A special city council meeting took place Wednesday, September 6, breaking with regular scheduling to accommodate the Labor Day holiday on Monday.
Councilors Fournier, Rodriguez, Dion, Ali, and Zarro were all present in chambers. Councilor Trevorrow, Councilor Pelletier, and Councilor Phillips were absent.
General Public Comment
Before opening the 5:00pm public comment period, Mayor Snyder noted that Communication 10, slated on the agenda for later in the evening, would provide an update on encampments. As such, she stated that the council would not be taking comments on encampments during this period.
Steven Scharf was the first to speak. Scharf criticized the Council for continuing to discuss an agenda item at the August meeting after moving to postpone it, which, Scharf said, is in violation of Robert’s Rules. He also pointed out that there has not been an opportunity for the public to comment on the encampments at all in recent meetings because encampments have been on the agenda as Communications items, but there is no public comment allowed on Communications items.
Sensing the dissatisfaction, Snyder interrupted the public comment period to announce that the Council has scheduled a workshop for Thursday, September 14th on the topic of encampments. Calling the homelessness crisis “the most important issue,” she encouraged members of the public to attend and to communicate their concerns to their elected representatives prior to this workshop, though no public comment will be taken at the workshop itself.
Correction 09/12/23: A previous version of this article stated that Mayor Snyder was making an exception to allow public comments at this workshop, when no such exception has actually been made. Thank you to Eamonn Dundon and Mayor Snyder for alerting us to this error.
Snyder then opened the floor to public comment again. Richard Ward commented over Zoom stiffly touting white supremacist ideology for the duration of his allocated three minutes.
Next to comment was Mary Snell, president of the Hellenic Society of Maine. Snell spoke on the significance of the sister city relationship between Portland and Mytilene, Greece; Snell also shared that a 20th anniversary celebration of this relationship will take place on Thursday, September 21st at 5:00pm on the USM campus.
Three residents of Ridge Road spoke throughout the public comment period opposing the recent approval by the Planning Board for the rezoning of 900 Ocean Avenue, necessary to continue the development of the property, which would include building affordable housing units. The rezoning still needs to be approved by the City Council in a future meeting. Ridge Road resident Peter expressed concern about the blasting that the project would require, citing damage to the land and nearby homes, including his; another resident, Leslie, called the rezoning “ill advised”; Sherry, also of Ridge Road, criticized the Council for not walking the property before going through with the rezoning.
Greg Gould from District 5, commenting in Council chambers, criticized the city for not being more involved with the management of the new shelter in the Riverside neighborhood. According to Gould, when he reached out to the city with operational questions about the shelter, the city referred him to the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition (MIRC); when Gould reached out to MIRC, he was directed back to the city. Gould urged the city to take responsibility for the project.
Bill Higgins commented in person encouraging the city to allocate more land towards affordable housing and workforce housing. Higgins shared that he currently lives in an affordable housing development and expressed gratitude to the city for making the development possible.
Also throughout the open public comment period were four right-wing trolls. Each of these calls were ultimately cut off after the use of racial slurs and profanities, but not before making their messages known. One made a specific attack on Councilor Fournier.
Announcements and Appointments
Announcements followed the open public comment period; Councilor Rodriguez announced the start of the new school year and offered well wishes to all school staff and students.
Councilor Dion spoke up on the issue of hateful public comments. He specifically addressed the comment against Councilor Fournier. “It needs to be said out loud… she shouldn’t have to take it. We shouldn’t sit here quietly when it occurs. Whoever [the commenter] is, I’ll call him out as a coward. If he wants to engage with a face-to-face conversation, I welcome him to the rotunda and he can do that,” Dion said on the matter.
Mayor Snyder echoed Dion’s sentiment, decrying the fact that this kind of behavior has become “so normal.” She also said that she has considered removing Zoom public comment as an option, specifically because of these commenters. “This is an unfortunate byproduct of hybrid meetings,” she said.
Snyder then reiterated September 14th as the date for the Council workshop on encampments, and encouraged members of the public to share their opinions at that meeting so that no policy decisions would be made without public input.
City Manager West announced that Baxter Boulevard traffic would soon resume – at time of publication, the boulevard is now open.
The first order of the night, Order 28, appointed Michael Goldman as Corporation Counsel. Goldman has been serving in the role of Interim Corporation Counsel since December 19, 2022; with the passage of Order 28, which occurred by unanimous vote on Wednesday night, he now assumes the role on a permanent basis.
