Ashley Keenan is filling in for Erica Snyder-Drummond this month.
On the evening of Monday, August 14th, the City Council once again held a special double meeting. A loophole in the council’s Rules of Procedure allows the body to dispose of the month’s mandatory two meetings in a single day, and this is generally employed in the summer months to allow councilors and staff more free time during the season. The first meeting began at 4:00 PM.
Mayor Snyder was absent, having given the council several months’ forewarning, and the meeting was chaired by Councilor Pious Ali in her place. Councilor Trevorrow tuned in by Zoom, all other councilors were present in chambers.
General Public Comment
Unlike last month’s double-meeting, which allowed for only a single general comment period, both meetings on the 14th opened with public comments on items not on the agenda.
One Bill Higgins emotionally pleaded with the council to not “pit” the city’s homeless populations against one another, and suggested that the surplus of resources offered to the large asylum seeker population was diminishing the assistance available to the domestic unhoused. He asked whether donations of trash bags and supplies to the encampments could motivate the city to decide against clearing them, and pleaded with them to “treat people fairly.” Tom Dillon took a similar line, expressing sympathy with asylum seekers but criticizing state and federal policy which, he felt, had caused the crisis.
In addition to these comments, a slew of right-wing trolls called in via Zoom, with several impersonating cartoon characters.
George Rheault, the only other legitimate commenter, offered in response to some of the nazi-affiliated callers that white supremacist organizations had been found colluding with Mexican drug cartels, and so neo-nazi thugs should be considered hypocritical as well as hateful. Moving on to the meat of his comment, he stressed to the council that they should be gathering and reviewing information on evictions in Portland, especially as the eviction courts were once again working in full-swing post-pandemic. Rheault repeated that no understanding of the housing crisis would be complete without studying eviction rates and outcomes.
Councilor Ali, evidently tiring of the troll calls, then called the period to a close.
Appointments and Licenses
Disclosure: This author, Ashley Keenan, was one of the appointees approved by the City Council at this meeting.
First on the Council’s agenda was the appointment of four local residents to boards and commissions. Ashley Keenan was appointed to the Historic Preservation Board; Robert Foster (representing the Land Bank Committee,) Jaime Parker (representing Portland Trails,) and Kristin Fulmer were appointed to the Parks Commission. These were approved unanimously, and passed as an emergency to take effect immediately.
Next, Nick Demling was appointed unanimously as Constable for the Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Department. Constables are deputized to enforce city ordinances, but cannot carry a firearm, make arrests, or issue parking tickets.
A number of business licenses were also granted on Monday. Angoor Wine Bar was granted a Class A Lounge license, and Bissell Brothers Brewing expanded their license to a Class I Food Service Establishment. Porttown Public House was granted the same license to open in the location which previously housed Jake’s Tavern. Little Tap House received a new Class I license as well, as part of a change of ownership. All passed unanimously.
Liquor at the Irish Heritage Center
The Maine Irish Heritage Center (MIHC), however, had submitted an unusual request. A non-profit headquartered in what had previously been St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church, it had applied for a Class III and IV license to serve alcoholic beverages and paid the relevant fee. However, the Center – invoking a clause of the city’s code which had not previously been noticed by any applicant – requested the City Council to waive their license fee and refund them the amount. Zack Lenhert, representing the city’s Permitting and Inspections department, informed the council that they did technically have discretion on whether or not to waive such fees, despite it not being a request that they typically receive.
Steven Scharf was the first public commenter to speak, and he was evidently baffled by the request. This committed council jockey, one of the most common civilian faces seen at meetings, claimed to have never seen any nonprofit ask for this over 20 years of his supervision. “It makes no sense for one group to suddenly find out there’s this loophole in the law and use it to save themselves $1,700. If they want to serve alcohol, [they should] spend the money.” George Rheault, though less animated than Scharf, also opposed the waiver, believing that it would become a frequent request going forward if the council approved it. “I don’t begrudge them for asking… but you’ll be setting a precedent here.”
