Portland’s City Council meeting on Monday, February 27th, was a mix of regular city business, confrontational comments, and right-wing trolls.
The proceedings started out plainly enough, with Mayor Kate Snyder at the helm and seven out of the eight City Councilors in attendance. Councilor Rodriguez and Councilor Ali joined remotely over Zoom, and Councilor Pelletier was absent.
After a slate of board appointees were confirmed, three business licenses were approved unanimously – one for Volcano, an “indoor entertainment” business located at 155 Riverside Street; one for Bread and Friends, a new cafe set to open at 505 Fore Street next month; and one for a change of ownership and classification of the Portland Sea Dogs stadium at 271 Park Avenue. Sustainability Director Troy Moon also announced a new Sustainable Neighborhood Pilot Program in which two neighborhoods, which haven’t yet been selected, will be the subject of such initiatives as community yard care, home weatherization seminars, and pickling-and-canning workshops.
Two agenda topics came to dominate the discussion of the meeting: the ongoing influx of asylum seekers, and Portland’s land use, in the form of the North Deering Park project and the city’s Land Bank Commission.
Interim City Manager Danielle West provided Communication 25, re: Asylum Seekers in Portland. According to West, 550 asylum seekers have arrived seeking shelter in Portland since January 1st, 2023. That breaks down to about 80 new arrivals per week.
The most urgent concern is finding transitional housing for the new arrivals. Though the city has managed to temporarily solve the problem using a mix of municipal and privately-owned spaces, “the cliff may be coming where we can’t meet the need,” said West. The city’s warming shelters offered chairs to sleep on this past weekend when the space was no longer able to accommodate additional beds.
Between the lack of physical spaces to house the asylum seekers and the lack of staff to keep these facilities up and running, West, along with other councilors who offered their own comment, believe there will soon come a point when there is no longer any housing available to the asylum seekers. She conveyed that although Portland’s federal delegation is trying to secure waivers which would authorize Portland’s asylum seekers to legally work, the situation is becoming “untenable.”
“The cliff may be coming where we can’t meet the need[.]”Interim City Manager Danielle West, on the influx of Asylum Seekers to Portland
Councilor Fournier and Councilor Ali expressed gratitude for the work that has been done thus far, while emphasizing the need for more collaboration at the local, state and federal level. Councilor Ali also lauded the South Portland city council for adding more shelters, hoping that other municipalities might follow suit. “We cannot do it alone,” said Ali.
Councilor Dion was more pointed with his comment, expressing disdain for those who characterize the Council’s efforts to address the situation as insufficient. “I’ve had it with that attitude among certain citizens. It’s disrespectful,” said Dion, referring to emails he has received from the public. Dion spoke to the need for immediate action, and not just lofty policy. Ultimately, though, his comment came back to the issue of a dissatisfied public.
“I see you Mr. Rheault, and I’ll exercise some decorum and not react to your negativity,” said Dion, referring to Portland resident George Rheault, known for his criticisms of the council. Mr. Rheault had not yet made any comment on the matter. Shortly after his comment, Councilor Dion exited the chamber, asking Mr. Rheault on his way out if he’d prefer to “talk outside.” Mr. Rheault declined.
Mayor Snyder also spoke on the issue, placing particular emphasis on the staffing crisis at the city’s shelters. “We can’t just open city-owned buildings… you have to staff them with people,” the Mayor underlined.
As a Communication, the asylum seeker agenda item allowed no public comment or Council vote.
The council then moved to consider Order 135, approving the final sale of 24 acres of land in North Deering to establish a new park in the neighborhood. This has been a process underway for over two years, and this proposed park has been under council scrutiny multiple times already, but this purchase is the last major step prior to officially opening the park later this year.
The land in question is currently privately-owned, but is freely used for recreation by the surrounding community. The baseball diamond sits relatively unused compared to the past, and the park isn’t professionally maintained, but nevertheless residents can be found walking through the woods or gathering in the field. As the land is in private hands, this free use could come to an end at any time, so it’s not too surprising that the city should seek to acquire it, and in so doing, secure the land as a permanent park.
To that end, a federal grant of $400,000 was received from the National Park Service in cooperation with the national Trust for Public Land (TPL.) In addition to this grant, a number of other grants have been secured by the city, and according to Parks Director Ethan Hipple in correspondence with our editor, only $80,000 of city funds are being spent on the purchase, (comparable to the budget of the Public Art Committee.)
