Monday, June 29, 2009

Social media help city reach residents

Using Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, Portland officials hope to connect with younger adults.

By TOM BELL, Staff Writer June 29, 2009

PLUG IN TO CITY NEWS

TO SIGN UP for the newsletter, visit the city's Web site, www.ci.portland.me.us.

THE CITY'S Facebook page can be viewed by searching for Portland Cityline at facebook.com.

FOLLOW CITY NEWS via Twitter; search for PortlandCitylin.

NICOLE CLEGG, the city's communication director, said she's looking for ideas from people about what to put on the sites and how often to update them. She can be reached at nicoleclegg@portlandmaine.gov.



PORTLAND — In the annals of communication breakthroughs, it was not quite up there with, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you," the words uttered by Alexander Graham Bell during the first telephone call 133 years ago.

But let it be recorded that on June 3 at 4:02 p.m., the city of Portland issued its first ever official tweet: "Bayside Trail Groundbreaking Ceremony and Festival this Saturday from 10-2 at Marginal Way and Franklin Arterial. www.tpl.org/bayside."

The city's new Twitter account is part of a larger city effort to use social networking Web sites to communicate with residents.

City residents can now check Facebook or Twitter for news from City Hall, such as traffic alerts and notices of important meetings. Residents can also sign up for an e-mail newsletter.

City officials want to reach out to younger adults who may not read newspapers or watch local television news programs, said Nicole Clegg, the city's communications director.

"The idea is to connect more people to the process and what the city is doing," she said.

As of Friday, the city had 411 Facebook fans, more than 100 Twitter followers and nearly 300 people signed up for the city's e-mail newsletter.

Clegg said she shapes the message based on the format.

On Twitter, she is limited to 140 characters, such as her tweet: "Kiwanis Pool opens in a week. Take a class, swim laps or bring the kids to the splashpark." Twitter can also be used to warn of street closures, parking bans or emergencies.

Followers can also respond. Bob O'Brien of Portland last week tweeted back to the city: "Kudos to Portland Public Works for filling that nasty pothole at Vaughn and Danforth. That was a wheel-eater!"

In an interview, O'Brien said he would never have picked up the telephone to call City Hall, but the Twitter account made it easy to give the city feedback.

"It improves access," he said.

Facebook allows for posting photos as well as plenty of text, such as Police Chief James Craig's 650-word "Letter to the Community."

Portland isn't the first southern Maine city to venture into social media. The Auburn and Westbrook police departments also have Facebook pages, for instance, as does the Gorham Recreation Department.

Clegg said the newsletter, called Cityline, will be e-mailed biweekly to avoid overwhelming people. It contains basic information, such as trash pickup changes and notices of upcoming events.

She explained that she's a novice in the use of the Internet for social networking.

She said she got the idea from Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who had asked her to include a sharing tool on the city's online press releases so he could post them on his Facebook page. (Donoghue has 1,185 friends.) She's also receiving advice from Councilor David Marshall (694 Facebook friends).

Both Donoghue and Marshall use their Facebook pages to inform their constituents about city politics and upcoming meetings and to get feedback on policy proposals.

Donoghue, for example, received 17 responses to his query this week on what people think about Tasers.

"Facebook provides a high-exposure, low-friction platform to share information," Donoghue said. "Anything we can do to open up City Hall is a good thing for the residents of Portland."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Before reading this article by Tom Bell of the Portland Press Herald please be aware of a couple of facts. First of all, the City of Portland did enter into negotiations for the lease and redevelopment of the Maine State Pier with Ocean Properties.

During the meeting in which the Council voted on the issue, I read quotes from city managers and city councilors from up and down the east coast about Ocean Properties history of suing cities and doing work without permits. All of the quotes I read in the meeting can be seen in The Bollard http://www.thebollard.com/bollard/?p=2615 in the article Ocean Properties’ less flattering side.