Jean Haney, Treasurer of the MIHC, contested Scharf’s comments and characterized the center as the “vibrant heart of the West End.” Sharing that the nonprofit’s narrow margins made it difficult to maintain their historic home, and that fundraisers where liquor is served increases donations, she asked the council to consider their request seriously. Vinney O’Malley, Executive Director at the MIHC, echoed Haney. “I truly feel we meet the definition of a community center… open to all.”
Councilor Dion, feeling unprepared to address the conflict, suggested postponing the decision until their next meeting and working with Corporation Counsel to ensure their legal position. Councilor Rodriguez, less patient, wanted to reach a decision tonight, and simply asked Corporation Counsel to weigh in now. He replied that the council, according to the city code, has the discretion to waive the fee if the license is of “direct benefit to the residents of the city.”
Unsatisfied, Dion stated that he would only vote for such a waiver if there was some sort of objective process for these requests; he wanted to avoid any perceptions of favoritism or arbitrariness. Councilor Pelletier agreed that some objective procedure should be developed, but that the license should be approved in the meantime. After some procedural confusion, this was the ultimate result. Unanimously the license was approved, but no refund was authorized.
A number of reports were presented to the City Council on Monday, beginning with Communication 5, a report on fossil fuel usage from Sustainability Director Troy Moon. He reported proudly that the newly completed Homeless Services Center (HSC), a one-story facility in Riverton, was the only commercial building constructed this year which does not use fossil fuels. A solar panel array on the roof and a number of other amenities were employed to reduce its carbon footprint. Other buildings such as a new dorm at USM and the new building at 201 Federal St. were also noted for their environmentalist design.
A number of policies to reduce the use of fossil fuels were recommended in the report. A program for supplying cheap financing to businesses looking to undertake renovations for energy efficiency, authorized at state level, was first among these, followed by a new law which would mandate disclosure of “Home Energy Scores” at the sale of residential properties. Finally, citing success in Burlington, Vermont, Moon’s report recommending instituting a “Carbon Impact Fee” on all new construction which uses fossil fuel heating/cooling systems. No carrot was proposed to accompany this stick.
Communication 6 followed, which was the city’s 2022 Housing Report. However, Housing and Economic Development Director Mary Davis didn’t go much further than simply describing the authorship of the report, and the council quickly moved on.
Encampments and Asylum Seekers
Communication 7 was the August report from the Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), the Health and Human Services Department’s interdepartmental task force for “resolving” homeless encampments in Portland. Kristen Dow, HHS Director, started the presentation upbeat, reporting that they had managed to place 12 campers into housing or shelters, (up from just 2 in the previous month,) and the number of tents at the Fore River Encampment had declined to 54 from 64 last week. The total number of tents across the city was also down to 228 from 237 last week. “The best week so far” for the program had encouraged the team.
Dow wanted to make clear to the city that, contrary to what some were claiming, that the ECRT had not caused other outreach programs to cease, and that all homelessness programs were still in operation alongside it. She also shared that shelter beds were being prioritized for encampment residents ahead of all other would-be shelter dwellers; they remained hopeful that they would have placements for every willing camper by the “resolution date” of September 6th (at which point they will clear the Fore River Encampment.)
Councilor Fournier expressed deep gratitude to the ECRT, and asked what they could do to increase campers’ willingness to take the city up on its shelter offers, since shelter resistance remained obviously high. Director Dow responded that a big hurdle had been the Homeless Services Center (HSC) 6:00pm curfew, which they’ve extended to 9:00pm, and otherwise they’re trying to address the various individual needs of the campers.
I’m afraid we’re gonna blink.Councilor Andrew Zarro
While Councilor Zarro also expressed gratitude, he followed with a pointed question: Where were empty beds at the HSC “coming from”? Is the HHS keeping track of what happens to the shelter residents who leave the shelter, and could it be they’re just going back to camping? Dow admitted she had no good answer, and that they don’t usually follow-up on those who leave the shelter voluntarily. Zarro did some math and commented that by the “resolution date,” they’ll need to place 18 people every week – assuming no newcomers show up. “I’m afraid we’re gonna blink.”
Communication 8 was also presented by Kristen Dow, and was on a closely related subject – the closure of the Portland Expo to the asylum seekers currently using it as a shelter. She reported that 60 families, 191 individuals in total, were currently at the Expo, which is being closed this Wednesday, August 16th to them. These individuals are primarily Central African in origin, and are claiming asylum status in the United States on the grounds that they are facing persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or social status.
