In early March, when municipal leaders across southern Maine were scrambling to plan their response to the looming COVID-19 pandemic, the staff of the Greater Portland Council of Governments organized a panel of experts to answer their questions.

A few weeks later, just before Gov. Janet Mills issued a stay-home order, city and town managers were hungry for more guidance. The regional council arranged a Zoom meeting with Mills and the managers, started holding weekly online meetings for municipal officials and created an interactive web page so they could get and share the latest information.

“For a while there, the executive orders were coming fast and furious,” said Naples Town Manager John Hawley. “We couldn’t keep up and we needed help understanding our legal responsibilities.”

And when a computer hacker Zoom-bombed a Falmouth Town Council meeting, displaying lewd images that shocked viewers, the regional council’s staff formed a strike team to help train municipal officials how to host secure public meetings online.

“Now, holding a Zoom meeting is as easy as making a phone call,” said Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, “but back then we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Poore, Hawley and others say the council has been especially helpful during the pandemic, and increasingly in other ways that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. Funded by 25 dues-paying member municipalities and federal grants, the council has evolved from a nondescript transportation and regional planning agency into a more dynamic, relevant and effective organization.

A screenshot of a recent webinar on homelessness that was hosted by the Greater Portland Council of Governments. Panelists included, clockwise from left, Liz Cotter Schlax, CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland; Daniel Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority; Jon Jennings, Portland city manager; and Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing.

With new leadership, a little more money, an expanded staff and fresh marching orders, GPCOG (commonly referred to by its acronym, pronounced gee-pee-cog) is helping cities and towns around Maine’s largest city grapple with some of the toughest issues of the day.

It has become a convener and catalyst for action on the opioid epidemic, racial inequity, homelessness, immigration, urban sprawl, climate change and the pandemic. And several of its recent initiatives have won major awards, including a master plan that is transforming South Portland’s West End neighborhood; a model program, piloted in Falmouth, to help cities and towns address addiction and opioid misuse; and a concept plan that calls for creating a village center around the Maine Mall.

GPCOG also ramped up its group buying power, which previously helped member municipalities get cheaper copier paper, asphalt and road salt. Now, it provides cost-saving engineering consultants for storm water management projects, among other consulting services. And when the council got involved in municipal cable TV negotiations, an audit found that Spectrum had underpaid $142,000 in franchise fees to several municipalities.

“GPCOG has evolved based on the needs and demands of its membership,” Poore said. “I think there’s a much better awareness of the need to work closer with our communities to solve problems as a region, but also to swap ideas and develop best practices.”

Founded in 1969, GPCOG is sustained by 25 dues-paying cities and towns in Cumberland County. It also works on regional transportation initiatives with Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford and Arundel in York County.

Member communities began positioning GPCOG for change in 2015, before the retirement of Neal Allen, who had been executive director for nearly two decades. The executive committee started developing a strategic plan that called for GPCOG to become a strong, innovative and leading force in the region and meet the changing needs of cities and towns.

“While our plan rests on a strong foundation of prior accomplishment, it is intended to elevate GPCOG to a new level of service and leadership,” the strategic plan said. “GPCOG’s members and partners have asked the agency to expand its services and take on a stronger
leadership role in the region.”

In particular, the organization was expected to help its members and partners attract new grants and resources; build a strong peer network to spread best practices and innovations; and explore new opportunities for consolidating or sharing services, facilities and equipment.

When GPCOG hired Kristina Egan to be the new executive director in 2016, she helped to complete the strategic plan and set the agency on a path to achieve its goals. She reorganized the agency, folding the planning staff of its longtime partner agency, the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, into GPCOG. And she hired several new staff members with strong experience and specialized skills geared toward the strategic goals.

“The world is changing so rapidly, municipalities need to work together to thrive,” Egan said. “The staff we have today has broad talents and expertise, so we can take a holistic approach to any issue or problem. We can bring the capacity and tactical support that many municipalities need but don’t have.”

