head Start agency; Laura Kelley, a 48-year-old retired pediatrician and former adjunct clinical professor; and Ronald Gan, a 70-year-old developer and real estate professional.

Costa says that his 12 years’ worth of experience as an elected official is needed to deal with the uncertainty brought on by the coronations pandemic, which is affecting the city budget and local businesses, whereas Fournier wants to focus on making government more inclusive and responsive to the needs of underserved communities. Gan said he would like to pursue more creative housing options and open up industrial areas to housing, while Kelley said she would prioritize public health in all of her decisions.

The candidates shared their views on the demands issued by both Black POWER, the group formerly known as Black Lives Matter Portland, such as firing City Manager Jon Jennings and defunding the police, and the leaders of the two-week-long homeless encampment, such as decriminalizing camping in public parks, as well as other priorities for the city.

The candidates also disclosed how they plan to vote on the six referendum questions that will be on the Nov. 3 Portland ballot: increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour and requiring hazard pay during declared emergencies, such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; prohibiting non-owner-occupied short-term rentals and increasing registration fees; protecting tenants by limiting rent increases and creating a landlord-tenant board; banning facial recognition technology use by city workers; implementing a so-called Green New Deal for Portland; and eliminating the cap on recreational and medical marijuana shops.

Costa said he would vote against all six referenda, since the council would not be able to tweak those ordinances for at least five years. Fournier said she supported all six, while Gan says he opposes the tenant ordinance, short-term rental restrictions and the Green New Deal. Kelley said she supports lifting the cap on marijuana stores, as long as the revenue can go toward public health initiatives, but she opposed the rest and is voting against the facial recognition ban because it was already banned by the council.

According to 42-day pre-election finance reports, Costa is leading all candidates in fundraising. He began with $11,000 left over from previous campaigns and raised an additional $5,900. Fournier and Kelley have raised about the same amount, with $4,525 and $4,425, respectively. And Gan has raised $2,400.

This is the first time that council and school board races will be decided by ranked-choice voting, which has been used in the mayoral race since 2011. Voters in March extended ranked-choice voting to all local races.

JUSTIN COSTA

Costa said he is leaving his District 4 seat because he recently got married and may purchase a home outside the district in the coming years. He said his experience – two terms on the school board and two terms on the council – will help guide the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, while also keeping ongoing projects, such as the elementary school renovations, on track.

Justin Costa Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Costa, who mounted a four-month campaign to be mayor last year before dropping out because of family issues, said Portland faces its biggest challenge since the Great Fire of 1866, which wiped out most of the downtown. As chairman of the council’s Economic Development Committee, he believes he’s best positioned to help local businesses emerge from the pandemic.

“I think the issues we’re facing now are so complex you really need people who are positioned to work seriously on them quite literally from Day One,” he said. “They’re not going to have time to wait months for a new councilor to come up to speed.”

Other than the pandemic, other pressing issues facing the city, he said, are racial justice, homelessness, addiction and housing. He said the city’s new public health director, Bob Fowler, is uniquely positioned to pull together community partners to take issues like substance use disorder and homelessness, given his experience leading the nonprofit Milestone Foundation, which operates a shelter on India Street for people with substance use disorder.

Costa said, as the only Hispanic councilor and only one of a handful of Hispanic officials in the state, he takes matters of racial justice seriously, but people need to understand the limits of what can be accomplished at the council level, especially in a short period of time.

“These are deep cultural issues in American society that it takes time to really address if we’re serious about trying address them,” he said. “It’s not something the council can vote on Monday night.”

Costa said the city should take a close look at its policing practices, especially at how reliant Portland and other communities in the U.S. have come to rely on police officers to deal with mental health and addiction issues. However, he said the slogan of “defund the police” means many things to different people.

He would be “very cautious” about decriminalizing camping in public parks, noting that anyone who cannot access the shelter because of past issues is still eligible for a hotel room funded by General Assistance. Although he didn’t support choosing Riverside Street for a new homeless shelter, he said the city should proceed in that direction, though Portland needs help from state and regional partners to adequately address the issue.

As for Jon Jennings?

“I think it would be wildly inappropriate for me or any candidate to talk about firing a member of city staff as part of a political campaign,” he said.

Costa’s endorsements include Mayor Kate Snyder, four city councilors (Spencer Thibodeau, Nicholas Mavodones, Tae Chong and Belinda Ray), state Sen. Ben Chipman and former Mayor Michael Brennan.

APRIL FOURNIER

Fournier said she first considered running for office based on her experiences trying to support her autistic son. The mother of four, who has lived in Portland for 14 years, said the inequities in opportunities for her son compared to other kids need to be addressed.

“Our systems are not set up for these families to be successful,” she said. “The services are scattered and they’re not accessible.”

April Fournier Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She was inspired to run for office back in 2016, after President Trump was elected and appointed Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Fournier graduated from EmergeMaine, a training program run by Democrats for women seeking office. She briefly ran for the state Legislature in 2018, but a medical issue forced her to give up her nascent campaign.

Fournier said her lack of elected experience should not disqualify her from consideration. She has racked up some early endorsements from other elected officials, including outgoing Councilor Jill Duson, state Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, City Councilor Pious Ali and school board chairman Roberto Rodriguez.

“I don’t know that you need to be a policy expert or someone who has served for years and years and years on various boards and political office,” she said. “I think you need to be passionate and put in the work and listen and involve the community.”

Fournier, who has four children ages 12 to 19, said she would like to find new ways to engage the community by proactively reaching out to community leaders, whether it’s people of color, immigrants, parents, small businesses or even dog-walkers.