The city is contracting with two hotels, (currently undisclosed until deals are finalized,) to house these 191 asylum seekers until more permanent housing can be arranged for them. Dow stated that a number of them already have placements in order, but that they won’t be available for several weeks or months, and so only need a little additional time. Recognizing public concerns about transparency, she added that “this is all coming together very last minute,” and that more information will be published when its available.
Mark Dion, sharply and succinctly, asked “Director, where’s the money going to be coming from?”
Dow responded “We’re going to be billing General Assistance.” General Assistance (GA) is a state-mandated program for municipalities to offer broad-based resources to residents in need. Dion asked how much it would cost in total.
Dow estimated that it will cost the city of Portland $550,000.
Councilor Phillips asked how much time that figure would cover, to which Dow replied (somewhat indirectly) that one of the hotel contracts will be only a short-term arrangement of “a couple months,” while the other hotel will host the asylum seekers for “up to a year.”
Phillips asked how many will be at the “couple months” hotel, to which Dow replied about twenty families. Councilor Phillips expressed incredulity that the HHS could house 20 families within “a couple months,” and asked if the new shelter being converted in Riverton would be able to take any of the families. Director Dow responded by reminding her that shelter had been approved for sheltering single asylum seekers, not families, and so likely would not be able to take any. Single, male asylum seekers made up approximately 85% of the residents at the HSC as of June 12th, according to Dow.
Following these reports, only one resolution was in front of the council, but it had attracted many public commenters. The “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty,” sponsored by the Pacific Island nations of Vanuatu and Tuvalu, has been endorsed by the European Parliament, World Health Organization, and Holy See among others. Councilor Zarro, chair of the Sustainability & Transportation Committee, now proposed that Portland sign it as well.
A slew of public commenters, including representatives from University of Maine Law School, the Portland Climate Action Team, and Homeless Voices for Justice, as well as a Polar Climate Scientist and a “Naturopathic Doctor” all urged the council to vote ‘yes.’ Not everyone was so supportive, Ken Capron lamented that cutting back on oil production would result in asphalt shortages, and that “we’re making China rich here.”
George Rheault too agreed that the treaty was a good cause, even it was just “a piece of paper.” But he went on to challenge the council to “set an example of doing things that are hard,” such as building dense, walkable housing and operating useful public transit. “You can’t take a bus on a public holiday [in Portland,] we can’t build apartment buildings… We should show the world that we can do it. Tiny little Portland.”
In contrast to the tide of public comments, the councilors didn’t have much to say, and they swiftly passed the resolution unanimously.
Councilor Ali called for a vote to adjourn, and the meeting ended at 6:00 PM, with the next meeting to begin in thirty minutes.
The second meeting of the night began at 6:30 PM sharp.
General Public Comment
During the second general public comment period, Jim Devine, who is formerly homeless and now works with Homeless Voices for Justice, stated that many in the encampments are completely ignorant of the incoming September 6th resolution date. He urged the city to make this better known and to be gentle with those “just trying to survive.” Along the same lines, a Zoom caller named Greg (who clarified “I’m not a communist, but I have some communist friends,”) criticized the city’s homelessness policy and specifically that they had given up oversight over the new Riverton shelter to a nonprofit.
Bill Weber, member of the Portland Climate Action Team, brought a large timeline to show that the city was not on track to meet its decarbonization goals set in 2017, and that Portland ought to conduct a new “Fossil Fuels Inventory” to gauge their progress. Another public commenter named Oliver, commenting on the city’s abortive Chapter 9 reforms, suggested that the city should assemble councils of citizens selected at random from the population to review and amend ordinances passed by referendum.
George Rheault made a strong accusation against Hilary Bassett, member of the Historic Preservation Board, that she had not recused herself from reviewing a project that her employer, real estate investor Ed Gardner, directly benefitted from. This conflict of interest, Rheault stated, was a severe ethical violation and should be reviewed by the Council.