Goldman offered words of thanks following the order’s passage; he also wished a happy birthday to his son, who was in attendance. Applause and cheers followed. City Manager West (who previously held the same post) offered her congratulations as well, noting that she hired Goldman in 2014 and supports his appointment to this role.
Proclamations and Licenses
The first proclamation of the night was read by Mayor Snyder. In “Proclamation 1-23/24, Recognizing City Staff for the Exemplary Operation of a Temporary Emergency Shelter at the Expo,” Snyder thanked the City staff who operated the Expo Center shelter over the summer; per the Proclamation, the shelter housed 114 asylum seeking families, 381 people in total.
Councilor Rodriguez read the next item, Proclamation 2-23/24 Recognizing September 15 to October 15, 2023 as Hispanic Heritage Month. Before reading the formal proclamation, Rodriguez shared a story about Nike’s attempts to make a sneaker honoring Puerto Rican heritage, which were ultimately unsuccessful until Nike started involving Puerto Rican designers. To Rodriguez, the story illustrates the difference between “representation and ownership.” He then read the proclamation, which recognized the contributions and heritage of Hispanic and Latin American people.
Snyder read the last proclamation, Proclamation 3-23/24 Recognizing September 8 to September 17, 2023 as Welcoming Week. The proclamation emphasized both the value of immigrant communities and the hatred they often face, and commemorated the week as an opportunity for all of Portland to be welcoming to such groups.
Two licenses passed unanimously – one for Orange Bike Brewing Company, a new gluten free brewery set to open at 31 Diamond Street; and second, an update to the liquor license for Shipyard Brewing Company at 27 Hancock Street.
Another racist public comment came in over Zoom during the licensing portion of the meeting.
Zachary Lenhert, Licensing and Housing Safety Manager, provided context for Communication 9, “Regarding the 2024 Allowable Increase Percentage for the rent of Covered Units.” Per the communication, this rate must be equal to 70% of the change in Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area. The change in CPI was 2.8%, so the Allowable Increase Percentage rate was set to 2.0%. This figure represents how much landlords in Portland are allowed to raise their rents in the following year, without additional exemptions, per the City’s rent control ordinance.
Communication 10, Update re: Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT) Resolution at Fore River Parkway Trail Encampment, was presented by Kristen Dow, Director of Health and Human Services, and Fire Department Chief Keith Gautreau.
The communication reported that “As of September 5, there were a total of 67 tents and approximately 48 individuals remaining at the encampment. City-wide, there are currently 216 tents… Eighteen individuals at the encampment have been placed in shelter and housing.”
Dow also noted that three housing fairs took place at the encampment site and all encampment residents had been offered some kind of shelter as well as case management. Dow admitted, “I had hoped to have more success,” but also shared that she “had hoped that every person in the encampment would be offered case management… and have some sort of shelter or housing offered to them. And that, I will say, happened.”
She also said that the encampment on Marginal Way would be the next area of focus for the ECRT.
Fire Chief Gautreau spoke about the “after-action report” that his staff are preparing following the encampment sweep, which took place on September 6th. The report will be publicly available.
Multiple councilors chimed in with questions on the communication. Councilor Ali asked how people are notified about shelter bed openings, to which Dow explained that each morning by 9:30am, shelter staff know how many beds they will have available. Encampment residents are then informed in-person that morning, usually between 9:30 and 11:00am.
Mayor Snyder asked about cooperation with private shelters, to which Dow said that she has attempted to obtain information about available beds there for encampment residents too. . Dow also said that she has also reached out to the City of Boston as a means of understanding how other municipalities are handling similar issues of collaboration between private shelters and public efforts.
Snyder then asked about who is providing services at the encampment, as well as who is doing the actual offering of shelter beds each morning. Dow responded that this task has primarily been carried out by service providers from nonprofit organizations, though city shelter staff has also done so periodically. She noted too that when shelter staff are themselves involved, they tend to have more success than when it’s solely nonprofits.
Councilor Dion asked Dow about the “average daily bed rate.” Dow had not calculated any such figure, but did share that 180 offers of shelter beds had been made at the Fore River Encampment since June 28th. Dow also appeared to feel some frustration at the line of questioning. “I want to be very careful to not pit something on a specific population and say ‘they are just refusing to go into shelter.’ I know there are a variety of reasons why someone might choose to not go into shelter.” She pointed out that her team had made a number of changes to remove barriers for those hesitant to take shelter housing, including changing curfew hours, adding storage facilities, and finding ways to accommodate those who are actively using substances without endangering other shelter residents.
