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This interview has also been made available in text form for your reading convenience. Software transcription has been used, with thorough hand-editing for accuracy and clarity. Please alert us to any errors in transcription at firstname.lastname@example.org. The host’s questions and comments are below in italics, with Mark Dion’s responses and comments in roman below. Section headers have been included in bold for the convenience of the reader.
Ashley: Hello and thank you for listening to the Portland Townsmen Audio. This is the first in our series of policy matters interviews with the five mayoral candidates in 2023. We’re here at the Portland Media Center, our lovely partners on Congress Street. My name is Ashley Keenan. I’m joined today by City Councilor Mark Dion. How are you?
Mark Dion: I’m very well. Thanks for the invitation.
These interviews are intended to be a deeper dive into the campaign platforms, policy positions, and strategies of each candidate for addressing the many issues that Portland is facing today. After some introduction, I’m going to try and ask some pretty specific questions about a broad sweep of topics, and hopefully we’ll have some clear, productive discussion. Furthermore, as you and I both know, local politics is local. A lot of issues are hashed out at the state and federal level. We won’t be talking about any of those, so no foreign policy or anything. We’re focused here on firm stances and concrete policies for Portland. Voters deserve to know what our choices are this November. Do you agree?
I totally agree.
Okay, well before digging into those specific issues, how about you take a minute and just introduce yourself and your campaign for the benefit of anyone who may not know much about you.
Okay, my name is Mark Dion. I’m a district councilor for District 5, which is North Deering, Riverton, and Deering Center. I’ve been on the council, this will be my third year. Prior to that, I spent eight years in the state legislature representing Portland, both as a representative and a state senator. Prior to that, I served the city in the police department for 21 years and left as the deputy chief and then was elected to three terms of sheriff. And then I stepped down. Everybody wanted me to do a fourth term, but I was then prepared to practice law. So that’s where I’m at. On the council, I chair finance. So I always look at the cost of things and I have served on the public safety committee as well.
All right, fantastic. And we’ll also be bringing up sort of the primary elements of your policy platform as we make our way through these topics. We’ll be reviewing some of the most notable votes you’ve made in the council recently as well, where you’ve, sort of, differed from the majority. We have six main topics I’d like to get through during this conversation, which are the city charter and elections; the asylum seeker crisis; encampments and law enforcement; ReCode, land use and housing; transportation and infrastructure; and business and labor.That’s a pretty full menu.
There’s a lot of issues facing Portland, unfortunately, but some of these are a little bit more in-depth than others. So we’ll see how it goes.City Charter and Elections
For our first section, I want to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of how city government works. You’re pretty experienced. And so what your plan is to work within it. For those who may not know, the office of mayor in Portland is a fairly unique hybrid. While it’s directly elected by the people and it has a limited number of executive functions, it remains primarily a legislative office. Essentially, the mayor is the permanent chair of the city council. The executive role is still primarily fulfilled by the city manager, currently manager West, who could be described as sort of a CEO of the city. So with this in mind, how would you plan to enact your agenda as mayor to the extent that that’s even what you want to do? Because after all, what a mayor can do to a large extent, city councilors already can do. So how would you leverage your new officeWell, I think the important thing about mayor is voters choose that individual on the premise that they will be their advocate, that they will push agendas that answer to the city as a whole. When you’re a district councilor, you’re sympathetic to your district, of course, and their parochial issues at large have a little bit more leeway because of their status. Ironically, at-large councilors are almost immune from the day-to-day complaints and questions that district residents will ask. So in that sense, the mayor has to have a pretty finely tuned engagement schedule to maintain connectivity to all the districts so that they can actually say, my sense of Portland is ‘X.’
I tend to look at the mayor much like the Speaker of the House. They’re a legislative leader, and they advance a collection of ideas. And I think that’s important here. Mayors are not presidents. They don’t come with a full-fledged program outline with 150 checkpoints they hope to accomplish in four years. I framed my campaign as one that seeks to answer two critical questions. Are we safer, and what does that mean for us as individuals and as a community? And are we affordable? So those are the lenses that I will apply to proposals that come either from myself or from my colleagues on the council.
Yes. And we’ll be returning to that sort of theme of safety and affordability, which you’ve made the center of your platform. One thing that many mayors across America, including here in Maine, have distinguished themselves with is taking advantage of the numerous federal grants available to municipalities for civic improvements, especially under the Biden administration. There have been some criticisms of Portland’s government for not taking greater advantage of these even compared to other cities in Maine. Is this something that you can make a difference in? Do you have any plans to take a better advantage of federal grants?
I think there’s this sentiment on the council that is always open to federal infusion of dollars, I think I tend to look at federal grants as most appropriate if it’s a one-time expenditure because otherwise then it creates a cliff in the budget and we have to overcome that. So if you create a service with federal dollars, you have to be honest with the electorate that this may result in some sort of modification of their property tax. However, I would pay more attention to the president’s initiative around infrastructure. It’s not as dramatic as some of the social policies we wrestle with in the council, but I really think about sidewalks and streets, bicycle access, pedestrian safety. That to me is the meat and potatoes of what the city council should deliver. So yes, that’s an important piece for me.
I always remember we did a public safety survey just before I left the police department. And when I looked at the elder demographics, 65 and older, their number one public safety concern at that time, and that’s two decades ago, but I don’t think it’s changed, is sidewalks. They feared falling down. A broken hip is a catastrophic event for a 74-year-old. And if they couldn’t understand brick sidewalks because they’re not level, there’s all sorts of potential hazards. And they were always advocating strenuously for concrete or asphalt sidewalks as a safe mode of transportation. So I think that illustrates why I’m focused on questions, not necessarily on programmatic initiatives. If we’re asking what’s safe, then we need to solicit the right answer as to what would make people safe, not just build on our own assumptions.
I’ve also heard similar complaints about brick sidewalks.
They look great though. They do look great. They’re aesthetically pleasing, so after the first winter.
Yea, that New England red brick aesthetic. So unlike the potential charter amendment to change the mayoral position, which failed, the voters did approve a new Clean Elections program in which candidates that gather a large amount of small donations and adhere to certain rules get access to a public pool of money. You’re not using this system.
Some of your opponents are, and you are also a vocal minority during the budget appropriations for this fund. Would you try to change this program going forward, or –
No, I actually have a few plaques in my office for my advocacy for clean elections at the state house. I do not have an argument with the principle. My protest vote, I guess you could look at it that way, is that we were allocating way too much money. I’m pretty sensitive that between property re-evaluation and increased tax levy and just a general condition of wages and expenses. I couldn’t justify the amount of money that they wanted to put towards, especially the mayoral race. That was the big bugaboo is, oh my God, in order to have a viable campaign. Well, I’m old enough to have witnessed a number of elections where he or she who gathered all the money didn’t necessarily win. And I just thought it was a false assumption. that an excess amount of dollars was the only way to convince people to elect you. So that’s where I stand. But I have no objections with it. I think we just need to be more cautious about budgeting for it, because we have no idea when we’re allocating dollars how many candidates will actually step forward.
And part of your vote alongside Mayor Snyder was you wanted to make funding it part of the yearly budget process as opposed to baking it into the charter, so to speak.
Another major subject of debate at every election is the referendum system. Portland, for those that aren’t aware, has a pretty unique Citizens Initiative ordinance in our Chapter 9 of the City Code. Citizen initiatives passed by referendum have been the foundation of pretty major policy changes over the past several years. In our code, the combination of a relatively low barrier to entry with a period of five whole years during which the city council cannot amend any initiative which has passed this way, is exceedingly rare outside of Maine. Even in the rest of New England, no cities have comparable systems that I’m aware of, certainly no large ones. The system puts a lot of power behind citizen initiatives, which advocates say is good for democracy. Opponents say it disempowers elected officials and has some unintended consequences. Would you try to lead any change to this?
I tried in this last council process. I mean, look, I don’t object to the right of Portland residents to muster a campaign and advance a referendum question. I mean, that’s pure democracy. I would only try to remind them that we do function in a representative model and rather than bemoan the fact that the council’s not addressing a particular issue in the way that they see is better, they should bring that to the council and advocate for that. I mean that’s the purpose of electing a councilor. My objection was I think a referendum in question should at least have a projected fiscal cost. I vote on a bond issue in a state election and they give me a particular cost, because a bond is a credit card and someone’s gonna have to pay for it. And also it gives some advance notice that if we incorporate that expense by virtue of a positive result in the referendum that there may be other choices that have to be made in the budget as a whole. And I know the opponents that we can’t really know what it’s gonna cost, or the cost will disempower the question itself. I don’t think that’s the case. I thought it should take more signatures, but in terms of declaring a cost, I thought that was more important. And I tried to move it in that way.
