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Cemetery Funds and the Solar Eclipse – City Council Review 3/4/2024

An unusually brief City Council meeting – just over half an hour – took place on Monday, March 6th. A number of straightforward items, (described by one commenter as “thin gruel,”) were efficiently dispatched, including two separate windfalls for the maintenance and improvement of public cemeteries in Portland. The night passed almost without any conflict to speak of, until the inconvenient timing of a solar eclipse threatened to ensnarl the city’s budget process.

First, as always, came the general public comment period.

General Public Comment

George Rheault, fixture of this period in which members of the public are invited to comment on any issue not otherwise on the agenda, reiterated the criticisms he rendered at last week’s City Council meeting. He declared the body’s decision to name a renewed public park for a wealthy, 19th century white family at the culmination of Black History Month to be insensitive, and he accused the council of hypocrisy for covering themselves in the veil of “process.” Rheault regretted the lack of authentic public participation in the renaming, calling the choice “just a favor to somebody.” He concluded his comments by remarking at what he perceived as the lack of substantial issues being addressed at council and committee meetings, only “thin gruel.”

Lara Rosen, a parent of a third-grade student, briefly stepped forward to urge the City Council to “fully fund” Portland’s schools. No other commenters spoke up.

Announcements and Appointments

 The only announcement of the evening was City Clerk Ashley Rand reminding the public that the following day, March 5th, was Maine’s primary election day. Part of “Super Tuesday”, Maine joins 15 other states (and American Samoa) in declaring their delegates to both the Republican and Democratic national party conventions to nominate a presidential candidate. Maine’s primary elections are “semi-closed,” meaning that any resident with a party affiliation can only vote for that party’s candidates, but that independent voters can choose which party’s ballot to fill out on election day. The Libertarian, Green Independent, and “No Labels” parties don’t have a primary election and so their affiliated voters were ineligible to vote Tuesday. At time of publishing, it was apparent that incumbent Joseph Biden and former President Donald Trump won their respective primary elections in Maine.

The first order on the agenda was Order 138, appointing a number of Solid Waste employees as city constables. Constables are law enforcement officials who cannot make arrests or carry firearms but can perform other enforcement actions, such as issuing citations or delivering legal notices. This passed unanimously without comment or discussion.

Order 139 would appoint Councilor Regina Phillips, representing District 3, to Creative Portland’s Board of Directors as the city’s representative. This nonprofit organization links Portland’s government with private groups and individuals to foster and develop Portland’s artistic scene. This passed unanimously without comment or discussion.


Forest City Billiards, operating at the former site of American Pool and Billiards, was unanimously approved for a new Class A Restaurant/Lounge license. The business is located at 272 Saint John Street.

The proprietors of the Longfellow Hotel, under construction at 754 Congress Street, are also planning on opening a lounge called Five of Clubs and a café called Twinflower at the site. Licenses for these adjunct establishments were approved unanimously without discussion or comment.

Unfinished Business

Picking up orders which had received first reads at last week’s meeting, the council considered Order 135 to accept a $50,000 bequest from the Estate of Franklin Lawrence II. This inheritance would be spent on the maintenance of Evergreen Cemetery in Deering. George Rheault stepped forward to offer a comment on this windfall, asking for details as to whether only the proceeds of investment of this $50,000 will be used for the cemetery, or if the principle itself will be eaten up. He also wondered aloud as to the ultimate destiny of these sorts of trust funds granted to the city over time.

Corporation Counsel Michael Goldman explained that the money is to be used as a lump sum to pay for maintenance, it will not constitute any sort of ongoing investment or trust fund for the cemetery. Councilor Fournier, picking up on Rheault’s latter musings, asked if there was a way to see what funds and investments the city is a beneficiary of, and what the balances of these would be. City Manager West replied that this is explicated as part of the budget drafting and review process; she offered to go into more detail about that subject during the budget hearings for Fournier, who agreed.

With no further comment or discussion, this bequest was unanimously accepted.

Next, the council similarly considered accepting a $25,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation for the improvement of Western Cemetery in the West End. These improvements would include constructing a new tool house, installing a water source, and expanding ADA access. Other than a brief clarifying question as to how this relates to capital improvement from Councilor Fournier, this was approved unanimously without discussion or comment.

Finally, Order 137 proposed a minor amendment to Chapter 9 of the City Code. The change would standardize the filing deadlines for candidates to the Peaks Island Council, in alignment with other city elections. This very subtle change in procedure was approved without discussion or comment.


Only one item remained for a vote on Tuesday, Order 142, which would set hearing dates for discussing Fiscal Year 2024-25’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), Emergency Solution Grant (ESG), and HOME funding (contrary to popular belief, not an acronym). These sources of federal money require applicants to undergo a public hearing process, and Order 142 would set these hearings on March 18th and April 8th this year.

