The Portland City Council meeting lasted well into the night of Monday, March 20, ending around 10:30pm. The meeting covered a broad agenda, but the central issue was a lively debate about a proposed rent control referendum.
All councilors were present, with Councilor Anna Trevorrow joining virtually.
During the public comment on non-agenda items, Steven Scharf commented on the lack of transparency in the executive session that preceded the city council meeting. George Rheault commented over Zoom, requesting greater transparency on the Back Cove West Storage project taking place near Hannaford.
The meeting commenced with a recognition for Teresa Valliere, recently named the “2022 Downtown Hero” by Maine Development Association for her work as founder of Friends of Woodfords Corner. Four proclamations followed. Mayor Kate Snyder proclaimed the month of April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month; Councilor Pious Ali read the proclamation for Arab American Heritage Month. Two weeks in April were proclaimed The Week of the Young Child (April 1-7), and National Public Health Week (April 3-9).
Interim City Manager Danielle West then spoke on Order 150 and Order 151, setting the date for a Circus Smirkus performance at Payson Park in August and the Resurgam Music Festival in the Old Port on June 11th.
Devin Green, a resident of the area near Payson Park, made a public comment citing her concern about the infrastructure that would be erected in the park for the Circus Smirkus performance. Members of the Council reiterated her concerns and called upon Andy Downs, Public Assembly Facilities Director, to address them. Downs assured the Council that the infrastructure would be implemented with safety and minimal impact as top priorities.
Councilor Fournier then brought up the issues of parking and community outreach around the event, reiterating two points that led to the delay of a proposed music festival in the same park. Downs mentioned collaborating with schools and churches to supplement parking in the area, and said that outreach was the responsibility of the event organizer. The Council voted to pass these orders unanimously.
Interim City Manager West then granted two business licenses, one for Citrus, and one for Cera, both modifications to existing business licenses. The licenses unanimously passed in the Council.
One communications item came next – Communication 27, Regarding Staff Implementation of LD 2003. LD 2003 is a state law that passed last spring that sets minimum standards for municipalities to liberalize their zoning codes with the goal of creating more housing.
Christine Grimando, Director of Planning and Urban Development, provided the Communication. Grimando explained that Portland city code is mostly in alignment with the new legislation, though some adjustments are needed. While the current deadline for compliance is July 1st, 2023, Grimando believes that ongoing interpretation of the new law will likely delay that date; should the city not make these changes by July 1, “I don’t think there will be negative consequences,” Grimando said.
Councilor Ali suggested a workshop for property owners on LD 2003, and Interim City Manager West noted that some of the law’s contents will be discussed at the April 3rd Affordable Housing workshop. As a communications item, no public comment or vote took place.
Much of the ensuing agenda concerned the city budget, which the Portland Townsman will be covering in greater detail in the near future.
The first of the budgetary agenda items was Resolution 7, concerning the allocation of funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). The largest single allocation went to Preble Street, $250,000 for their food security hub; the Public Works department was also awarded money for two separate projects, totaling $398,000. As part of the allocation deliberation, $150,000 was also set aside in the General Fund for community policing.
Several public comments came in via Zoom from different beneficiaries of the money, expressing gratitude for the City’s support. Victoria Morales of the Quality Housing Coalition, Andrew Bove of Preble Street, and Jenny Stasio of Through These Doors all spoke to how this funding will sustain and expand their programming. The resolution passed unanimously.
Councilor Mark Dion spoke on the next budgetary items, Orders 147, 148 and 156. These orders pertained to the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), which Dion described as “the hardware of government.” CIP projects are generally concerned with city infrastructure, such as equipment, vehicles, and technology. Beneficiaries of CIP monies included the Great Diamond Island basketball court, fully funded by a private donation, and $700,000 towards the Congress Square redesign.
Resident Steven Scharf provided public comment, asking for clarification on the scope and detail of the CIP budget. In his remarks, Dion described the CIP as having a $10 million budget, while Scharf pointed out that the total spending was closer to $24 million. Scharf also criticized the planning of the CIP, and called upon the Council to adopt a better committee structure for this kind of spending. More specifically, Scharf called out the Congress Square redesign expenditure, asking for a more detailed outline of how this money is being used, especially given that the contractor hired for the much-delayed renovations last summer was, in Scharf’s words, “incompetent.”