The other piece that, listen, this idea [that it] can’t be touched for five years makes no sense to me. I’m sorry. There’s always unintended consequence. I’ll use this as an example. I worked strenuously in 1999 to pass medicinal marijuana and it worked. I also joined the team to pass recreational marijuana, became the public face. And when we won, the reporters came to talk to us and all my colleagues were so excited, so happy. And one of the reporters took me aside and he says, Sheriff, you don’t seem as exuberant as your colleagues here. I said, well, I’m not sure. I recognize that tomorrow the regulatory process will begin and it might be five years before I’m willing to declare victory. And here we are almost a decade later and we’re not quite there yet. Because the legislature will acknowledge a referendum but they have the latitude to immediately amend it. I don’t think that’s fair. I think that’s kind of disrespectful to the voter. But I think if we’re going to be able to do that, within 18 months or two years that some unanticipated wrench surfaces as a consequence of the passage of that referendum, that the council should act. I even said we could consider acting by a supermajority, not just because Mark Dion thinks it’s wrong, but if seven of us can conclude this isn’t what the voters really wanted when they said yes to this question, then I think we should be able to act. So I would advance that as a mayor.
Well, then I kind of have to ask, because as you said, you were originally in support of the package of reforms that Mayor Snyder was trying to send to the voters this November. But ultimately, a fairly surprising vote went against it. And you were one of the ones that voted against it. So what happened?Well… I can’t second guess what was in the mayor’s mind, but her style is to have a consensus, and once the council has spoken, is to move it as a body whole. But I felt strongly enough about the amount of money that was gonna be allocated to the clean election referendum that I had to enter a negative vote.
Okay. Personally, I was surprised when you voted, when it ended up on the other side of it.
Well, once in a while, I’ll strike it out alone if I think it’s the right path.
Okay, fair enough. So before moving on from this sort of issue, do you have any other thoughts about functions of city government or elections?
No, I think we’re fortunate we have a new city clerk. She’s really committed. She’s very passionate about her position. I think the council as a whole respects the election process and always seems to take steps to reinforce procedures and expectations that facilitate voting. I mean, if I had my way, we could vote on our iPhones, but we’re not there yet.
For sure, alright. Thank you. That’s enough about the chart and elections. I want to move on to our second section, which is about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers into Portland.
The Asylum Seeker Crisis
The Portland Townsman has been conducting an extended fact-finding effort on this crisis. Definitely, it’s a significant challenge facing the city right now. For those that may not know. An asylum seeker is somebody outside the United States who enters the country either using a different pretext or by illicitly crossing the border. And then once in the United States, they claim that they cannot return to their country of origin for credible fear of being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, social status, or political affiliation. According to official city estimates, as well as from nonprofits involved, there’s been well over 1,600 and possibly as many as 2,000 asylum seekers who’ve arrived in Portland. since January 1st of this year. According to city figures, roughly 60% of the beds at the Homeless Services Center and exactly 100% of the beds at the family shelter are occupied by asylum seekers. Until very recently, the Portland Expo was being used to shelter 300 asylum seekers and the city’s now contracting with hotels in Lewiston and Freeport to house them. And the city is opening a new shelter in Riverton that will have 180 beds explicitly for single non-family asylum seekers, and nonprofits are also sheltering several, independently, but in cooperation with the city. You’ve been one of the more critical voices of how the city’s been handling this. Do you approve of the strategy that the city’s been taking?
I want to make a correction. The shelter going out to Riverside Street, as I understood it through the process, and most of that was an executive session, was intended for single male asylees. It’s now going to be taking families. I see. Okay? Which, I hate surprises. And that felt like a surprise. I think it was a response to the changing demographics of our asylee population. So that’s not a city shelter. I have spent hours trying to explain to people in Riverton that this is a private venture and the city’s relationship is going to be as a consumer in terms of referrals. And second, for at least 18 months, we will have boots on the ground, staff will be training staff from the Maine Immigration Coalition [sic] so that they can assume the management of the space. So because of that, I think some citizens believe it was not fully vetted in the council, but our relationship is primarily a single contract for training and staff support.
Now, the immigration piece is really difficult. In the 80s, most of the immigrants that came to the city were funneled through Catholic Charities, and there were a lot of families to receive them. That’s… That’s not the case right now, though there are efforts by the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and others to try to have families come forward and sponsor. And those usually took them in their home and did all the type of introductory work that’s necessary. My criticism hasn’t been, unless you have something you can refresh my memory, has not been directed against city administration per se. I’ve called out the governor and the council, for her unwillingness to date to take the primary leadership position on this piece. Immigration should be a state responsibility. And the, how can I put this? Not the transfer, but the assistance in placing individuals in their homes should be seen as a regional, a broader scale. You know, we’re losing population. We have some towns in Maine that are depopulating. I think we need to be more intentional about how we help immigrants set their roots in this state.
So I think the city’s been saddled with a state responsibility, and yes, we get some cash to support that through the general assistance stream, but, and now there’s been a tepid offer from the executive at the state level to have an office. And I’ll propose right now that’ll be one person, which like, how he, she, or they is ever going to handle that, I don’t know, but the governor should see this as a critical issue for the state as a whole. And the impact doesn’t limit itself to a particular municipality. I’ve just been disappointed so far her sidebar participation, as opposed to being front and center, making declarations, bringing other municipal leaders to the table to see if you can craft a reception process that helps, I don’t know, “deploy” sounds so military, but right, I’m just trying to find the word, but to at least… disperse families across various municipalities and that way it doesn’t – they get a better deal. I mean you fight to get the American dream you make your way here and God, the journey itself is a trauma that can stand alone, and the best we can offer you is a bed and a shelter. I mean that it should be better than that. and the lack of state leadership is one of the bigger hurdles we have in addressing the immigrant population. So as mayor, I think one of the advantages I bring, I don’t have to go to Augusta to introduce myself. I mean, the governor recruited me into the legislature. I can talk to her. I can talk to leadership. They know what I’ve worked on, the committees I’ve chaired. I have personal contact with these individuals and I’ve got to spur them to take a more assertive profile in helping us deal with this challenge.
The reason I brought it up, specifically the Riverton shelter is because of course, you were the only vote against it when that went to the council. So –
Well, can I talk about that vote?
Yeah, go ahead.
All right. It goes to my surprise that it went from single males to families. And I, we were told as a council that there was an immediate pressure, an emergency, in order to close the financial arrangements that would allow the construction. And we didn’t invite the neighborhood in to talk about it. You know, and all of them have talked to me, begin by saying, ‘I have nothing against immigrants.’ The next sentence is, ‘I don’t really have anything to do with the shelter, but we were really anxious and fearful that this was a way for the city to impose another homeless shelter on us.’ And why didn’t we get to talk about this? I mean, I expended a lot of political energy when we opened up the Homeless Services Center on Riverside Street. And for many of the more vocal residents in that neighborhood, this was deja vu all over again. And they didn’t feel like participating. And Councilor Trevorrow and Councilor Zarro said, well, we’ll do better the next time. But I said, but for Riverton, there is no next time. It’s right now. And that was a failure. And therefore, I voted my district. You know, in order to formalize the fact that they objected to how they were disengaged from the process. And one made a really good point. You’re voting tonight to do this in our neighborhood, and tomorrow you’re gonna hold the listening session on the homeless issue as a whole. If the city can be afforded that courtesy, why weren’t we? And I don’t have a good answer for that. And that was the basis of my voting against the contract, send that signal.
So it sounds like your strategy would be primarily to try and work with state level authorities and try and get a more systematic response to the crisis as opposed to –
Yeah, if the governor tells me, well, I’m going to put a person in office, I want to say that’s smoke. All right. I mean, I battled her on the defelonization of heroin. We were candid with each other. And I think that’s how you get good policy. You don’t posture, you propose, you listen, and then you work from there. Right. That should be a wing of the Department of Health and Human Services because it impacts their cash streams. And I don’t think the legislature is going to continually stand back and allow 80% of the state’s general assistance fund to be consumed in Portland. Other cities have legitimate concerns as well that needs to be met. So it’s going to come to the table of its own volition.