This evening, Hipple introduced the subject by emphasizing the benefit to local schoolchildren, the unique opportunity of being able to purchase land that already has basic athletic facilities on-site, and the importance of situating a park in North Deering, as this low-density neighborhood is one of the few remaining within city limits that isn’t within walking distance of a city-owned park. When North Deering Park opens, Portland will be able to claim that virtually all of its residents live within a short walk to public greenspace.
Jon Kachmar, of the Land Bank and Parks Commission, gave public comment in support of the proposal, but resident George Rheault, who followed, was much more critical. The federal grant which makes the purchase possible was designed with the intention of bringing greenspace to low-income urban communities. Mr. Rheault claimed that the suburban, low-density character of North Deering, within which fewer than 6% of residents are classified as low-income, is clearly against the spirit of the grant, but as no other proposal from Maine was received, the NPS approved it. Emphasizing the housing crisis, he raised the possibility of building affordable housing on the land instead, as there is already a parcel of city-owned property in the area that could be used for a smaller park instead.
Councilor Rodriguez, picking up on this criticism from Rheault, asked the parks director if that was true, and if so, why this parcel had not been considered for establishing a park. Hipple, standing again, stated that this 10-acre parcel of very marshy ground was unsuitable for even recreational use, and would require extensive draining. When asked by Rodriguez, Hipple went on to say that while future improvements are possible, no wetland drainage would be necessary to open the North Deering park. In previous correspondence, Hipple also stated to the Townsman that despite no extensive study being done, the 24 acres proposed for the deed-restricted park would also likely be unsuitable for multi-family housing construction due to the marshy terrain.
Other positive public comments were given, but it was here the first troll comments were made via Zoom, including one from an account with a Philadelphia area code. Several councilors also made positive comments, as did Mayor Snyder, and approval was passed unanimously.
Order 141, Approving the Memorandum of Understanding for Mutual Aid with the City of Westbrook, which would allow for shared emergency resources between the cities of Portland and Westbrook, passed unanimously. However, during the public comment period, a Zoom caller brought up that the meeting was being targeted by Kiwi Farms, a forum known for far-right harassment campaigns.
The issue of land use, housing, and conservation emerged once again when the Council moved to consider Order 142, Accepting the 2022 Annual Land Bank Report. Jon Kachmar presented the report to the Council.
The Portland Land Bank Commission is “responsible for identifying and protecting open space resources within the City of Portland,” and “seeks to preserve a balance between development and conservation of open space important for wildlife, ecological, environmental, scenic, or outdoor recreational values,” per the Commission’s website. Kachmar highlighted recent successes of the Commission, including the North Deering Park project, and spoke to some future plans, including the acquisition of a parcel that would allow for public Fore River access.
Anticipating the comment to come, Kachmar also stated that he is concerned by the housing shortage and that “there are properties that we have passed on [purchasing] because we feel they’d be better for housing development.”
During the public comment period, resident George Rheault again staked his opposition to the Land Bank Commission. Rheault claimed that the Commission “empowers affluent homeowners” by “hoover[ing] up” land that could be used to build housing. He accused the Council of “creating artificial scarcity” by continuing to support the efforts of the Land Bank Commission. “You caused this problem, and now you’re cheerleading it,” said Rheault.
Two other comments came through via Zoom, both right wing trolls irrelevant to the Land Bank Commission report. The Council accepted the annual report unanimously. The Council also accepted Order 143, the delineation of the Winchester Woods property (no longer a public partnership) unanimously. Again, however, two new trolls on Zoom berated the council with unrelated slogans and insults.
Order 144 concerned simply accepting a $10,000 from an anonymous donor grateful to Portland’s first responders, naming in particular Mark Stewart, Torrin Hults, Robert White, and Molly Hillman. Even this item, which passed unanimously, received a rude and irrelevant comment from an anonymous Zoom troll.
Finally, Mayor Snyder moved for the City Council to enter an Executive Session, with no public audience pursuant to 1 M.R.S.A. section 405(6)(E), to discuss “the City Council’s legal rights and duties concerning the First Amendment.” While this was not further elaborated on, it is likely that this is in response to recent public confrontations by political demonstrators. In response to this motion, a flood of trolls called in, at least ten unique voices in all, shouting racial slurs and generally acting disturbed. Among the crowd, one earnest commenter objected to the executive session, but this final cacophony set the lasting tone before adjournment, as the council unanimously agreed to move to a private room.
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.