Ocean Properties negotiated with the City of Portland for eleven days before giving up on January 16, 2009. You probably remember last winter we witnessed the deepening of the global financial crisis with giant financial institutions vanishing from the globe. Yet, Ocean Properties supporters point to a Street Artist from the West End (me)as the reason for their withdrawal. Whatever the case, if Ocean Properties was scared away because of one City Councilor telling the truth about their past business practices, then it clear the deal was not meant to be.

The Olympia Company, on the other hand, negotiated with the City for eleven months before the State of Maine threatened legal action against the City if a long-term lease deal were to be signed with Olympia. The original order to negotiate with Olympia was one that I sponsored two years ago as a super-majority of my constituents believed Olympia's plan for the Maine State Pier to be superior. The City Council decided in November of 2008 to end negotiations with Olympia as the deal would have required litigating over who owns the submerged lands under the Maine State Pier: either the State or the City.

As a landlord and owner of Constellation Gallery, I know the importance of making wise investments. While on the City Council I have supported economic development and the growth of the City's tax base by working to update zoning, reducing parking requirements, supporting tax breaks that make sense, creating funding mechanisms to invest in the creative economy, and investing in City buildings to save energy and money.

As the Chair of the Housing Committee I sponsored an order to update the zoning to make housing development possible in the B2 business zones on the Peninsula. Also I supported reducing parking requirements for housing developments on the Peninsula after hearing from numerous architects and developers that the Cities parking requirements were the top barrier to development in Portland. Last month I supported a tax break to help Power Pay rehabilitate the former Public Market building since the deal made financial sense and created jobs.

As the Co-Chair of the Creative Economy Steering Committee, I envisioned and created a funding mechanism to reinvest in the local creative economy. As the Chair of the Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee, I worked to pass green building codes and renovate City buildings to save energy and money while creating green jobs.


Greens sprout into effective bloc in city politics

Three city councilors focus their advocacy on key issues, but critics say economic development suffers.

By TOM BELL, Staff Writer June 28, 2009

Portland City Council members, from left, John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall are members of the Green Independent Party, which promotes such values as social justice and community-based economics.

WEIGHING THE GREENS

"The dynamics have changed. This council as a group generally works pretty well together." – Councilor Nicholas Mavodones

"The question is, does their success on environmental issues outweigh the Maine State Pier debacle?" – Councilor Dan Skolnik

PORTLAND — Three years after first winning seats on the Portland City Council, the Green Independent Party can claim some success in pushing its agenda through City Hall.

Political observers say the three Greens on the council have proved to be effective consensus-builders on their core issues, such as reducing the city's energy usage and revamping land-use and transportation plans to encourage more housing downtown and less reliance on automobiles.

"These are the guys who are moving and shaking," said Christopher O'Neil, the Portland Community Chamber's liaison to City Hall. "There is some question among Portlanders as to whether Portland should be moving or shaking, but the fact of the matter is ... they are the ones driving the agenda."

Critics, though, say that the Greens have put ideology ahead of economic development and that some of their ideas benefit a minority of the city's population at the expense of the majority.

The Greens on the council include Kevin Donoghue, 30, who represents the East End, and David Marshall, 31, who represents the West End. Both were elected in 2006 and plan to run for re-election this November.

The third Green member is John Anton, 44, sometimes called the "grown-up Green" because he is older and more moderate on some issues. Anton was elected two years ago to an at-large seat.

The rest of the council is made up of five Democrats and one Republican.

The Greens do have a distinct political philosophy. Founded 25 years ago, the party now claims 32,000 members statewide. Members adhere to 10 key values: grass-roots democracy; social justice and equal opportunity; ecological wisdom; nonviolence; decentralization; community-based economics and economic justice; feminism and gender equity; respect for diversity; personal and global responsibility; and future focus and sustainability.

On the Portland City Council, the Greens frequently challenge the status quo and advocate for more transparency in government and more public involvement.