Yeah, and that sort of brings me to the next point, which is General Assistance. It’s a state-level law, of course, for those that don’t know, that municipalities have to offer a certain level of assistance to people. And Governor Mills, her administration determined that asylum seekers do, in fact, qualify for it. Has Portland been managing that element correctly to, you know, to your – to your eyes, have we been administrating it well?Yes. I mean, nobody gets up in the morning and says, what can I do to make this fail? All right, we have good staff and they’re well intentioned. Given the rules that the state has provided us, we’re fortunate that we have some monies available to address the situation. The secondary issue of General Assistance, and there’s a conflict in the law between one, if someone presents themselves in your city, you have to provide them General Assistance. And then another law says, but if you really do live or come from another city, it’s their responsibility. I serve on the executive committee for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, and we wrestle with this idea that you can’t expect Portland to do it all. You know, we don’t have an infinite amount of resources or capacity. You know, I just saw a vote in Lewiston that they’re rejecting the premise of creating a homeless shelter there. That shouldn’t be, and other elected leaders should go before the Lewiston City Council and say, look, this isn’t a Portland problem, this is a state of Maine issue, and you need to step up the plate and help meet that responsibility in your own community. You know if you become homeless in a city you should recognize that and provide the support that’s necessary to meet your residents needs and not hope that they will drift to Bangor or Portland and allow us to deal with it. It’s this whole notion of shared responsibility.
You know, I think a lot of towns and cities in Maine do kind of think “that’s a Portland problem, let Portland deal with – “
And, you know, even though, as you said, you know, general assistance is a state law. You know, this is a state level, to an extent even a national level issue. And Portland geographically, you know, as a New England – as New England cities often are, is geographically relatively small. How would you go about trying to coordinate with other towns and cities around us as mayor? Both on this issue and more in general.
Well, I think we have an underutilized resource called county government. You know, I – Jim Galey is a good guy. I like him. We’ve talked about some of these issues and I’ve served in county government. So I appreciate the fact that we provide some really basic services and we’re almost forgotten as a platform where municipalities could engage. And rather than say, do we really need county government? I would like to lead the conversation as, why can’t we consider county government as a platform where we could have common agreement on common issues and execute that way. So it’s – I’ve always been impressed by the West of this country, they figured it out. And so, to a lesser degree, but Texas and Florida as well, that county government serves a unique, vibrant reason for existence. And it lessens the cost on municipalities if they want to transfer some of those mutual responsibilities and expectations to a county platform. When I was sheriff, Peter Crichton was the manager and he had thought that the whole General Assistance, welfare piece, ather than fragment it across 28 communities, ought to be centralized with county government and it probably would work better. And it would incentivize other municipal leaders to see this as a joint issue. So, yeah, that’s what I’d like to do as mayor.
That’s really kind of a peculiar thing about New England is the fact that our county governments are so weak. Like even in Connecticut and Massachusetts, they barely exist.
But they’re there!
Yeah, they’re in – and it’s the it’s really the whole rest of the country outside of our little six states that have such weak county government. So that’s interesting that you would try and revive that institution.
OK, well, I think we should go ahead and move on to the next subject unless there’s anything else you want to add.
No, no, yeah.
Encampments and Law Enforcement
OK. Moving on to one of the main points of your platform, safety and affordability. I’d like to talk a little bit about encampments and law enforcement, because you’ve made this such a plank of your – of your campaign. Portland has seen an enormous growth in homeless communities or encampments on public and private land in the city. The major site currently is the Fore River encampment with, I believe, over 60 full tents according to the most recent update from the city manager. But there’s similarly large sites at Marginal Way, the Park and Ride there, and until just the other day the Forest Ave, I-295 camp. Portland is obviously facing large increases of housing costs. But there’s a lot of concerns about these from neighbors. Your platform makes several references to “safety in public parks,” “safe neighborhoods,” “public intimidation,” “harmful public behavior,” that sort of thing. Are these to be taken as directed against these encampments?
Look, I have… Being homeless is not the basis to conclude you’re a criminal. All right, we’re homeless for all sorts of reasons. What I’m concerned about, what neighbors are concerned about, business owners are concerned about, is the absence of a police intervention for intentional criminal conduct. Worse yet, brazen, open, notorious criminal conduct. If you or I were to engage in similar behavior across the street. The fact that we can claim a residence makes us eligible to have a sanction applied to us, whether it’s arrest or summons or some other legal diversion. The confusion in the city is that it seems like we, this collective we, have to follow rules and they don’t. All right, and there’s a lot of tension about that. And what’s unfortunate is that – How are we going to get that into the community conversation? Because many of them feel that if they express that sentiment, that somehow they will be attacked because it’ll be interpreted as ‘we don’t like homeless people.’ I think we can have public camping that’s lawful. I think… I’ve been working on this in anticipation of the workshop, so you’ve got it early from me. But I think we have to be realistic that dispersing a camp doesn’t do very much for the rest of the community. It might address it in a particular space in the community. but I don’t think it really solves the issue.
It just sort of pops up somewhere else.Yeah – I mean, it’s like whack-a-mole game, right? And I don’t want to make it that simplistic or denigrate the nature of the problem and challenge.
So it sounds like you may have a particular strategy in mind.
Yeah, I don’t mind talking to you about it.
Alright, I’d love to hear it.
I mean, first of all, I have to convince the council that Martin v. Boise applies to the ninth circuit. And even then in limited circumstance, that’s 10 states out west.
And to enlighten our listeners…
Oh okay, Martin v. Boise was a case brought on behalf of some homeless individuals who could not find shelter in Boise on a particular evening. And as a consequence, were taken in custody by the police department for unlawful campaign. Well, Boise’s kind of interesting. They had no public shelter. And Portland’s pretty unique about that, just as a footnote. Most cities that have shelters, they’re owned and operated by not-for-profits, which I think is a better model, frankly. But nonetheless, it made its way to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which dictates for 10 western states what federal law should be and policy that would flow from that. And that court concluded that there was no choice around whether you committed the violation of public camping if there wasn’t an alternative shelter for you to take refuge in. Those shelters have happened to have been all run by faith-based organizations and most of the unhoused rejected being subjected to the preaching that went along with going into the shelter. I think they have a point there. But nonetheless. That decision suggested that camping should be allowed if there was no available shelter bed. The decision says a whole lot more. It’s a very lengthy decision, but oftentimes people read as far as it takes for them to say, okay, I agree with this. And then the rest of the reading falls aside. But their idea of camping was to engage in lawful behavior while camping. Their understanding of camping wasn’t licensed to build semi-permanent structures. You know, it was to be seen as an incidental resource on a given night. Right, it’s not to say that somebody couldn’t repeat camping night after night, but it shouldn’t be building villages. I think the court is clear on that. And there were other references as to what the police could do. So that became set. The general public has assumed by the people talking to them about the decision that it was limited to the camping issue and that camping could be allowed if there’s no shelters. It’s a lot more than that.
As a lawyer, and let me digress for a moment, what the Ninth Circuit has to say is interesting but has no relevance. We live in the First Circuit. And the First Circuit hasn’t had a case on the matter. That case might have some persuasion value. But nonetheless, it’s not the law of the land, though people are treating it as it’s almost a Supreme Court decision. Now, couple that to this moral panic that occurred in the state legislature of what to do with the homeless, they issued a protocol that tells the police that if you confront an unhoused person involved in criminal conduct, you have to take all these diversionary steps as a matter of first instance. And the Attorney General issued a protocol accordingly. But inside both documents, they do have an escape clause that says, however, if the circumstances warrant, the police can do their work if it’s necessary. I say all this because the council needs to understand that the city of Portland can determine its own public safety trajectory as a situation. I think the legislature, I’m gonna read the decision in the best possible light. They were envisioning a one-to-one transaction between a police officer and a homeless person, and this was their preferred manner of dealing with it. I’ll give them that. I don’t think they anticipated the spread, the growth of encampments here and in other cities as the actual interaction that was gonna possibly occur between the police and the homeless.
So I say all this that we can understand that we can deal with homelessness without sacrificing their safety, because I don’t think it’s particularly safe in those camps. I go down there, I know some of my former clients. They’re at risk for exploitation, for sexual assault, they’re at public health risk for overdose or alcohol poisoning. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on there that I don’t think a reasonable person would say, okay, that should be allowed just because they’re homeless. So I’m taking a long way to try to explain to your listeners is that we might have to consider the possibility of declaring some space as safe and managed for camping that you can enter here, but there’s some rules. And that’s often one of the reject points when offered housing. Well, I’d go to the shelter, but I don’t like their rules. Well, that’s unfortunate. The rules are designed to keep you safe and other occupants of the shelter safe as well as staff. And if you are camping outside of that designated area, then that will be treated as a violation of the ordinance. So I’m still working out the details of that, but this current state of affairs cannot continue.
To be clear, it sounds like your plan is to take, you know, some parcel of land somewhere and designate it essentially as a camping –
A safe camping space.
A safe camping area, which would be, you know, policed, well-lit maybe.
Have access to –
It’ll be managed.
Managed, that’s a good word for it.