Great Diamond Island resident Ann Weber weighed in next via Zoom, giving thanks to the City for funding the basketball court. C.J. Opperthauser, from Friends of Congress Square Park, gave public comment in support of the Congress Square redesign, highlighting the successful programming that has taken place in the park in recent years. A second Zoom comment came in from George Rheault, who called the CIP process the “worst process I’ve ever seen,” calling for greater accountability and transparency on the allocation of CIP funding. David LaCasse provided the final public comment on this matter, expressing again support for the Congress Square redesign.
In the Council discussion that followed, Dion clarified that Scharf correctly pointed out the $24 million sum, and apologized for misspeaking. Brendan O’Connell, Finance Director, provided insights on the CIP process. Councilor Regina Phillips expressed concerns for preserving the Union Station clock in Congress Square, which Interim City Manager West assured her was a priority for planners. Councilor Fournier asked if any other parks in the city receive a comparable amount of funding, citing equity concerns; O’Connell answered no. This exchange sparked a conversation among Councilors about diversity and equity in Portland parks, with Councilors Ali and Trevorrow attesting to the wide range of populations making use of Congress Square Park.
The order was passed unanimously.
Next on the agenda was Order 149, which pertained to re-zoning the area that currently houses Allagash Brewery. The re-zoning would allow the brewery to expand its operation at 50 Industrial Way. Representatives from Allagash spoke during public comment in favor of passing the measure, while George Rheault spoke against it, criticizing the Council for making zoning changes for businesses but not, according to Rheault, for projects that would expand housing. The order passed unanimously with no further council discussion.
Order 154 was another budget item, this time pertaining to the HOME American Rescue Plan (ARP), which is an opportunity for the city to obtain funding from the federal government in support of affordable housing and homelessness prevention. Per the funding stipulations, beneficiaries of the HOME ARP grant must be homeless, at risk of homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, veterans, or part of populations where the funds would prevent a family
This money has not yet been secured, but Mary Davis, Director of Housing and Economic Development, presented her department’s suggestions for how this money would be used if obtained. The city’s plan includes $2mm for building affordable housing; details of specific programming were not addressed at this meeting.
During the public comment period, George Rheault spoke up again, asserting that current zoning laws would prohibit the construction of affordable housing. Rheault criticized the council for “zoning out poor people,” and for being “afraid of any move that upsets the neighbors.”
Following public comment, Mayor Snyder stated that the HOMES ARP plan “aligns perfectly with the Council’s goals.” The council once again passed the order unanimously.
Order 155, Approving the Rules of the Rent Board, was the next agenda item. The most significant aspect of this order is the implementation of a Maintenance of Net Operating Income (MNOI) methodology for landlords. Please refer to the Townsman’s deep dive on rent control, also published today, for fuller details on these rules and the Council discussion that took place.
Rent Control Referendum
After the Council passed Order 155 unanimously, a brief pause took place in preparation of the final order of the night, Order 157. The order was concerned with a proposed ballot measure amending rent control policy in the city. In the days leading up to the City Council meeting, Councilor Phillips and Councilor Trevorrow put forth a competing amendment, which, if passed, would be offered on the ballot alongside the original ballot measure. The original measure was put forth by the Southern Maine Rental Housing Association (RHA). This organization was until recently known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association (SMLA). A full breakdown of the proposed measure, as well as the details surrounding Councilor Phillips’ proposed referendum, published today, can be found here at the Portland Townsman.
Turnout was high for public comment on this order. 40 people spoke in total, with 30 commenters supporting the competing amendment put forth by Phillips and Trevorrow, and 10 opposing it in favor of the original RHA measure.
While Mayor Snyder attempted to focus the comments around the matters put forth on the agenda – the election date, and whether or not to include the competing amendment – she was largely unsuccessful, despite making eight interruptions urging commenters to stay on topic. Councilor Dion and Councilor Fournier attempted to support the Mayor by calling points of order, but their attempts did little to dissuade commenters from debating the contents of the ballot measure. Thus, for a full hour and thirty minutes, the City Council meeting was the site of a tense debate between tenants and landlords.
Members of the public supporting the competing amendment were mostly tenants in Portland, a number of them under the umbrella of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA earlier shared posts publicizing the meeting on their Instagram. Many gave personal testimony of how rent increases and unfair practices have negatively impacted their lives. Tzara Kane shared that she was forced to relocate to Westbrook after getting priced out of Portland; Emily Manter described her experience as a victim of a retaliatory termination of tenancy after she asserted her rights as a tenant. Rose DuBois spoke on the importance of keeping Portland affordable so that the queer community can have a safe and accepting place to live.
