Friday, October 19, 2012

City Council candidates square off at debate

Business development and responsive government were two of the central issues for Portland's prospective city councilors during a Wednesday debate.10-18-council-debate
The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate between the six candidates seeking three seats on the City Council. There are three council races on this November's ballot: District 1 incumbent Kevin Donoghue is being challenged by Justin Benjamin Pollard; District 2 incumbent David Marshall is being challenged by Shane Boyington; and at-large incumbent Nick Mavodones is being challenged by Wells Lyons.
Starting off the morning debate, the council candidates fielded a question on what Portland could be doing to focus on developing areas of the economy such as manufacturing and technology and how tools such as Community Development Block Grant funding plays into the solution.
Marshall said he was a part of the discussions to foster the city's creative economy and that it's important for the city to foster all sections of the economy. He said the city needs to take a look at workforce training and development.
Lyons said his company, Rogue Industries, has had a hard time finding skilled workers for their stitching operation and understands that workforce training ought to be focused on more.
"There is a skills gap we need to address," he said.
A program that should be explored is a local and state partnership that can incentivize businesses to start career training programs, Lyons said.
Mavodones said the city's collaborative partnerships with businesses are key to finding a solution to address gaps in the workforce. He said there's an opportunity for the city to work with the chamber, business groups and other agencies to begin tackling the gap in workforce skills.
"There's no silver bullet," he said. "... But collaboration is the path to take."
Donoghue said the CDBG program would present a chance to foster programs that support working families through child care, education and housing. He said it's those barriers that make it difficult for people to enter the workforce.
Another avenue to address the problem of a skilled workforce is focusing on adult education program and directing more resources toward them.
Pollard said adult education programs could be the cornerstone to addressing gaps in the workforce.
"I think we could be making extensive use of those," he said.
Boyington said he's getting ready to graduate from college and he's heard from many classmates that are concerned about even being able to find jobs in the city. He said the council ought to focus on creating good-paying jobs in the city.
Aside from discussing bettering the city's business community, the candidates fielded a question about how Portland's elected officials can be more responsive to their constituents.
Allan Labos, owner of Akari, said he's bothered by the fact that councilors scarcely come and talk to him, or other business owners, at his Middle Street shop. He said he'd like to see the city's elected officials stop by and ask him what his needs are.
Labos said members of the council talk about a strong business community but don't reach out and talk to people. He asked the prospective councilors if that could change.
Mavodones said he gets out and visits businesses around Portland but found that it's difficult since he and the other city councilors have full-time jobs. He said there's a lot of work going on with the city's economic development plans that are reaching out to people in Portland, and the mayor has made it a priority to speak with a variety of groups.
The councilors try to visit as many places as they can, said Donoghue, but always make themselves available if someone needs to get in touch with them.
Pollard said forums are a tool that the city could make better use of and do more often. He said with the advent of the Internet and other technology, it's easy to solicit input and feedback from small business owners.
"Let's have a city council and city government that's receptive," he said.
Lyons said Maine's economy is dominated by small businesses, and those are the establishments that the city ought to do more to support rather than focusing on large developers.
"I think we really need to focus on small business," he said.
Marshall, who founded the Constellation Gallery and the Maine Artist Collective, said he understands many of the issues facing downtown businesses and he's tried to make himself available to them to hear their concerns. He said the councilors' time is in demand but thinks that the mayor's visitation program will help with business outreach.
"I think it's really important for the city to have a lot of contact with small businesses," Marshall said. "... We can learn a lot from those conversations."
Jim Devine, a Portland resident and advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, asked what the prospective councilors would do to make municipal meetings more accessible. Devine recalled a man who attended Monday night's council meeting to take about the Homelessness Task Force's report but the meeting had already happened.
Lyons said he had a similar experience Friday when he tried to attend a bicycle meeting but the location had changed and he wound up sitting through a totally different committee meeting. He said the city ought to have a better way to let people know about meetings, since the website isn't easy to navigate, and make them accessible.
Donoghue said the easiest solution is to list the meetings and locations in city hall's rotunda rather than rely so much on the website.
The city budgeted $25,000 to upgrades its website, said Mavodones, and improvements are desperately needed.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said.
Boyington asked if residents could really count on the old leadership to make any changes if they haven't already been made.
Voters will choose their councilors in the Tuesday, Nov. 6 election.

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