On the environment, they are "urban greens," embracing the philosophy that high-density neighborhoods use land more efficiently and allow people to get around without automobiles. They believe that many of the city's policies and ordinances reflect a suburban point of view rather than the city's historic development patterns.

Many people mistakenly believe that the Greens are left of the Democrat Party, said Steven Scharf, president of the Portland Taxpayers Association and an activist in the Republican Party. But Scharf said the Greens are fiscally conservative. He noted that on the Finance Committee, Anton was a strong advocate this year for a budget with no tax increase.

He said the Greens have accomplished more in a three-year period than most city politicians have in recent history, in part because they work hard, show a willingness to compromise and have realistic goals.

"Their ideas are not so far off the wall they can't be done," he said.

The Greens' platform highlights the role of party politics on a board that is supposed to be nonpartisan. Anton, though, said the council is not as polarized by party affiliation as many people believe.

"We have a lot more in common than we are different," he said. "Plunk the City Council down in the middle of Kansas, and we'd all be seen as a bunch of left-wing freaks."

PIER PROCESS DRAWS COMPLAINTS

Critics have big complaints about the Greens' decision to back Olympia Cos. to redevelop the Maine State Pier, rather than Ocean Properties. By selecting the smaller company whose plans were in conflict with state law, over a much larger and wealthier company, the Greens assured that nothing would be done, said Councilor Dan Skolnik.

When Olympia Cos. pulled out and the council then endorsed Ocean Properties, Marshall spoke so harshly against Ocean Properties' business practices that his comments might have caused the company to pull out of the deal, Skolnik said.

In the end, nothing was done, the city was ridiculed, and Portland lost revenue that could have kept workers employed, Skolnik said.

"What's the better benefit?" he asked. "The question is, does their success on environmental issues outweigh the Maine State Pier debacle?"

Markos Miller, former president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, said Donoghue has worked hard to involve residents in the planning process.

He noted that the city's effort to redesign Franklin Arterial began as a neighborhood initiative.

"He made sure City Hall was aware of it and brought us into (City Manager) Joe Gray's office," Miller said.

Harold Pachios, a lawyer who sometimes represents clients who have issues with the city, said many of the Greens' ideas – such as reducing the number of parking spaces required for new development on the peninsula – will make it harder for many people who depend on vehicles to visit or commute to the city.

He said Marshall and Donoghue in particular don't seem interested in economic development and strengthening the city's tax base.

"All the good things that Donoghue and Marshall would like to do depend on money, depend on revenue," Pachios said. "Otherwise, the schools and other services are going to suffer."

The Greens say the city is better off that the Maine State Pier projects have collapsed because the council can now more thoughtfully plan the pier development. They also say that some of their accomplishments – such as an energy audit that will guide the city as it spends nearly $700,000 in federal stimulus money on energy-saving improvements – will allow Portland to spend more money on services without raising taxes.

Marshall, who owns a downtown art gallery, said the Greens support economic development. He pointed to an ordinance he crafted that directs new property revenue in the arts district toward investments that foster the creative economy.

With the Maine State Pier issue dormant, the council in recent months has been working much more as a collective group, some members say. Some proposals are now winning unanimous approval, and partisan lines are less apparent.

"The dynamics have changed," Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said. "This council as a group generally works pretty well together."

Mayor Jill Duson, who chairs the council meetings, said Anton's ability to articulate his positions has increased his influence. She said Donoghue and Marshall, like other new councilors before them, have learned how to work with the city staff and other councilors to achieve their goals.

"I think the Greens are doing well in managing to figure out how to be effective in our group of nine," she said. "Of course, I'd like to see those seats filled by Democrats, but they are doing fine."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Proposal's goal: Fewer cars in Portland

http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=264072&ac=PHnws

Officials' primary focus is to boost alternative transportation in the city.
By TOM BELL, Staff Writer June 24, 2009

PORTLAND — City officials want to raise money for transit projects, such as new bus shelters and bicycle racks, by charging developers a fee instead of requiring them to create parking space.