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, stands at Bug Light Park in South Portland. The regional agency funded by 25 member municipalities and federal grants has become more dynamic, relevant and effective in recent years under new leadership. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Egan added and combined several positions, increasing GPCOG’s staff from 19 to 25 people, with an eye toward growing outreach and services to outlying towns, older Mainers, immigrants, business owners, people with disabilities and others.

Newer hires include Chris Hall, former CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, who is general counsel and director of regional initiatives; Tom Bell, a former Portland Press Herald staff writer, who is public information officer; and Victoria Pelletier, special projects coordinator and racial equity project manager.

“They’re very concerned about inclusiveness. They try to include everybody,” said Karen Perry, 79, an artist who lives in Portland and has stroke-related disabilities. She’s one of GPCOG’s community transportation leaders who helps train bus drivers to be aware of disabled riders’ needs. Next year, the agency will deploy multilingual bus ambassadors to help immigrants better understand the transportation system.

To fund these staffing and strategic changes, GPCOG’s 58-member General Assembly agreed to increase annual dues paid by member municipalities and Cumberland County for the first time since 1990. The per-capita fee doubled over a two-year period from $1 to $2 per resident, increasing the council’s dues revenue from about $260,000 to about $520,000 per year, said Tony Plante, a former Windham town manager who is among the newer hires, serving as GPCOG’s director of municipal collaboration and chief operating officer.

This year, membership dues were discounted 20 percent because of the pandemic, to about $416,000 overall. Still, that was expected to leverage more than $1.3 million in grant funding for regional planning and economic development, with an overall budget of $4 million.

GPCOG also allocates $25 million to $30 million in federal dollars annually for regional transportation and economic development initiatives, such as brownfields redevelopment and business loans. And this year, the council is allocating more than $100 million in federal pandemic relief to the region for public transit, economic development, small-business grants and other programs.

Many credit GPCOG’s recent successes to Egan, a former Freeport town councilor who is an expert in transportation, energy efficiency, smart growth and civic engagement. Matt Sturgis, Cape Elizabeth’s town manager and a former elected official in New Gloucester and Gray, was president of GPCOG’s executive committee when it hired Egan and approved the strategic plan.

“Kristina had a vision and a direction she wanted to go in,” Sturgis recalled. “In the spaces where she has needed to take action recently, her nimbleness has allowed GPCOG to step into the void. The time has called for it, the need was there and GPCOG answered it.”

The challenges GPCOG responds to now often have national and international ties. It convened a gathering of faith and immigrant community leaders in July 2019 to help find housing for a large influx of asylum seekers in Portland, and it offered a webinar series on racial equity last spring in response to local protests after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, speaks to a gathering of faith and immigrant community leaders in July 2019. The agency convened the meeting to help find housing for a large influx of asylum seekers in Portland. Facilitator Craig Freshley listens in the background. Photo by Tom Bell

In recent weeks, it held a webinar highlighting innovative small-business owners who have adapted to support vulnerable populations during the pandemic; a panel discussion of the growing homeless population in Portland; and a webinar on how Maine’s new Climate Action Plan impacts municipalities, featuring Portland and South Portland officials who are leading the way and GPCOG’s sustainability manager. All were well attended.

Looking ahead, GPCOG will continue to help member municipalities address issues related to the pandemic, including the challenge of distributing COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks and months, said Sturgis, an executive committee member. Advocating for a variety of regional needs in Augusta is expected to be a growing priority as well.

GPCOG also is working with area restaurants to help them survive the pandemic, including a new website to find winter dining options; launching a four-part campaign to improve public transportation; and overseeing 14 grant-funded Resilience Corps Fellows who will help cities and towns work on various environmental, planning and communications projects.

In Naples, a Resilience Fellow will be helping the town assess its broadband needs, working 10 hours per week on a resident survey and other projects. That’s in addition to thousands of dollars the town has saved by taking advantage of purchasing, consulting, negotiating, advisory and support services provided by GPCOG for about $7,500 in annual dues.

“That’s staffing support that I wouldn’t be able to hire for the town,” said Town Manager John Hawley. “That’s a huge benefit to a small town. There are a lot of things that small towns wouldn’t take on without the backup and support we get from GPCOG.”


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