Total Eclipse (of the Budget Chart)

Councilor Bullett noted that April 8th is the date of the total solar eclipse which will be traversing northern and western Maine, and so may be a little-attended meeting here in the city (where the eclipse will not be visible.) Councilor Rodriguez proposed making that meeting a hybrid meeting, so that councilors and public could attend remotely. Bullett suggested that the “once-in-a-lifetime” astronomical event will be so attractive that it may be difficult to even reach quorum in-person.

Manager West, apparently unimpressed and uninterested in the alignment of heavenly bodies, noted that the April 8th meeting is scheduled as a “packed” meeting in which she will be presenting the recommended city budget; she intimated that Councilors ought to be present, eclipse or no. Fournier added a further wrinkle to the matter – as a member of the Navajo nation, she stated her cultural practices prevent her from leaving her home during solar eclipses.

Sensing the obvious tensions, Councilor Pelletier asked “Since we’re all just gettin’ into it now, so – Are we having a meeting on the eclipse?” Manager West nodded, and Mayor Dion replied somewhat pleadingly, “It’s scheduled.” Pelletier continued objecting, “I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime event to be able to witness, for the public as well so they don’t have to choose between coming here and seeing the eclipse.”

At the main dais, Mayor and Manager whispered to one another. Stalling, Mayor Dion inquired upon Councilor Phillips’ feelings, and she responded “I support my fellow councilors.” Dion seemed to understand the majority feeling was against holding a meeting on that date, but reiterated that the budget process needed to meet certain deadlines according to local and state law. “I don’t want to make light… that’s kind of a pun, eclipse, light… I don’t want to diminish the significance of this budget cycle.”

Councilor Ali again floated the idea of a hybrid meeting, allowing councilors to attend remotely. Dion expressed some doubts about this. Councilor Sykes asked if the council could suggest an alternate date, or otherwise postpone the decision. Portland’s Housing and Community Development Director Mary Davis stepped forward, stating that the city had already published public notice of these hearings in anticipation of the council simply approving these dates, (whether or not it is common practice for city staff to make such assumptions was not elaborated.) She further detailed the tight scheduling and notice requirements that the federal government demands of its grant recipients, but stated that the city could be flexible if the Council opposes an April 8th meeting.

Sykes, again taking initiative, essayed the option of amending the order to name a different date for the meeting, “as though Monday, April 8th, were a holiday.” Manager West bitterly conveyed that the meeting has already had to be moved several times to meet various scheduling requirements, (none were specifically recalled,) and was clearly unenthusiastic about moving it again. “The calendar is very, very [pause] tenuous, in terms of moving dates around.” West said she would have to consult with Finance Director Brendan O’Connell to see if further rescheduling would be possible. She doubted she’d be able to get in touch with him that evening, and urged the council to go forward with the eclipse meeting.

“The point of the matter is, and now I’ve got to be a little bit serious,” Mayor Dion began, “we have a government to run. We have decisions to make.” He was hesitant, “it doesn’t settle well,” and was open to having the meeting be run as a hybrid, but the Mayor stated he was committed to the April 8th date as decided by city staff. “So many other people rely on this getting done. It’s gotta get done.” Dion openly speculated that it would be difficult for him to justify delaying even a liquor license for the reason of an eclipse, and that this was far more important. “I will discuss it further with the City Manager, and we’ll see how we can conduct that meeting… but I just feel a responsibility to our constituents to do the work when we’re supposed to get it done.”

“To be clear,” Councilor Bullett responded in a frustrated tone, “my bringing this up is because I feel a responsibility to my constituents, many of whom would want to participate in this public hearing but will be likely pulling their children out of school and will be traveling. This is a very big deal, this is not just a personal matter.” She continued, citing the Manager’s point, “Also, it’s technically not our meeting week anyway. It’s the second Monday of the month, when we [usually] meet on the first.” Dion appreciated these observations, “but [the constituents] haven’t taken an obligation to serve on this body.” The mayor said he felt the council, or at the very least himself as chair, is obligated to be there, regardless of celestial phenomena. “But if you’re in Somerset County? Good luck.”

Councilors Fournier, Rodriguez, Ali, Bullett, and Phillips joined the Mayor in approving the order, while Sykes and Pelletier opposed. This writer will not be in Portland on that date, but will be in western Maine watching the eclipse.

First Reads

The remaining agenda items were first reads, and will be voted on at the next council meeting. These items include appropriating Federal Aviation Administration grants and financing capital improvement with general obligation bonds.

After swiftly reading through these items, a very brief meeting was adjourned at 5:37 PM.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of the Portland Townsman, with work focusing on the mechanics of local government and housing policy, and also a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board. You can reach Ashley personally at



  1. Nathan Kimble Nathan Kimble

    Thank you!

  2. A bunch of faux rich Dems (none of which have real jobs) debate not holding a public meeting with the back drop of a budget crisis because they like to travel. Portland is funny as hell. Build more condos, cut more social services and let people skip meetings!

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