The proposal by the Portland Peninsula Transit Study Committee is intended to give developers more flexibility and at the same time aid alternative transportation in Portland.

It's all part of a broader city initiative to make it easier for residents – eventually – to get around the city without a car.

"The presumption is that most households will own a car," City Councilor Kevin Donoghue told planners at a workshop Tuesday. "But the hope is that fewer people will use them to commute and won't have to keep them at their job."

The Planning Board is examining some of the many recommendations made by the 13-member committee, which wants to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles and promote alternative forms of transportation.

It issued a report in December, and the City Council is expected to take up its policy proposals this summer or in the early fall.

The panel's proposals include creating more bike lanes and paths; increasing the frequency of bus service and changing bus routes; encouraging car-sharing; expanding the parking lot at the Portland Transportation Center; and increasing the number of park-and-ride locations near the Maine Turnpike and in neighboring towns.

The Planning Board is looking at the proposals that address parking. Those include:

• Adopting a "park once" strategy for commercial development by requiring developers with new projects to share parking spaces with other users in the district. The increased efficiency of sharing spaces would mean fewer spaces would be required for each developer, transit committee members say.

• Separating the cost of housing from the cost of providing parking spaces. Currently, city rules on the peninsula require that developers provide one parking space for every housing unit. As a result, the cost of the housing unit is "bundled" with the cost of parking.

By separating the cost, committee members believe, the housing units and parking spaces could be marketed separately. This would lower the cost of housing for people who don't own cars, but it would give more spaces for people willing to pay for them.

• Allowing developers to pay the city a fee in lieu of providing parking spaces. The revenue would fund alternative transportation improvements or shared parking facilities in central locations.

Planning Board members on Tuesday appeared supportive of the proposals and set a public hearing for July 14.

Christopher O'Neil, the Portland Community Chamber's liaison to City Hall, said that for the most part, developers appear to be indifferent or on board with the proposals. They appreciate the additional flexibility, he said.

Planning Board member Joe Lewis, however, expressed concern that requiring people living in new developments without parking to lease parking elsewhere could make it so expensive that only affluent people will have a place to park their cars.

Senior planner William Needelman said the proposal will not affect the supply of parking spaces and is intended to make housing more affordable.

"This is a policy that puts housing in front of parking," he said.

Donoghue, who chairs the transit committee, said the new parking rules can lower the cost of development because builders won't have to provide as much parking.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com
Copyright 2009 by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Portland to spend stimulus for energy uses

The City Council votes to hire the city's first full-time 'sustainability coordinator.'

By TOM BELL, Staff Writer June 16, 2009

PORTLAND — The City Council voted Monday to spend nearly $700,000 in federal stimulus money to hire the city's first full-time "sustainability coordinator" and invest in energy-efficiency improvements.

Such coordinators are now common in large corporations, universities and a growing number of cities, and are typically energy conservation experts.

The council approved spending $168,000 for the position – salary and benefits for three years. It agreed to spend the rest of the money, $520,700, on energy improvements such as new lights, insulation, heating system improvements and weatherization.

The improvements will be based on recommendations of an energy audit that is due to be complete by the end of this month.

The city hired Framingham, Mass.-based Ameresco Inc. earlier this year to do a $150,000 energy audit and develop options for how the city can lower its energy bill.

The city could then decide to enter into a performance contract with Ameresco, which would act as a general contractor for the project.

If that happens, the $150,000 audit cost will be rolled into the contract. If the city does not move forward on the project, it will pay Ameresco for the audit.

The concept behind performance contracts is simple: They leverage money saved on energy and operating costs to pay for building improvements.

By using the federal stimulus dollars on the energy upgrades, the city will benefit sooner from the savings generated by the investment, said Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the council's Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee.

"What we want is the biggest reduction in our carbon footprint for our dollar," he said.

Because of the energy audit, the savings will be easy to calculate, putting Portland in a strong position to seek more money for similar programs from the federal government, he said.