Councilor Dion, far from chummy with Mr. Rheault usually, nevertheless took this very seriously. Noting their shared background as attorneys, he echoed the concern about even apparent conflicts of interest and directed Corporation Counsel to investigate. Counsel replied that he suspected there wasn’t much to see, but that he would “do a little digging.”
Order 27, sponsored by Councilor Zarro, would reinstate the dormant tradition of “Sundays on the Boulevard,” a weekly summer festival hosted on Baxter Boulevard when the road was closed to cars. Baxter has been under heavy construction and closed for years, but with work supposed to be wrapping up over the next several weeks, he wanted to see it return as soon as possible. This passed unanimously.
LGBT Senior Housing
Next came three interlinked orders, 19, 6, and 7, all concerning the building of a 54-unit residential building on Casco St. This project, managed by the Equality Community Center and funded primarily by donations, would be affordable housing for people 55 years of age or older, with a special concern for LGBT elders. The project would only be viable with Tax Increment Financing from the city, and Councilor Zarro urged the council to raise the level of subsidy from 50% to 75%, meaning that Portland would collect just 25% of property taxes from the lot.
George Rheault, who lives “just down the block” from the site, spoke first, clearly ambivalent on the subject. He recalled that the Housing committee had rejected the idea of offering a similar level of financing to larger, more impactful projects (such as a 275-unit proposed on Brown St.,) and that this site was zoned for a very high-density structure, not a mere 54 units. “A little stubby building,” he called the plan. While not opposing affordable housing, he wanted the city to tackle more big projects, not only politically uncontroversial small ones.
His was nearly the only skeptical voice, however, as a parade of ten public commenters – many of whom were from the ECC – urged the council to support the project and its assistance to LGBT elders. These comments included touching stories about the history of gay rights in Portland, and the challenges LGBT youth and elders face today. Several challenged the city to step up and match their aesthetic commitments to pride with real commitments like this. Ken Capron was the sole other suspicious voice, asking the Council to provide more details on these characters, and claiming that he had “never heard of” the ECC, and wants to know who stands to benefit.
Councilor Zarro responded by acknowledging that Portland hasn’t always been the best partner to the LGBT community, but that by building this he hoped to improve the record. Councilors Pelletier and Phillips also expressed heartfelt gratitude to the ECC and others involved in the process.
Zarro’s amendment to raise subsidy to 75%, and all of the other approvals, passed unanimously.
Other Unfinished Business
Order 8 accepted and appropriated a $20,000 donation and a $30,000 grant for the project to repair the antique fence in Lincoln Park. Frank Reilly, President of Friends of Lincoln Park, was proud to be part of this donation and briefly discussed the importance of Lincoln Park, the oldest public park in Portland. Councilor Ali shared that he used to spend a lot of time in Lincoln Park when he was new to the city, and that it was also where Cesar Chavez had given a speech. The order passed unanimously.
Order 9 concerned a minor change to parking on Fore Street, implementing a 2-hour limit on a stretch between Atlantic and St. Lawrence streets. Vehicles with a Zone 4 permit would be exempt from this limitation. It passed unanimously.
Order 10 would have been an approval of a zoning change to accommodate new development on Ocean Avenue, but Councilor Zarro moved to postpone this approval until November. Meanwhile, as it was in his district, he planned to host at least one public hearing and was requesting a City Council workshop on the subject as well. It was postponed unanimously.
Order 11 was a minor amendment to the City Charter which would allow candidates to take out nomination papers 28 days earlier that what is now possible. This was to line up the schedule with the Clean Elections program recently enacted by the Council following the 2022 Charter Commission. It passed unanimously.
Order 20 concerned the city approving the Finance Authority of Maine’s allocation agreement as part of the State Small Business Credit Initiative. This program, funded by the United States Treasury Department, is used to provide low-interest loans to local businesses, and Portland has been selected as one of Maine’s partnering cities. This passed unanimously.
Hearing on November Rent Control Referendum
Order 21 was a hearing for a new citizen initiative on rent control.
