2017-11-16 / News

Councilor to soon finish up decades of service to city of Saco

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

Eric Cote is no stranger to Saco City Hall. He was first elected to the city council in 1978 for one term, served four years as mayor, 10 on the planning board and another 20 years on the city council. (Grant McPherson photo) Eric Cote is no stranger to Saco City Hall. He was first elected to the city council in 1978 for one term, served four years as mayor, 10 on the planning board and another 20 years on the city council. (Grant McPherson photo) SACO – A municipal veteran will retire from public service at the end of the year but has no plans to stop helping his community.

Eric Cote will attend his last Saco City Council meeting Monday, Nov. 20 after representing Ward 6 since 1998. His successor, Micah Smart, will takeover in December. Cote first served on the city council in 1978 for one term, served as mayor from 1982 to 1986 and was a planning board member from 1987 to 1997. His father, Charles Cote, was elected mayor of Saco in 1960.

Cote, 70, has run a law firm on Main Street in Saco since 1977. After graduating from Colby College in 1969 he served in the Army for almost three years while stationed in Vietnam, Africa and Germany. Upon returning home he enrolled at the New England School of Law.

Cote said serving on the committee that helped build the train station was one of his proudest accomplishments as a city official. In preparation, he and fellow committee members travelled to Portland, Portsmouth and other stations to better understand what would work best in Saco. The $2.2 million Saco-Biddeford Train Station was opened on Feb. 27, 2009. The 5,000-square-foot building had 43,292 riders in 2016.

“We like doing that,” Cote said. “Long after we’re dead the train station will still be there. That’s kind of cool. Maintaining decent public services is important. We have good public services in Saco.”

Cote and his wife, Dorothy-Rae, have been together for 44 years and have one son who will bring their 19-month-old grandchild to Maine for the first time this Christmas. Dorothy-Rae said she is proud of Cote for providing the most pro bono legal service in York Country for seven years in a row.

“I married him knowing we weren’t going to have tons of money,” she said. “But he was going to be good to people, as well as me. I’m proud of him. I made a good choice.”

When Cote served his first term on council there was a public referendum to lower taxes, which Cote said was a challenge. Members of the police department were laid off and municipal trash pickup and ambulance services were suspended.

“After the ambulance company had a breakdown people understood how much it cost to pay for it on their own,” he said. “We voted for it to comeback. People understood if they want it they have to pay for it. Other options are not cheaper and not better.”

Implementing projects such as the train station as well as the Eastern Trail, dog park and transfer station have been Cote’s favorite parts of public service. The most common request he hears from residents is to pave streets or fix sidewalks near their residences. He said because there’s little flexibility in the city’s budget it’s difficult to work with people who are extremely budget conscious.

“We waste so much time on budgeting things,” Cote said. “It takes so much time from staff. Some communities across the country and state think we should have a budget every other year. I suggested that at one point last year. I made a pitch for a biannual budget that would save a lot of time. I wish I’d come up with the biannual budget earlier. I didn’t realize until lately that other communities do that.”

While Cote may not have had time to change the budgeting process before he leaves in December, he still plans to continue his law practice for the next few years. His background in law helped him during his time on the planning board and gave him an appreciation for municipal services. Cote said stories from his law practice about drugs and domestic disputes made him glad Saco has a police force of its size.

“Public service is a break from being a local lawyer,” he said. “I have to deal with very different situations. The TV’s representation of lawyers is so inaccurate. TV shows them fighting in court but 95 percent of criminal cases work out a deal.”

In an email to city staff on Nov. 7, Ward 7 Councilor Nathan Johnston thanked Cote for his years of service to Saco. Johnston is the son of Mark Johnston, who served as Saco’s mayor for 12 years.

“Councilor Cote’s many dedicated years of service to Saco have been crucial in consistently keeping the community steered in a positive direction,” Johnston wrote. “I’ve enjoyed the last four years serving alongside Eric on several committees and council. His institutional knowledge, commitment to the environment and desire to help people will surely be missed. In December I will be seated next to someone new, but I will strive to represent the values Eric stood for all these years. Thank you, Councilor Cote for your dedication and many years of service to making Saco a place worthy of calling home.”

Cote hopes the Eastern Trail can one day be connected directly to the trail in Biddeford without going through downtown. He said city staff was always easy to work with and he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to do so. Cote said completing projects is ultimately about cooperation.

“I think the perception from TV and President Donald Trump is different,” he said. “That’s not how you get things done. You want to do something you talk to people. You don’t go to city council and have a debate. To get something done takes a long time, you have to be persistent and pleasant.”

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