The project is on the fast track. The city will receive $250,000 from the federal government by the end of this month, and the rest of the money later this year.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman expressed concern about creating a new position when the federal funding is available for only three years.

"This is a one-time infusion of money," she said. "I don't want to hire someone and have to lay them off."

The city owns 55 buildings, not including the Portland International Jetport, which is not part of the audit, and spends roughly $8 million a year on energy.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com
Copyright 2009 by The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. All rights reserved.

http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=262437&ac=PHnws
Portland may seek leader for all things 'green'

A plan calls for hiring a full-time coordinator of sustainability efforts
By JOHN RICHARDSON, Staff Writer June 3, 2009

Portland's parks and trails have helped the city earn a reputation as an earth-friendly place.

Now some city officials and others want Portland to hire its first full-time sustainability coordinator to help make it a truly "green" community.

The coordinator would be responsible for reducing energy use and other environmental impacts, and the position initially would be backed with federal stimulus funds. City Councilor David Marshall, chairman of Portland's Energy and Environmental Sustainability Committee, plans to propose the new position at the June 15 council meeting.

The idea also has the support of other city officials, and it was a top recommendation by students from the Muskie School of Public Service who recently compared Portland's environmental efforts with those in other U.S. cities.

"There's opportunities for Portland to really establish itself as a sustainable community, and if we want to do that, the sustainability coordinator is the next step," said Kristel Sheesley, a graduate student and one of the researchers.

The students found that a coordinator could help make a long list of changes, from expanding community gardens to keeping dog waste and other pollutants out of Back Cove and Casco Bay.

Sustainability coordinators are now common in large corporations, universities and a growing number of cities, and are typically energy-conservation experts.

Marshall's committee wants to hire the coordinator for three years using part of a $684,000 energy-conservation block grant that the city expects to receive over the next few months. The City Council would decide whether to keep the position at the city's expense after three years, and Marshall said he's confident that reduced energy costs and reduced waste in other areas would more than cover the annual expense of the job.

If the full council approves the proposal this month, the coordinator could be hired this summer, officials said.

"There's always room for improvement in this area. In Portland, and every other city in this country, we have a very, very long way to go," Marshall said. "The sustainability coordinator is a key ingredient."

Overseeing Portland's energy-conservation efforts and environmental programs is now part of the job of the city's solid waste director, Troy Moon, and Moon and Marshall's two-year-old sustainability committee has been making progress, advocates say.

Last month, the city adopted energy-efficiency standards for new city-owned or city-financed buildings, for example. And a contractor is due to report back to the city this month after reviewing the energy use and conservation potential in more than 50 existing city-owned buildings.

Portland also has increased investment in reducing sewage discharges during rainstorms and is trying to encourage more alternative transportation. On Tuesday, for example, the city announced the designation of 31 new downtown parking spaces for motorized scooters and motorcycles.

"There's a lot of this stuff going on – it just needs to be expanded," said Sheesley, one of the Muskie students who studied Portland's green potential as part of a Sustainable Communities Seminar last semester.

The students interviewed local experts in a variety of areas, such as alternative energy and water quality, and compared Portland with other cities. It presented its recommendations to Marshall's sustainability committee last month.

"The common thread seemed to be for a city of its size, Portland seems to be taking a lot of steps in the right direction. At the same time, there's a lot of room for improvement," Sheesley said.

The students' recommendations ranged from getting better prepared for climate change and rising sea levels, to simply providing more waste containers near walking trails so dog owners have an easier time cleaning up after their pets. Dog waste frequently finds its way into local bodies of water.

Sheesley's own research team focused on local foods and recommended that Portland turn more city land into community gardens, among other things.

"There's a strong demand for locally produced food in Portland," she said.

The Muskie students all agreed that the city needs a full-time person devoted to energy and environmental efforts.

"Other cities around the country have positions like that. It seems to work well," Sheesley said.