Yeah, I mean, I just don’t think we can allow this constant proliferation or resurrection of new sites as we deal with another. That would give a central location for our team that’s working on engaging the unhoused on an individual basis to get them the services they want.
And anybody who tried to set up camp outside, you know, this place or places would be obligated to move.
Obligated to move. I mean, we can’t, I don’t see another way. And I don’t see another way. And if they follow the rules, then it’ll be a safe space. And that’s, isn’t that our primary responsibility as a city is to ensure everyone is safe. It’s not about, I’m sure when I bring this up, someone will say I’m trying to do fascist police tactics. And that’s the furthest thing from my mind. But I – I’m not. It’s like we feel handcuffed by something that was decided in Idaho. I think we can decide for ourselves.
That sounds like a really kind of thoroughgoing strategy. It’s, it’s good to hear.
I’m trying to see what happens.
Yeah. That’s, that’s really good to hear. So your platform, you know, stresses more generally the importance of law enforcement. Do you have any other issues with how law enforcement is currently being directed in the city of Portland?
Well, that’s an interesting word to write. I’ll get to that. I mean, one of the other things too is, I’ve talked to a lot of parents and they would like school resources, officers to come back. You know, and I appreciated that the Board of Education decided otherwise, but I think that was short-sighted. I think the current state of affairs across the nation is such that I would hate to be in the position as mayor standing with the chief of police, and we measured the life expectancy of your child against a response time metric. I want officers there, one, for safety, but two, every one of my 30-somethings that I talk to in the city knows their school resource officer when they were there, they had good relationships. And what people don’t appreciate is that personal interaction develops trust and understanding of what the police officer is and who he is or she is or they is. And the cops learn who the kids are in a non-crisis environment. Now, come summertime, you get a 911 call for juvenile crime issue, everybody’s a stranger. We totally misread each other. And I can tell you events where school resource officers, because they go back to regular patrol in non-school time, can intervene, and tell the police, I know this person, they’re already talking on a first name basis. I think it diffuses and redirects the outcome to something a little bit more positive.
And just to provide some context, you – school resource officers used to be in Portland Public Schools.Yes.
And they were removed, when and for what reason?
It’s been a couple of years. It was just a couple of years ago, just as I arrived in the council, so that’d be three years, maybe four, given their discussions about it. And they were reacting to this idea of the school-to-prison pipeline. And that somehow students, especially students of color, were intimidated or frightened by the police. I can understand that they came from totalitarian states, paramilitary states, states where the police were an instrument of exploitation and intimidation. I totally understand that. So why don’t we provide opportunities for them to connect and engage in order to break those stereotypes? I mean, you don’t wanna wait for a 911 call if you’re a young man or woman from the Sudan to meet the police. That’s not the best, opportunity for an understanding. And that’s why I want – I want the public to know that if I’m mayor, I want to work with the Board of Education and the new superintendent to say, is there a way to do that now? I once supervised the school resource officers and they were khaki slacks and golf shirts to school. They were not intimidating, but they were our representative and they did good work. Over the years it became more of a uniform presence. If that’s the point of friction, then let’s talk about it. You know, I wanna just reopen the dialogue because many parents have come to me and say, ‘look, stuff’s happening in school and you don’t know about it. And we’re really frightened as well as staff.’ Staff are the ones that do the whisper, like ‘this isn’t working. We relied on those officers to be a balancing interest in the school. And we’d like to see it come back.’
So you’re giving voice to those whispers.
I’m giving voice to those whispers. People are so afraid not to be politically correct.
In a more broad sense, do you think that the city should be directing the Portland Police Department in a different way than it currently is doing so? Working with them in a different way?
We can do it better. I’m proud of my service. I am proud of that institution and my membership as an officer. We don’t get it right all the time. And I think one of the trends that… has increased the gulf between the department and our very dynamic demographic of residents is the fact that they do just respond to 911 calls. That’s not the best time to meet you, Ashley. If you’re in the middle of some sort of crime crisis, I have no read on you as a person. So it gets very mechanical. And I think the police department has excellent technical know-how. in a given law enforcement situation, I’m confident they’re gonna do the right thing. What I’m not so confident about is the degree of relationship they have with the community. And here’s the cue, they have community policing officers. Well, what’s the reverse of that assumption? That means everybody else doesn’t have to do community policing? I mean, it’s… Having a relationship with the community is not a specialty. It should be a responsibility for every member of the department. And one of the vehicles in the past that helped cement that view and build those relationships is we relied a whole lot more on foot patrols than we did on cruiser response.
We – prior administration said, look, we’ll get to your call maybe more slowly. That’s measured in a minute or two or three. And we’re gonna put more officers who are gonna walk the beat, talk to the kids, get to know the neighbors and the residents and the business owners, and get a sense for what a neighborhood expects for their level of safety. When I worked Munjoy Hill, it was a much different experience than working in a public housing neighborhood or walking a foot beat uptown on Congress Street. They all kind of have a level of what they expect when they talk about being safe for themselves, being safe for their employees, and the people that come in their neighborhood. I would wanna work with the police chief to try, and he seems like a good person, has a great background. I wanna say, look, you gotta get closer to the community when it’s not a crisis. I wanna, I will fight for him and the department to get resources to put more officers out on foot. Hell, we had foot beats in Deering in residential neighborhoods, you know? And what we found too is our calls for 911 went down because many residents would say, oh, I’ll wait till Officer Dion is walking tonight and I’ll talk to him about it. So that was evidence that there’s a trust relationship building.
So I think the department needs to consider that. That’s why I supported and voted as a resident for the police review process and the new entity that we’re creating. Look as a defense attorney. My former colleagues go, oh my God. I go, listen, if you do your job right, then my client and I have to talk about what’s the appropriate strategy for accountability. But if you didn’t do it right, then I’ve got to call it out and we’re gonna deal with it. And I think this body, if the officers are ethical and perform to the standards we expect, they shouldn’t fear it. They should embrace it as a way to validate their decision-making. But if the decision making are lacking or their performance is substandard, then that needs to be brought forward honestly so we can deal with it.
Okay, I feel like that was some pretty concrete proposals, especially out of police cars onto foot beats, I like that. Any last comments you wanna make on this before moving on?
No, unless something comes up, I think that kinda summarizes.
ReCode, Land Use, and Housing
Okay, great. So next I wanna talk about ReCode, land use, and housing. Obviously it’s an issue very important to a lot of people. Portland has seen skyrocketing housing costs over the last several years, both in house prices and in rents. By most reckonings, we’re in a pretty massive housing shortage, with vacancy rates in the city hitting 40-year lows since 2020. MaineHousing suggests that we’re many thousands of units short, affordable housing units short, and when you calculate market rents, that’s an even higher number that we’re behind. A number of policies have been enacted at both the state and the local level, both by electeds and by referendums, to try and respond to this crisis. And there’s plenty to talk about here, so I don’t want to get too wild here. But first I would say, do you agree that there’s a shortage of housing in Portland, or would you characterize it differently?
I mean, I think in raw numbers, there’s a shortage. I mean, when I look at reports from our own housing office, I think what’s been missing in the conversation is we’ve added quite a few units in the last couple of years and we’re on track to add more. I think next year we’re looking at maybe 320, 325 new units coming online.And you consider that to be an adequate number of units?
No, well, look, we probably need 10,000 units. Well, here’s the trick with units. There’s an assumption if you build more units, the cost will go down. And those are market decisions. And the government is really usually a poor partner in economic speculation or interference with market forces. I checked, it’s about $350 a square foot to build any kind of residential unit. I’m not talking something with the high end finishes. I mean, just general housing. In some instances, as high as $500. So you have the cost of materials. Does the city have a way to intervene there? Probably not. Then there’s access to labor. I mean, I met with the union local for carpenters and they’re pretty stretched thin in terms of having trained staff or apprentices that can act independently. So you have labor costs.
Here’s the one place I think we can have an impact. They’re not going to make a movie about it, and it’s not glamorous, but we have to be very intentional about reforming our inspection process and permitting. What do I hear from every developer, from multi-units to the carpenter who’s trying to put a deck on the back of a home? Right, as mundane a project as possible. They all tell the same story. It takes forever for the city to process a permit. Then when we go through the permitting process, we’re given a list of things to do, it gets done. That’s done, they go, ‘oh, by the way, here’s the next list.’ And sometimes it’s as much as three experiences of that in one permitting process. Projects go to a bank and they pencil out the cost and the timeline that it takes to achieve that cost. If you disrupt that timeline, you automatically drive up the cost of that particular housing unit. So the one most immediate thing we can do is take a look at our permitting process and do something about it.