Dion speculated that the public would soon “lose patience” with the rate of progress exhibited by the ECRT.
Councilor Zarro asked about the state’s involvement with the Marginal Way encampment, given that it is on state property; Dow and Gautreau answered that they have been in communication with the Maine DOT and are involving them in the process.
Next on the agenda were Orders 256, 257, and 258, which all concerned Portland’s Tourism Municipal Development District. These had been postponed from a prior meeting, and before discussing the content, Councilor and Chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee Pious Ali moved to postpone these orders until the next meeting. He cited the absence of three councilors as his motivation, and seemed to expect little resistance.
Councilor Rodriguez, however, appeared dismayed, and said he’d oppose postponement. Pointing out that they had a quorum to debate and vote, he denied the justification offered by Ali. But the council swiftly moved to a vote, and the motion to postpone passed 4-2, with Fournier joining Rodriguez in opposition.
Rodriguez’ disapproval persisted to the discussion of the following item, Order 26. This ordinance would implement the change to the voting system mandated by the 2020 Charter Commission. More specifically, instituting a proportional ranked-choice method of tabulation in multi-seat elections, as opposed to the current sequential ranked-choice method in such elections.
Ashley Rand, as City Clerk, oversees Portland’s elections; Rand briefly explained the change, but noted that ranked-choice multi-seat elections are relatively rare in Portland’s government. The next time this methodological change would make a difference would be November 2025, when two at-large School Board seats would be open.
Correction 9/12/23: A previous version of this article misstated the seats that will be open in 2025.
Steven Scharf was the only commenter present in chambers, and he pleaded with the council to delay this vote. He claimed that he had showed the reform to a retired Political Science professor (unspecified) and that even he hadn’t been able to make heads or tails of it. He specifically claimed that the proposed method produces skewed results when there’s exactly two seats open. He proposed instead that “duplicate” seats, (e.g. multiple open at-large seats,) be treated as separate offices, doing away with the need for multi-seat tabulation entirely, (if introducing a number of other complications.)
Two more Zoom trolls called in, one making a targeted anti-Semitic attack against Councilor Zarro and the other shouting more generalized anti-Semitic slurs.
Returning to Council deliberations, Councilor Rodriguez – forewarning his colleagues that this may be “petty” – resuscitated his frustration with the previous vote. He asked whether Ali’s justification for postponing the tourism district votes would apply to this item as well. “I’ll elaborate because I’m not in a good mood,” he continued, “If we’re using this postponement motion to leverage whether a motion is going to pass or fail depending on who’s in the room, that’s not how I want to do business.”
It’s unclear whether Councilor Ali, who’s running for mayor this November, had indeed considered the votes of the absent councilors when he moved to postpone the prior orders.
Councilor Zarro, also a mayoral candidate, chose to engage, first asking the City Clerk whether there’s a deadline for implementation. Rand said there wasn’t. Zarro then cited Rule 20 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, calling it “Snyder’s Rule,” (“No, it was Zarro’s Rule.” the Mayor playfully rejoined,) and explaining that any order which did not receive five total votes would have to be reconsidered at the following meeting anyway. Therefore, it made sense to delay any potentially controversial votes when there’s only six councilors present. He then indicated that he’d be okay with postponing this one as well, if Rodriguez were to move for it.
Mayor Snyder followed up on this comment, agreeing with Steven Scharf that this is a confusing reform. But she explained that ranked-choice, multi-seat elections are always confusing to calculate, that the status quo itself was confusing and produced skewed results, and that’s why the Charter Commission had decided to change it. Any solution will be complicated, but she believed this was a good one. Councilor Dion asked Corporation Counsel what would happen if they voted this order down, to which Goldman responded that it would show up on next week’s agenda. As it was mandated by the Charter Commission, the Council didn’t have the authority to just “kill it.”
Moving to a vote, Order 26 passed 5-1, Dion opposed.
The last substantial vote of the evening was Order 31, accepting Herron Road as a Public and Utility Easement. Sponsored by Andrew Zarro as Chair of the Transportation and Sustainability Committee, he noted that this was routine, and that it will also provide “rain gardens” for the community, which he believed would look great. Without further comment, it passed unanimously.
Two first-reads were then considered, on authorizing a $1.6mm loan from the School Revolving Renovation Fund and on appropriating said $1.6mm towards school renovation projects.
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.