Fred Padula, a Portland activist, also said the city has much work to do. One official with real authority could change wasteful practices throughout government and expand the effort into the community by helping residents take advantage of energy-efficiency programs, he said.

"You give (the coordinator) a couple of years, and if he can't save as much energy costs to the city as his salary costs, then he's not doing a good job," Padula said.

Adding a new city-financed position would be a tough sell given the city's financial condition, but the availability of federal grant money makes it much more appealing, said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., chairman of the Finance Committee.

"I think it makes sense provided this grant money is available," Mavodones said. "The money's out there and I think it would be prudent for us to take advantage of it."

Mavodones said the city could then decide in three years whether to keep the coordinator. "I'd like to think the position would more than pay for itself, but we'd have to analyze that," he said.

Moon said there are plenty of ways to reduce environmental impact and save money.

The new position "would definitely be a big help," he said. "In terms of what we're trying to accomplish there'll be no lack of things to do."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

http://www.mainebiz.biz/news44574.html

Portland passes green ordinance to encourage carbon and cash savings

By Rebekah Metzler

Mainebiz Contributing Writer

05/12/09

The Portland City Council in early April approved a building ordinance that will require all city-funded new construction and major renovation projects to be built to the Silver standard of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The ordinance, which originally was met with some opposition by the local chamber of commerce, is part of a larger effort to meet goals outlined by the Architecture 2030 Challenge, according to city officials.

The ordinance applies to city renovation projects that are more than 5,000 square feet and all new city-funded private construction and renovation projects more than 10,000 square feet. Both types of projects would also need to have a total cost of more than $250,000 for the ordinance to take effect, according to the measure. It also applies to projects receiving more than $25,000 in Tax Increment Funding or municipal grants, which meet the other project criteria.

"If you are going to get a tax break for building in the city of Portland, you are going to be building for the future," David Marshall, the city councilor who introduced the proposal, told Mainebiz. "It was a huge step in the right direction."

The goal of the challenge from Architecture 2030, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based nonprofit, is to achieve carbon neutrality for all new buildings by 2030.

Marshall said he spent many months working with developers and other potential stakeholders on the ordinance's language to diffuse potential concerns

"We wanted to pass a good ordinance, because any time you tie any sort of string to an incentive, developers may see that as an obstacle," he said.

Susan Ransom, marketing director for PDT Architects, Portland-based firm that specializes in LEED-certified buildings, said even though the economy is in a recession, it's still a good time for such a measure.

"Yes, we're in a recession, but we're talking about permanent buildings -- long-term it's going to save money and save energy and make people more comfortable in buildings," she said. "This is not just about being high-minded and doing the ‘right' thing."

The point system used for obtaining LEED certifications offers options that don't necessarily cost developers more than building a non-certified building, Ransom added.

"LEED involves a checklist so development is very individualized to the building and which ‘points' the project aims to get," she said. "Ten years ago, when LEED was first invented, it was generally considered to be a much more expensive way of building. But you can get points for using a building with existing utilities or not using an irrigation system for your landscape."

The whole point of LEED is to save resources in the long term, Ransom said, which often results in monetary savings.

Some changes were made to the proposal to address concerns raised by the local Chamber of Commerce, Marshall said.

"They didn't want to see this have negative consequences that people hadn't anticipated, so we tried to think of the different projects it would have an effect on," he said. "We raised the square footage for projects receiving tax incentives from 5,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet."

"We initially objected, but we did come along," said Chris O'Neil, of Drummond Woodsum, representing the local chamber. "In general, what they did was raise the bar, so it wasn't punitive especially in smaller projects where the certification could be cost prohibitive."

The city planning director can also issue waivers in cases where the LEED certification process might impact the character of a historical renovation project, Marshall said.

Marshall called the policy a "living" ordinance.

"We might see some hurdles come up," he said. "We're largely in new frontier of policy-making, so you have to be flexible."

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