When I became a councilor, I said, oh, I’m gonna get all the police complaints, right? No. I’m hard pressed to remember when they called my home or stopped me on the street to complain about the police. What I get every week are inspection issues, every single week. Now, Danielle West has heard some of that and she’s hired a consultant to come in and take a look at it. I’ll be happy to take a look at the report, but whatever it says, I’ll probably wanna double the acceleration of getting to outcomes that makes sense for builders. Anyway, renovation. I know one of the candidates is proposing a… a vacancy fee, like if you don’t fill your apartment quick enough, you get penalized. And I go, how does that make sense? It’s 180 days, may not, after 180 days, it may not be enough time to get contractors on site or even get materials. I did some minor modifications in my own home. It was like eight weeks to get the stuff I needed to get the job done. If we can accelerate that permitting, it would be helpful. I served as co-chair of the School of Construction and Renovation Committee. Listen, what did we really talk about? Inspections and the fact that the city had difficulty keeping the timelines because they wanna do onsite, they just have to do it, I get it. Life safety codes, I get it. The fire department gets it as well. but those delay in a construction timeline cause litigation by some contractors to get more money. So where there is a clear path for the city, it’s in that arena. Where there’s a secondary path for the city is what to do about the Jill Duson Housing Trust Fund. We’ve got almost $10 million there, just sitting there.
Before we move on, because I do want to talk about that. But just with regards to permitting, streamlining permitting is definitely a good avenue for trying to hasten the construction of new housing. Is there anything specific as a part of the permitting process that you would change or are we just waiting to hear from the consultant on that?
You know, I think a good political leader can’t be an expert at everything. I don’t pretend to be a general contractor or a member of the inspection team. What I can do is stress, advocate and push an agency to make it better and faster. Okay, because that’s the why. Why do they exist? To allow construction. Why doesn’t construction occur? You don’t understand their whys. I have a prominent business person with multiple business entities. He wanted to build affordable housing in Allen’s Corner for his employees, right? You know where it’s being built? In Westbrook. Because he couldn’t take the timeline that was given to him by the city. We can’t have repeats of that. I have other businesses that tried to do remodeling so they could accommodate more customers. They were at wit’s end when they came to me. They just didn’t know what to do anymore because it just seemed to be a perpetual cycle of new demands. I can’t have that.
So you’ll listen to the experts when they’re able to weigh in.
I’ll hear from inspections.
And on that note about Westbrook, you know, an interesting statistic is that in 1960, Portland, the city of Portland, accounted for 39.7% of Cumberland County’s population. And as recently as 1990, it was still 26.5%. As of 2020, it’s 12.7%. So it’s clear that Portland, by comparison to its neighbors, at least in terms of population, is stagnating. Do you see this as a failure to take advantage of growth, or is this just a natural part of – ?
Well, I think with – I remember going to Scarborough when it was just a flashing light in a marsh and it was a state police barracks there. Now Scarborough, in terms of the volume of people that come into the community to work, would qualify as a city. Same applies to Westbrook. They’re not going to be our little sister, little brother anymore. They’re going to be a city of its own right because their economic development is taking hold and they’re incredibly friendly to development and construction. and therefore they’ll be welcoming of more residents. I think Portland is seeing suburbs growing to be competitive cities and the advantages of that as well. I don’t fault Portland. They had land, we don’t have a lot of land, percentage wise. I think it’s trajectory that we have to pay attention to.
Fair enough. You were talking about the Jill Duson Fund.
Well, the Jill Duson Fund is helpful as our home funds, CDBG funds, in order to leverage the financing necessary for developers to create housing. I think the public on a whole suffers under an assumption that the city develops housing. We don’t. I have to continually tell people, no, that’s not true. But we may be the matching funds that will facilitate somebody getting the financing package necessary to do what they need to do. And Councilor Ali and I advanced in the housing committee, the idea of focusing primarily on funding those who were gonna provide rental units that were more affordable. We’ll see. We also recently, we’re going to be bringing it to the council as whole, is try to create a financial incentive for short term rental owners to return their units to the general market. But here’s the… go ahead. You’re going to ask a question. I can tell.
Yeah, I was curious about that because short term rentals, Airbnb, that’s another kind of hot topic in housing. I was going to ask that a little bit later, but could you elaborate a little bit more on that incentive?
Well, the incentive is to say, we want them to return for a one-year period. During that time, they wouldn’t lose their short-term rental license, and they would be given a bonus predicated on the number of bedrooms that they had in the unit. We’re trying to lure them back in the general market, okay? And hopefully convince them that it’s to their advantage long-term for their property to have some permanency of tenancy in that space. So we’ll see if the rest of the council agrees with that, but it’s a way to address the fact, one, we need the housing, two, that sometime owners of STRs are seen as renegades or ne’er-do-wells, and they’re screwing up the housing economy. I don’t have time for that kind of finger pointing, but if we can incentivize somebody to provide a service and a commodity that we need for our residents, then we should do that.
With regards to Airbnbs: carrot, not stick, for you.
Yeah, I mean, I think a carrot, they’re making their decision based on economics. Do we have a counter position? Okay, ours also has the aura that it’s in the best interest of your community. And, you know, I wanna appeal to the individual STR owner that what’s good for him or her is good for the entire city. Can we have a partnership? And maybe they have a proposal that will make that transition easier or better. Let’s see. at least let’s have this conversation and stop having these dueling referendums, you know, where the rules are in flux year to year.
Sure. Sorry, I feel like I interrupted your –
No, no, you didn’t.
Talking about a housing fund, or we could just move on.
No, I think the piece that also gets overlooked as to why we’re in a place where we’re at, oh, let me put it this way. If I’m mayor, I wanna focus our energies primarily on creating more low-income housing. I don’t know what affordable housing means anymore. There’s a varying descriptions, calculations. I mean, you almost have to pass algebra 2 to understand how one can conclude it’s affordable or not. The market will determine that. What the market won’t determine is how to create very low-income or low-income housing. Housing that was really subsidized in large part in the 80s and 90s by HUD at the Washington level. That’s been kind of absent. I think we need to get back to that. Portland Housing Authority at one time created a lot of housing that we desperately need. A lot of our unhoused would have been consumers of those spaces if they existed. So I want to intentionally reach out to the Portland Housing Authority, who, when you look at the news clipping, have been pretty much invisible in this conversation, and say, look, I’ve read your strategic reports. How can we assist you realize that and build more low-income housing? Or I can spend four years trying to do some sort of economic stop on market rate housing. I’d rather spend my energy creating low-income housing. Those are the people that are marginalized by the market. So how do I respond to that?
I like your “sure”-s, that’s like your check mark. You know that.
Now I’m gonna be self-conscious about it.
Oh no, sorry. I’m self-conscious too, we’re both even now.
No, you’re good, you’re good, you’re good. So I wanna talk a little bit about ReCode. The city’s been undergoing a very long-term effort to reform its land use code called ReCode. For those who aren’t aware, the land use code is the list of discretionary laws which dictate what property owners can and can’t do or build on their land. And to be clear, we’re not talking about safety issues. Fire and accessibility rules are separate. The land use code is…
What we can build and where we can build it.
Exactly. Usually with an eye to sort of limit the size or impact of new construction on a neighborhood. Councilor Dion, some changes have been released so far. I’m sure you’re aware. Do you have any – how do you feel about them so far?
Okay. This is a plan that’s been advanced by city staff. All right? And because of that, it’s somewhat occurs inside a bubble and there are certain stakeholders that are participatory to the bubble. The general principles of ReCode make sense. But here’s my cautionary tale as an attorney, and maybe as a politician, is what you assume to understand ain’t so for the whole population. All right? And usually when people don’t understand policy, their first reaction is to reject and fear it. And I think, you know, I went to the North Deering one, and I was like, I mean, to me, it was an unsatisfying meeting because questions weren’t addressed or it was this idea we need to move along and look at these charts. I said it then and I’ll say it now, if the public doesn’t understand the planning process, if they don’t know the role of the planning board and how they can participate, they’re gonna intentionally wanna reject what’s coming forward because it threatens to upset their understanding of what a neighborhood is. I grew up in Lewiston, and when somebody said, where do you live? We used to identify by parish. I used to say, I live in Holy Cross Parish. And then I came down here to be a police officer –
That’s a very Lewiston thing to do.