Following the citizen initiatives which Portland voted on in November 2022 and June 2023, November 2023’s municipal election will also feature a referendum on whether to amend the city’s rent control ordinance, itself enacted by referendum in 2020. This proposal, which succeeded in gathering the 1,500 signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot, would exempt those rental units whose beneficial owners own (or have ownership interest in) nine or fewer rental units. In other words, if a landlord owns nine or fewer rental units in Portland, those units would not be subject to rent control restrictions.
Since the initiative was certified by the City Clerk to qualify for this hearing, the council only had three options before it. First, the council could vote to place it on the ballot; second, they could draft a competing measure and place both on the ballot; or third, they could adopt the proposal immediately into law. It was apparent, however, that the council would take the first option.
In public comment, Jim Devine, speaking again, argued that rent control shouldn’t be changed, though he didn’t specify what he thought the council ought to do in response to this citizen initiative. Oliver also spoke again, and asked (after admitting to the orthogonal nature of his question) if the City Council intended on continuing its work on amending Chapter 9. He stated that it was obvious citizen initiatives were flawed, and that the council should be working on amendments to the process. No councilor would address this question.
Finally, DSA member Buddy Moore commented by Zoom that the title, “An Act to Exempt Small Landlords from the Rent Control Ordinance,” wasn’t neutral, since “Small Landlords” is a vague and biased term. He suggested the council alter the title.
Councilor Pelletier, picking up on Moore’s thread, proposed making such a change to the title. Corporation Counsel elucidated some of the legal ambiguities around changing the title, but stated that as long as the change was in the interest of neutrally and accurately describing the ordinance, it should be within the council’s power to do. Pelletier, after grasping for the right words for a moment, settled on “An Act to Exempt Landlords with Fewer than Nine Units from the Rent Control Ordinance.” While certainly less snappy and more clinical, she said that a title like this would be neutral, descriptive, and give voters the most information. Other councilors, including Trevorrow, Rodriguez, and Dion agreed.
Corporation Counsel, however, pointed out that while this may sound correct, it’s actually not technically accurate. The proposed ordinance would focus on individual persons with ownership interests, not “landlords.” The distinction is important, as a “landlord” doesn’t have to be a literal human being (what in law is called a “natural person,”) but could also be an LLC or other entity. If the ordinance targeted only “landlords”, then there would be a major loophole allowing a person to simply own as many companies as they wished, each owning nine or fewer units. The citizen drafters of this ordinance were savvy enough to avoid this, but Pelletier’s sensible name change would in fact not be accurately describing the law.
Councilor Ali suggested “An Act to Exempt Certain Landlords and Hundreds of Tenants from the Rent Control Ordinance,” but this met vigorous shaking heads and frowns from city staff, clearly not being a neutral title. Corporation Counsel offered “An Act to Exempt Certain Landlords from the Rent Control Ordinance,” which Pelletier found acceptable.
Councilor Rodriguez, however, was upset by this. Pelletier’s original suggestion provided more information to voters, (even if technically inaccurate,) but this would do the opposite and provide much less information to voters. After all, the title wouldn’t contain any information at all about who these “certain” landlords would be. Councilor Pelletier, trying to offer a solution, seemed to only make things worse for Rodriguez, by proposing “An Act to Amend Rent Control,” the briefest title yet. This was also the exact same title that the council gave to June’s Question A, despite that initiative being a completely different law sponsored by a different group.
Disregarding Rodriguez’ protestations that this was a wholly different title from the one provided to signatories, and one that provided no context at all to voters, the council seemed eager to wrap things up and moved to a vote. Councilors Rodriguez, Dion, and Phillips all opposed this new, vague name, but Ali, Zarro, Pelletier, Trevorrow, and Fournier voted in favor of the neutral title. The motion to put it on the ballot passed with the same 5-3 split.
Transit and Transportation
Finally, a number of orders concerning improvements to transit and streets in Portland. Order 22 accepted a Bus Shelter Easement Agreement from the Portland Housing Authority, and Order 23 approved a bus shelter installation with the Greater Portland Transit District. Working with the Maine Department of Transportation, Orders 24 and 25 approved the York Street Pavement Improvement Agreement.
An update to Portland’s ranked-choice voting system received a first read.
The meeting adjourned at 8:25 PM.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the mechanics of local government, the ongoing housing crisis, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiancé and can be personally reached at email@example.com.