Fournier said she would likely be the first indigenous woman elected to the City Council and that’s “a very important aspect” of her campaign. She thinks Duson, the only woman of color on the council, should be replaced by another woman of color. And her indigenous perspective would be valuable, not only from a community engagement perspective, she said, but also when working on environmental issues.

She supports the Green New Deal for Portland and said the city should increase its education about how to properly recycle and develop a municipal composting program. She also thinks that cruise ships should pay a fee for the amount of carbon they emit while in port.

“I can’t change global warming or those giant issues,” she said. “But I can make being environmentally aware and being able to participate in some small way more accessible to more Portlanders.”

Portland needs to reconsider its definition of affordable housing, she said. The city currently uses the area median income to determine affordability, but that number is inflated because it includes wealthier towns like Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth. Fournier would like to see the calculation of a median income for Portland residents.

She doesn’t support building a “mega-shelter” on Riverside Street, but she’s not sure what can be done at this point. She said councilors need to be more sensitive to the social needs of homeless people, who would be separated from their support networks by being located so far from downtown.

She said she doesn’t know Jennings well enough to comment on Black POWER’s demand to fire him, though she says “there’s definitely frustration with that individual.” She supported the decision to remove resource officers from schools. She’s careful not to paint all police officers with a board brush, but believes that policing in general needs to be overhauled.

RONALD GAN

Gan said he was motivated to run for office during the city’s ongoing effort to rewrite its entire land use code. He sees several short-term steps the city could take to foster development of affordable housing. And it all begins with an acknowledgment that the city is in fact in the real estate business.

As such, Gann said he would seek to disband the economic development office and “everybody in it” and create a new real estate and planning office.

Ronald Gan Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gan said industrial areas should be rezoned to allow for dense housing developments. He identifies inner East Bayside, Riverside Street and Warren, Forest and inner Washington avenues as “zones of opportunity.” He said the city should also look to the rooftops of existing industrial buildings as potential housing parcels. For example, he said that small modular buildings could easily be placed on some existing industrial buildings in East Bayside.

He also sees a role for tent cities and shipping containers to confront homelessness and an affordable housing shortage. He wants the city to create a tent city on the parcel of land it has identified on Riverside Street for a new shelter. The city could tap corporate donors for supplies and allow homeless campers to stay there. He said the city could also fit up a series 8-by-10-foot metal sheds or retrofitted shipping containers as transitional housing, with kitchenettes, bathrooms and showers, for people with the best chances of getting permanent housing.

Larger modular units or shipping containers could be built and located elsewhere throughout the city for service workers who can’t afford traditional apartments.

“The city has all this land around town to make these pocket neighborhoods,” said Gan, who supports financial incentives for housing developers.

Instead of selling city property to developers, the city should be entering into long-term leases as a way to generate annual revenue streams, he said. 

Gan believes the problem with modern policing is the hiring process, in which career cops make the decisions and former military members are prioritized as new hires. Instead, the process should focus on finding “the right human” for the job.

Gan, who does not support removing Jennings as manager, thinks his experience in all sectors of real estate is needed on the council, especially with at least two new councilors being chosen in November.

“I believe every councilor out there right now wants to solve the housing and economic problem,” he said. “But the narrative has been around for so long that they’re just too entrenched. We need a different set of narratives and viewpoints than we have had on the council.”

LAURA KELLEY

Kelley said she is “fundamentally against soundbite politics.” Instead, the retired pediatrician said if elected she would approach policymaking as a scientist, putting public health at the center of her decision-making and taking a more osteopathic, or holistic, view of issues. Her top priorities are public health, literacy and education.

“We can ask better questions and aim at roots at problems rather than scratch at the surface of a problem when they’re at the end points when it’s difficult to make change,” she said. “At all levels of government there are ways to make sure that we’re doing things to solve problems in a way that doesn’t create new problems.”

Laura Kelley Photo submitted by Laura Kelley

Kelley attended Portland schools for a time, including graduating from Deering High School, though she said her family moved around a lot. She moved back to Portland within the last year, after living for 13 years in Gorham, though she and her husband have worked here and maintain many connections here. The couple and their family are now year-round residents of Great Diamond Island.

Kelley is a vaccine advocate and was involved in the Maine Families for Vaccines Coalition, which fought against a statewide referendum to restore religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations. The experience only increased her appetite to play a greater role in public policymaking.

In addition to public health, literacy and education are important parts of her campaign, as well as equity issues and environmental and economic sustainability.

Kelley said she understands the financial constraints on the city, its taxpayers and small-business owners. So she would use her platform as a city councilor to remind people that it’s important to elect people to state and federal offices who are committed to fund solutions to issues such as substance use and other pressing problems, so they don’t continually fall on property taxpayers.

One way to ensure the city receives its fair share of federal funding is by making sure everyone fills out the census, she said, adding that the “vote and be counted” campaign is serving a dual purpose.

Kelley said Jennings seems to be a “polarizing figure” in Portland, but she didn’t have enough information to say whether he should be fired. While she doesn’t wave the banner of defunding the police, she does support more investments in public health and social service programs aimed at stabilizing families so they don’t end up on the streets and in the criminal justice system. She wouldn’t have supported the city’s decision to locate a new shelter on Riverside Street, but she’s not sure what can be done about it at this point.

Kelley said society is already paying the price for things like illiteracy, substance use disorder and mental illness. She said councilors need to choose the currency and decide if it’s paying to treat the symptom of the problem, or the cause.

“I do want to make sure that everyone understands that money isn’t the only way we pay for things,” she said. “If we want things to improve, we do need to invest in things that give us better outcomes.”

Note: this story was updated Monday Oct. 5 to correct Ron Gan’s position on the six referendum questions and remove an incorrect reference to Kelley’s place of birth.


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