It is! It’s a very franco- city. Biddeford’s the same way. So I come to Portland, and it’s a by – we live on the hill, we live in the West End, Libbytown. And I learned in those two decades that people have a real affinity for where they choose to live. They have an understanding for the space in which they live and they went there for those reasons and they wanna remain there for those reasons. If ReCode is seen as rolling them over in the quest to have a more unified vision of the city moving forward, nothing good will come from that. Okay? So I’ve put, as part of my campaign, we need to pause. I want to make sure that we have a proper strategy of community engagement. They don’t – if I was the planning director, the first meeting I would hold is, this is how a planning board works, this is how a decision is made. The shelter in Riverton is a perfect example. I told them this is now in the jurisdiction of the planning board, and they looked at me sideways. They have no comprehension about how those decisions are vetted. We just saw a decision coming out of Munjoy Hill on development over on Montreal Street. Where the Supreme Court of the State said, ‘hey, you made a decision, but you didn’t find any facts. You didn’t tell us a basis for those decisions.’ That’s a big flaw. I know they’re all comfortable with their understanding of the rules and the facts. But –
So you think the planning board hasn’t been transparent enough with its process?
No, I think the planning board is transparent in their process for those who play in that arena every day. For the lawyers, the planners, the builders, it might be clear to them, but for the general public, it’s alien territory. They don’t understand and they have no comprehension about how to inject their opinion and view of the proposed project. Same’s happening in North Deering. They’re looking at putting out 70 apartments over by Alice Street, and it’s a problem for them. So I’m just suggesting, as I did to the director after the meeting, You gotta figure out a way to educate, not just advocate the idea of ReCode, but educate people through the planning process and what it actually means for their neighborhood.
So here’s a question for you…
Because you seem to definitely have a lot of concern for these community meetings and engaging with the community and everything. An issue that’s been brought up with regards to that is the fact that, you know, who goes to these sorts of meetings? You know, I think I wouldn’t be going too far to say that a certain sort of person is more likely to be represented at these, you know, meetings, usually maybe older, retired. To go back to the ReCode meeting that you brought up, I mean, the planning staff, they held a meeting at, like, noon in the library and then at 5 p.m. out in North Deering and then they had one at noon on Peaks Island and that’s it. Who, what sort of people have the, you know, ability to go to these meetings? I think it’s usually a… certain types of people are overrepresented here. Meanwhile, you know, if you are – you work a job, if you have family to take care of, you’re not gonna be present at these meetings nearly as often as a retiree or someone like that. So do you feel as though there’s a hazard with these community meetings that you might be overhearing from a certain segment of the population, even if they’re a minority, and underhearing [sic] and under-engaging with a larger segment of the population, even though they might be a majority?
Sure. I don’t dispute that analysis. And that’s what I’m saying. I think we, this is a new day in a new age. We don’t get by with just printing stuff in the paper. I think we have to do active solicitation of opinion. I mean, they had a bunch of surveys. I don’t know. I’m just saying. they’re not the ones that are gonna go back to neighborhood meetings now, those who attended are gonna solicit allies. And if they’re not adequately informed, they may generate some real anxiety in a neighborhood about what’s coming next. And I’m just trying to have them take a pause and say, if you think this is a good idea, city staff, we haven’t vetted it yet as a council, we need to do more education and outreach to make sure people do understand, or at least they had an opportunity to understand. I can’t control whether they’re willing to participate, but I’ll tell you, when they, this proposal to put 70 units in North Deering, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from them. I mean, people are becoming aware of it.
I mean, what would you say to property owners that want to build those 70 units, right? They say, we’re in a housing shortage, we wanna build housing, it’s my land, I wanna do with it what I’m legally allowed to do and there’s clearly a demand for it. Why should a handful of neighbors have the ability to –
Yeah, you don’t wanna get – I know there’s a nimbyism thing. You’re doing a good job not using that word.I don’t like the term! I don’t like putting neighbors against each other. I don’t like that.
No, neither do I. But always when there’s a battle about policy, it’s a lack of understanding by one side or the other. I mean, I would have recommended to that developer to do the hard work is in building the structures is to get community support. There’s another developer that’s putting out some cooperative housing out on Lambert Street. I really give them high kudos. They’ve held so many meetings, they’ve gone door to door to talk to people and encourage them as to why they should support the initiative, all right? I haven’t got a lot of blowback. The most significant blowback, which is real is about traffic, speed, and congestion. That’s it. Everybody seems to have been educated where they understand the premise of the initiative, the financing behind it, and why it’s an advantage to us. It doesn’t look like the North Deering folks have chosen that particular path. And that’s what I want to see.
So to draw a bit of a connection between two things that you said, it seems like you want to have developers spend less effort on dealing with permitting and more effort on community engagement. Would you say that’s accurate?
That’s accurate. I mean.
Okay. Of course, you know, I live on the peninsula personally. So I hear a lot of on-peninsula voices and a lot of those on-peninsula neighborhood organizations and such. They think that the peninsula is built up enough. They want to see off-peninsula neighborhoods, sort of, reach parity. They don’t want to see more intense development on the peninsula, they want peninsula-level development for the rest of Portland. What would you say to them?
…How you doin’?
Okay, fair enough.
Sorry about that. No, no, no, I mean, I’m just being facetious there for a minute. No, listen, I… More construction will come to Deering. I think it makes sense to look at development on some of the traffic corridors. I mean, it originally started with Forest Avenue to Woodford’s Corner. But I could see it in Nason’s corner and Allen’s corner possibly. But again, it’s the scope of the project and it’s going to be the same questions the planning board is going to ask. Is the design makes sense? Is it characteristic with the rest of the neighborhood? I think you have a better chance at traffic nodes because those tend to be pretty commercial to begin with. You know, so there’s an opportunity to build there.
So outside of traffic nodes, you’d wanna have as little change as is reasonable?
I’m gonna have as much change as the public’s gonna support. I mean, can I envision a neighborhood of single family units welcoming a four-story 12-unit building in the middle of the neighborhood? I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think they’re gonna fight that to the death. You know, they have a right to do that. You know, is that in maintaining the neighborhood? I mean, isn’t that the battle on the hill right now? You know, we’ll see how that turns out. I mean, there are some places where it’s consistent and it fits with the landscape to have higher density housing. In some places, I think there’s a legitimate argument to the contrary. I mean, people move to neighborhoods for certain reasons. People live on the peninsula because they like the city experience. People live in Deering because they like that type of neighborhood. If we don’t respect that reality as well, we’re gonna be in trouble.
Okay. So it sounds like overall, you’re sort of skeptical of upzoning as a solution.
No, I think, see that’s throwing the whole baby out with the tub and the window. I mean, I’ve read some of the ReCode proposals. It makes sense. You know, I’m just saying, if you’re going to project a complete re-understanding of a neighborhood by virtue of ‘we need the density,’ there’s gonna have to be some work. You just don’t come in and say, this is what it’s gonna be.
Okay, well, I don’t wanna linger too much longer on this. The only other housing issue I’d want to bring up is the fact that, you know, over – across two referenda Portland has enacted and then further amended the rent control ordinance, which stabilizes rent for tenants here in Portland and it’s been tried to amend – it’s been subject to an attempted amendment this past June, which failed, it’s going to be subject to a further amendment this November, who knows how it’s gonna go, some people are saying “every six months forever” we’re gonna be voting on this. Do you have any intention of trying to lead any change on this subject?
Yes. Listen, that’s what I said earlier, this – Now this continuous cycle of referendum, counter-referendum, counter-referendum, I mean, it’s a waste of energy, time and attention. We don’t get to solving the problem because we’re too busy battling each other on this. I mean, I would like to put together a working group, a commission, call it what you’d like, of major voices from tenants. So 57% of the people that live in Portland are tenants. You can’t ignore it as a constituency, it’s the reality. They deserve safe, affordable housing, period. Safety is a little bit easier to address. Affordability is a moving target. Rent stabilization works, as far as the consumer is concerned. What I don’t have good answers for when I’m talking with landlords is their inability to maintain reserve funds to do the maintenance and rehab of units when they open up. That’s an issue. This newest referendum would give those who have nine units or less an opportunity to reconfigure the rent at such a juncture. Okay, I hear from a lot of landlords that they feel compelled to increase rents annually in order to build that reserve. When they would be satisfied with staying pretty close to existing rent payments. There’s a lot of, first of all, there’s a lot of different streams in this river. Second, there’s a lot of really bad stereotypes of everybody, everybody’s evil in this movie. You know, depending where you sit in the theater. And I don’t think that’s productive for the city, for tenants or property owners.
So if I get anything done in four years, I’m gonna bring those parties to the table and we’ll hash it out, you know? And yeah, the DSA has been a voice for a lot of tenants, but I also listened to Councilor Pelletier. I don’t agree with her on everything, but when she, you know, when she speaks up on this idea of tenancy, she’s right. I mean, we gotta recognize that voice in a more effective way than we have at this juncture. I know it’ll be our version of the Middle East Peace Accords but I think it has to occur we can’t continue warring as a community over our understanding what it means to be a tenant.