Another focal point of the debate was the legitimacy of the signatures collected for the ballot measures. Many members of the public criticized the language of the ballot measure’s title and summary, calling it misleading. Amelia Kelleher of Grant Street shared that she signed on to the ballot measure, believing it was in favor of expanding rent control; when she learned that it was not, and attempted to have her signature removed, she was unable to do so. According to the City Clerk, against the 1,500 minimum signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot, the RHA referendum sponsors collected 4,013 in total, of which 3,087 were validated by the Clerk’s office.
Those who spoke in support of the original RHA ballot measure were landlords and property owners. Many on this side of the debate claimed that current rent control provisions compel them to raise rents by the legal amount every year, in hopes of bringing the unit closer to market rate. According to several commenters, before current rent control laws were implemented, they would rarely raise rents on existing tenants.
In addition, those in support of the RHA ballot measure claimed the competing amendment proposed by the two councilors was unfair and would confuse voters. Chris Acedo of Pine Street called it “utter hypocrisy,” since no amendments were added to DSA-backed ballot measures in the November election. Rose Greely also characterized the competing amendment as “confusing,” and said that housing policy should be more carefully considered.
Once the public comment period ended, the Council addressed some of the concerns brought up by the debate. The City Clerk clarified that the RHA-backed ballot measure received more than double the signatures needed, though she was not able to speak to whether or not those signing on were aware of the contents of the proposal.
Councilor Zarro was the first to chime in, expressing his frustrations with the current citizen initiative referendum process. “[The process] feels weaponized into a back and forth” where “people tear each other apart every time,” said Zarro. While he stated that he supported neither the original ballot measure nor the competing amendment sponsored by his colleagues, he did agree that the original RHA measure included misleading language.
Councilor Fournier spoke next, echoing sentiments expressed by Zarro. “We’re not supposed to govern by referenda,” she said. “This is not productive.” Councilor Dion concurred, and added that he had no objection to changing the language. “[The title] could be a stretch,” Dion said.
Councilor Trevorrow then spoke, countering her colleagues’ disdain for the referendum process. “[The referenda] keep us accountable,” she said, adding that they bring the city government “closer to a direct democracy.”
Councilor Phillips spoke passionately, explaining why she decided to put forth the competing amendment. “I didn’t create the idea of a competing measure… I followed the process,” she said, emphasizing that her actions were well within what is allowed in the city code, which the Portland Townsman can independently verify.
Both Phillips and Trevorrow expressed disappointment that the debate ended up being about the referendum process and not the content of the competing ballot measures.
Councilor Pelletier spoke up in agreement with Phillips and Trevorrow. “This is the process,” Pelletier said, in response to commenters who claimed the competing amendment violated the process that the original ballot measure had followed. “I would love for a perfect way, but there is no perfect way,” Pelletier added.
Pelletier also pointed out that many people may be using the citizen referendum process because they feel disenfranchised and disconnected from their local government, and pushed for the Council to consider this as part of their deliberation on the process.
Ultimately, the council came down to a 6-3 vote to move the ballot measure forward with no competing amendment. Those who voted against the competing amendment – Fournier, Rodriguez, Dion, Ali, Zarro, and Snyder – expressed that there had not been enough time to consider the contents of the amendment before the vote. Those in favor – Trevorrow, Pelletier, and Phillips – supported the competing amendment as a compromise on the issue, and reiterated that offering it was within the parameters of the referendum process.
One thing that the councilors did agree on was the misleading language of the ballot measure’s title and summary. Despite the fact that commenters were dissuaded by Mayor Snyder from discussing the language of the ballot measure, this point ended up being the only change that was made to the ballot measure. Council voted unanimously to change the title of the referendum from “An Act to Improve Tenant Protections” to “An Act to Amend Rent Control and Tenant Protections.”
The Council also voted unanimously to strike the final line of the summary language, which read, “The Act also brings Portland’s rent stabilization ordinance into alignment with most local and national rent stabilization ordinances.” The Council, led by Councilor Zarro, interpreted this as referring to other Maine laws, which could not be verified.
Finally, the Council voted unanimously to add the referendum question to the June election ballot.
A weary Council formally adjourned the meeting just after 10:30pm.
Erica Snyder-Drummond – Erica is a proud Portland resident, documentary filmmaker, and baker. Previously she has been a campaign canvasser, an immigration advocate, and a server. You can see more of her work at www.ericajsd.com.