So it sounds like you want to amend the referendum system to make it so that it’s a little bit less, you know, maybe disincentivize people to have these every six months referenda.
Yeah I the referendum process is great. But are we really serving the public interest, having one every six months? I don’t think so. You know, I think what we don’t have is face-to-face, candid, honest, conflicted conversations about how to move forward. That’s what we’re supposed to do as a community. You know, I don’t think the housing committee can do it. I think a mayor… The value of that office of putting their capital in that process to facilitate that conversation is gonna be important. Maybe if it comes out with an idea, then the council can take it up and ratify it. That to me is what representative government is about. It’s not about running out to get signatures on a petition. It’s about proposing a plan to your representatives that they can make work.
Okay, so hopefully we’ll be able to get that grand concordat between –
We’ll get something.
We’ll get something. Okay, well, unless there’s anything else you want to mention about housing.
No, that covers it for now.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Okay, so I want to talk a little bit about transportation. Not too many questions here. There’s been a lot of talk about trying to make Portland less car-dependent, to enable car-free lifestyles to save money and help the environment. Is this something that you would prioritize as mayor, or not so much?
You can say ‘not so much,’ if you’d like.
Well, I mean, I want Portland to be pedestrian friendly. I think what I love about Portland, it’s walkable.
I walked here.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a walkable city. So I think it’s incumbent on the mayor to assure the council that anytime it wants to address that issue, I think it makes sense for everyone. I’ve never heard anyone say we have too many sidewalks. If we get to that place, then we’ve done really well. I think bicyclists up to this point, the Department of Public Works incorporates, they’re very intentional about making sure that in the redesign of a roadway or repaving that they provide what had been not so much bicycle access more, but I’ll give you one that I don’t like, all right? You can go down, take a walk and take a look. And if you think it makes sense, get back to me. Park Avenue. Okay, I’ll tell you a silly story first as an opening. I came down high street, took a right on Park Avenue with the intent of going to the post office. And I sat there behind the car for, I don’t know, a solid five minutes, which is forever in a traffic situation, only to realize I pulled in behind a parked car.
I’ve done that as well!
Okay, and I go, ‘okay, doing well today, Mark.’ So I pulled out and I went and did the post office. When I came back, I was watching bicyclists pedal west on Park Avenue between the curb and a row of parked cars. That made an impression on me, right? Later on during this campaign, somebody I know who’s an avid bicyclist brought it up. I go, you know, I saw that. He goes, ‘Mark, when we get to that intersection, we kind of fly out. I’m a surprise to everyone.’ He said, ‘they should have made the lane, pushed the cars to the curbing, made the lane outside the cars. So moving traffic would be aware of us.’ So I says, you know, I’ll make you one of those mayoral promises. I will address that because it’s kind of like common sense. So Walter Lumpkin and the Bicycle Coalition [sic], and I brought him out to Lambert Street cause they want to take a look at that for bicycling. I’m fine with that. Car dependency… I wish we were Boston. I love the T. If Portland had a T, life would be so much better. It would reduce traffic congestion. Everybody could pick one up at North Gate or West Gate and come into the city. It’s too late to build a T. You know, I hope that we can revitalize some sort of enhanced commuter rail between Portland and upcoast communities, you know? So yeah, I mean, transportation, I’m a simpleton on that issue. I want the roads paved, the potholes fixed. I want streets plowed on time, which was a real challenge last winter. If I’m doing that, I’m meeting my primary responsibilities on transportation.
Yeah, and actually on that note about commuter rail, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, with Amtrak, has been considering relocating the train station. back to where it used to be at Union Station off St. John.
Yeah! Is that something that you’d want to encourage?
Yeah, I think that’s great.
Where it is, it’s quite, you know, Thompson’s Point, it’s quite kind of distant.
I think it’s great because in my mind, I see a train station as something that you can walk to. That’s the whole purpose. If you have to drive to the train station, it kind of defeats what you’re trying to do. And plus, it would be a tangible apology to our history that we allowed Union Station to go the way it did. So.
Great. And would you – should that happen, would you want to see like the development of, you know, housing and commercial in the area as well?I mean, it’s, I think the value of train stations when I’ve been in other states is I look around and it is the hub of the local neighborhood. Like I said, I dream that we could have the T, you know.
To go back a little bit to street parking. And that’s so funny, because that’s [Park Ave] my neighborhood. I live in Parkside. And that row of parked cars really looks like a turning lane. So I –
Good, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that got trapped!
And I sat there so diligent.
My fiancé, he made the same mistake. And then he realized like, ‘wait, there’s nobody in the car in front of me.’
Right, and I’m like, suddenly I looked, I go, ‘there’s no one in there.’ Oh, God. I felt like such a fool.
No, it’s common. But Portland has a lot of street parking, obviously. And there have been calls by some to expand fee collection for the street parking, either by widening enforcement hours or raising fees or eliminating some more unmetered spots in order to potentially raise money, potentially save taxpayer dollars. Whereas other people think that more parking should be free. It’s already burdensome enough. Do you have any thoughts on the issue of street parking?
It’s a hot topic.
It’s a hot topic. I’ll give you a little history lesson. The first job you get as a foot patrol officer is to give out parking tickets. This was back when the police did it. And I dutifully put a whole row of, well, ticketed a whole row of cars on Congress Street. And the senior officer came over and chastised me pretty vigorously. He goes, ‘what are you doing?’ I says, ‘They’re over meter, I gave him a ticket, right?’ I thought I’d done the right thing. He goes, ‘no, no, no, no.’ And he went to the ticket and he tore off the return envelope. He goes, ‘now this is a good ticket.’ I go, ‘well, it’s useless.’ He goes, ‘exactly. But you sent a message, you shouldn’t be here. And if you notice they repeat, then give them the whole ticket.’
That’s when they took it away from us and created a department parking so they could actually collect the revenues that the city thought they should get. Here, one thing I want to say, this is a good footnote for this. Over half of the budget that runs the city comes from fees. If you go to Falmouth or Westbrook. Cape Elizabeth, South Portland… in large part, their budget is sustained by whatever they get for a property tax levy. Portland’s kind of unique that it has adopted the split house approach. So what we charge and what we collect in fees is not incidental. It’s actually strategically necessary in order to maintain reasonable property taxes.
In terms of parking, You know, you said the other day I was talking, the other question, I had both positions at the same time. This is the same thing. If we don’t want cars, then we should limit parking, the availability of parking. If we do have parking, then the natural tendency of the city is to collect fees. I’m kind of worried about something else when it comes to parking, is the existence of for-profit parking. Moguls who’ve taken up all the available parking lots. I mean, it’s like they’re buying up everything in sight and they charge exorbitant fees to collect from people. I get more complaints about that than anything else. ‘My God, it cost me $40 to park the car,’ or ‘they took my car because I didn’t pay up quick enough.’ I think that entity needs to be engaged by the city and we have to restore some balance and some equity about how they make their profit. The only good thing you have with the city is we wanna raise fees, it’s open to public criticism and suggestions about why we should or we shouldn’t. But the emergence of these public parking authorities, I’ll use that as a term, has really redefined how people experience parking in the city. I think that needs to be addressed.
And of course, you know, it used to be that, you know, you can use the Marginal Way Park and Ride, but I feel like fewer people are doing that.
No, I don’t think they feel good about that right now.
I used to use it before I had a parking spot. I just also want to talk about, you know, greater Portland’s Metro bus system. It’s not just a Portland institution. It’s a multi-municipality sort of collaboration. Do you think that you would try to increase the ridership of the Metro system at all? Or is that something you’d rather leave to the multi-municipal –
When I was working for the city, I lost access to my city car for a number of weeks due to reassignment and details that are not important today. The parable goes this way, as I stood at the corner of North Deering where I had a bus stop and I waited for the bus because I said, ‘okay, this is cool. I’m gonna go down Washington Avenue. It’s gonna drop me off at Lincoln Park.’ I walked to the police station. And I can’t tell you how many people in the neighborhood pulled over and said, ‘are you okay?’ And I go, ‘what do you mean?’ ‘You’re at the bus, are you okay?’ I said, ‘I’m taking the bus.’ And they look at me like I had three heads. I enjoyed taking the bus. I think it appeals to certain, economic demographics, and that’s unfortunate.
I think North Deering should benefit from using the bus as does Deering Center and others. How to increase ridership is a multimillion-dollar question. It probably is tied to the cost of fees where they’re charging for a dedicated parking space, acts as a deterrence, or at least it could incentivize some people to take the bus. I believe in the bus. My dad was a bus driver. You know, I thought it was pretty cool to get on his bus when I could. So I have an affinity for that as transportation. But they need more buses, faster routes. I watched somebody on Washington Avenue just below Allen’s Corner. He was standing right next to the pole so he was really determined to get on the bus. The bus came down Washington Avenue and took a right onto Allen and I could see in his face like, ‘oh my god, I’m not gonna have my bus.’ So I think the more we pay attention to the idea that speed and convenience always has to be the standard that we measure a bus service by, then it might incentivize people that drive in cars to do otherwise.
Yeah, that’s actually something that a lot of people sort of disagree about with regards to buses is that… should you focus on how extensive your network is, like how wide your geographic reach is, or just maybe narrow that slightly and focus on just how consistently, how quickly you can service the area that you’re in? It sounds like you are on the latter side of that.
Alright. Okay, great. Well, that’s just about it for my questions about transportation, unless you had anything else.
No, I don’t.
Business and Labor
Alright. Well, then the last section, we’re getting to the end here. Thank you so much. We just want to talk a little bit about business and labor in Portland.
What do you feel are the some of the biggest challenges that are facing business owners in Portland right now?
I think access to labor.
I mean, where did everybody go?
They can’t afford to live here.
No, well, listen, when I was sheriff, I fought for a significant increase in their wages. I even went to the picket line for them because at that time, what we paid them resulted in many of them living in western York County. That’s where they began to find affordable housing. You know, and I was trying to convince the commissioners that if we paid more, they could probably live closer. and everything would work a lot better. I think you’re right. I mean, but on the other hand. Portland kind of leads the way in the reality of what we pay market wages.
It’s funny on the council, in all our closed executive sessions about hiring new executive staff, what’s the big bugaboo is we wrestle in shock at what the market rate is for a city manager or a city attorney or a police chief. I mean, we, but we wanna have the best person possible. So we yield to that. And I think this idea of minimum wage, does it really exist anymore in Portland? I mean, I think business owners are paying above that, generally speaking, in order to acquire labor. My sense of unions, it’s not just about what one gets paid per hour, but whether the employer is providing a work experience that lends itself to a better, to a better experience of life and work. And I signed up to go to work 40 years ago. My employer wasn’t concerned about what I was gonna do with my free time. They had expectations for how I work. I think today, smart employers recognize there has to be a balance between when you work and whether or not you have access to live your life doing other things too. So things change. I think things are changing more rapidly in that area.
So I welcome new unions. Collective voices are easier to engage than individuals trying to battle for equity or fairness. So I don’t have a problem with that. I think for the council coming up is gonna be our discussions about what standard for prevailing wages should we apply in determining whether or not union labor is gonna be adequately compensated in projects that we have an interest in financially. So… And public labor agreements. You know, those are gonna be. Those are two issues. I think we can move forward appropriately, but nonetheless, it’s a debate.
You’ve sort of preempted a few of my questions. So, no, that’s great. So, because I was going to ask about the minimum wage, but it sounds like you said like, you know, what businesses in Portland are even paying minimum wage?
Well, I think it’s always important to attract business. I mean, communities can’t work unless there’s an economy in which to base everything else on. However, in terms of vacancies of office space, I think we’re gonna come quickly to the understanding that some of those are zombies. They will never be resurrected as offices and that we should be real clear about viewing them as housing opportunities. Plus, there’s been a conscious decoupling of work from the office environment. I have an office on Commercial Street. I visit it occasionally. And I’m being honest, I pay rent on it. The fact of the matter, because of the pandemic, I’ve re-engineered my work life in a home office, but some clients still require the brick-and-mortar feel of meeting a lawyer in a certain environment. So I hold onto this office space to accomplish that. My friends, their colleagues, thirty- somethings are much more assertive about the idea of working from home makes sense for that work-life balance. So when I take all that together, I said, all right, then some of this office space is dead space walking. And we should be aggressive in identifying those spaces and assessing them in terms of cost and suitability as potential housing.
Well a major issue with converting commercial, whether it’s office space or you know old retail, into housing is that is less the land use, is less the zoning, and more the building code. The fact that number of things that Portland requires, and Maine requires, but specifically Portland requires a building, would require retrofits that go well beyond demolishing the building. Would you would you want to see if any of those could potentially be reworked?
Yes. I mean, okay, that’s where we lose good in an allegiance and the fidelity to perfect. I understand why codes are made, but I I’ve never seen a law or rule that can’t be amended to address current realities. If we’re in a housing crisis. then let’s amend things so that we can take advantage of this opportunity. And maybe that’s a good service or use of the Duson Trust Fund is to help underwrite some of that cost of conversion. Plus I think it would, offices tend to be built in good places in terms of vibrancy and access to other kinds of activities. It might make perfect housing for a certain layer of the community. of our community might want to choose, I mean, if I was 25 or 26, living downtown seems really attractive. If I was an elder person, if there was access to that kind of housing near the medical center, equally attractive.
To use a concrete example, you know, there’s rules in the Portland Business Code about, or sorry, about the building code, about like, access to windows, for example. And while residential buildings have been built with those in mind for a very long time, a lot of office buildings, you know, they don’t have the floor plans, they don’t they don’t have the direction to allow that sort of access to windows. Now, obviously, the – some people would be very wary about changing that sort of thing, because what are you gonna take away people’s windows? But –
Well, it’s a life safety code issue?
Yeah, well, I mean, there’s disagreement between, for example, Philadelphia has a much looser requirement for that sort of thing, which is why they’ve been able to turn a lot of old office buildings into housing, whereas other cities like Boston and indeed Portland have higher restrictions for that sort of thing. So that’s something you’d be open to?
Sure. I mean, look, Either we’re in a crisis or we’re not. If we’re not, we can move along as we always have been and hope it all turns out okay. Or is the crisis an opportunity to reassess risk? Every decision has a risk. The question is how much of it do we want to tolerate? Does it, is it reasonable? And will future tenants or owners be willing to accept that same level of risk if it provides them housing where they want to be? I mean, it’s all about choices.
If people want to make those sorts of choices, then they should be able to?
Oh, I did some remodeling in my house. I know they said, look, the window’s going to be so big. So, okay. I said, I don’t plan on escaping through this window. Okay. If it comes to that, I’m in a bad spot. Now I don’t want to diminish safety expectations, but I think we can be creative, you know? If it works in other cities, why don’t we learn from that? We can modify it, improve it, but it does show there are other paths to a solution.
All right. Well, that is just about everything I have that I wanted to talk about.
My God, this felt like I sat for a bar exam.Well, like I said, I wanted to talk about-
You covered everything.
A lot of the nuts and bolts issues that face Portland. Is there any, are there any issues that I didn’t bring up that you feel are important?
No, I think we’ve touched base on all the major issues. I’m kind of surprised, well, we didn’t talk about 295.
Is there anything about 295 –
Well no but… Although I think at some point, the office of mayor has to engage the commission of transportation. It’s kind of hazardous.
You don’t think exit 7 is perfect?
No! Well not only is it not perfect, I think it’s a little dangerous. In terms of this idea of density and historical residential neighborhoods, I think we have a lesson plan being writ large right now when we look at the Roux Institute. I think we should pay attention to how we incorporate the Roux Institute. the density that that project represents upon East Deering and what lessons should be learned from that. So. There’s been a lot of neighborhood interaction there.
Well, to go to your point about community interaction, I would say that the Roux Institute seems to have done a lot.
They did, they did. That’s what I’m saying. I think it’s a lesson plan about how you want to accomplish those kinds of initiatives. And they spent time and money on the community education piece. But that was a value-added effort on their part. It wasn’t a cost merely for the sense of cost. The frustration about permits is, what are we doing and why is it taking so much time? That’s the issue.
All right. Well, anything else that you want to bring up?
Ashley, you’re pretty thorough.
That’s the goal.
Felt like a real job interview.
You’ve been very prepared for… Seems like you’ve been very prepared for this whole thing. So I appreciate it. I really appreciate this. It’s been great.
I enjoy sitting for interviews when somebody is prepared. You know, you ask good questions. I appreciate answering them. You know, I hope the listener can draw their own conclusions from our conversation.
Are there any closing, are there, is there any like closing pitch that you’d like to make to people? Why, why should you vote for Mark Dion?
Well… I’ve been in service to the city of Portland for 45 years. You know, I’ve been on staff. I’ve run a department as a sheriff. I’ve been in the legislature for eight years. I think I come with experience and mostly important is relationships. Nothing gets moved forward unless you have relationships that build trust. You know I’m not going to be on a circuit of introducing myself if I’m elected mayor, I’ll go to work. That’s what I intend to do, so thanks for this opportunity today, I appreciate it.