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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 George Rheault’s responses and comments in roman below. Section headers have been included in bold for the convenience of the reader.
Ashley Keenan: Hello and thank you for listening to the Portland Townsman Audio. This is our series of policy matters interviews with the mayoral candidates in 2023. This conversation is gonna be a little different. I’ve said in the past that there are five candidates, but this is recently no longer true. I’m sitting here with George Rheault, well-known Portland resident and observer of local politics. How are you, George?
George Rheault: I’m well, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Rheault has jumped into the mayoral campaign as a write-in candidate, meaning that he will not appear – his name will not appear printed on the ballot, but he is asking supporters to write in his name as one of their ranked choices, ideally their first choice, probably?
I think before even talking about anything else, we kind of have to address the obvious question here, which is, why are you running as a write-in candidate? And do you actually think you can win? Or are you running for some other reason?
Well, definitely, write-in candidates historically have been big long shots. So I don’t think I can buck that history. And at this juncture, we’ll see what happens between now and election day and when the polls close. But this is not a symbolic candidacy. This isn’t some kind of a protest gimmick or any kind of attention-getting exercise. This is the real deal. I, you know, have followed city politics in the eight years that I’ve, my wife and I have lived in Portland and you know, I really really earnestly want to see all the other elected officials that have stepped up over the years, you know, do the job. I mean, I think a lot of people want to get involved and I’ve always wanted to let other people either take the lead or have that opportunity. But this has been a really rough couple of years. And I saw the evolution. I had a few distractions this summer. I had things like a cat that suddenly came down with kidney disease. I had an 88-year-old mom who needed a lot of extra attention from myself and my siblings in July and August. And so I didn’t have any deep ambition to be the mayor of Portland, at the end of the nominations cycle, which ended at the last Monday in August.
But I had a real concern, I think in the back of my mind, as many people did, about the candidates that were stepping up, whether they could do the job. And so I was aware of the write-in option and frankly, as we got to Labor Day the eight days into September and the deadline was September 8th, 60 days before the election to for people to officially declare themselves a write-in under state law, I decided that we needed another voice in this race and you know I have a big, I’m self-funding a campaign. I’m not soliciting donations somewhat because I didn’t want to have the administrative hassle, but also I think… This journey is mine, at least administratively, and financially, but I think that a lot of people have approached me over the years saying, you would be great on City Council, you would be great helping us run the city. And I’ve always deferred because I said, I don’t want to, my goal has never, my goal has been to uplift our civic discourse and our civic affairs and get people involved. It has never been about me. And this time, when you jump into a candidacy and you start actually running, then it is about you, of course, but it’s bigger than me. And I think we just, we have to have a really serious discussion about what the next four years of Portland’s gonna look like. And I really think that I can help the council get out of the sticky wicket that it’s in right now. So.
All right. Makes sense to me, you want to throw your hat in the ring. Running as a write-in candidate, as you said, is difficult, and Portland’s ranked choice voting system makes it even more of an uphill battle. Under the city charter, you’ll need at least 50% of the votes in the final round, and that’s not impossible, especially when you consider some of the finer points of the election process. Votes are eliminated if all of their ranked choices are… fail to win, but it seems like it’d be a very tall order for… anyone, even a very highly popular candidate to get that many people to write down your names. But we want to give you a fair shot. So you’ve already sort of introduced yourself a bit, but introduce your campaign to us. Why should people write your name down first?
Well, I’ve explained it to a few other people in terms of, I don’t think I’m a household name in Portland, but I think if you follow city government, if you follow City Council affairs for sure, you definitely know who George Rheault is because I’ve been attending most of the City Council meetings and most of the other city proceedings for years because I am at heart just a curious person and I… live a couple blocks. I live on Hanover Street, so that’s just a short distance from City Hall. So pre-pandemic, and when I first moved here in 2015, it was kind of a break from doing work and other things in my life to, you know, be able to literally run over to city hall. And, you know, at that time there was no Zoom option. There was no remote access to these meetings. There was sometimes some streaming that eventually evolved, but, you know, the opportunity was for me to follow city business and to some extent, make myself available to people who cared about a lot of these issues and, you know, maybe be a little bit of a tour guide or just somebody who could help people connect dots a little quicker.
And I’ve certainly had opinions, as you probably have seen me exhibit many times. And, but you know, mostly I was just asking questions. You know, why is a decision that might have taken months and months to arrive at City Council, why is the record so sparse? Why are the City Council members sort of, you know, completely, you know, not really up on this, this or that? You know, it just seems like why, why aren’t you, you preparing better for these meetings? Either from the point of view of preparing the agenda and the board material that, you know, is in front of the council, you know, there just seems to be always like a lot of basic questions that aren’t even, you know, included up front, and then to see the City Council struggle with an issue and being like, God, I really want to make a decision this way or that way but I don’t I don’t even really know what’s going on here. And I mean, like, that’s our local government!
And if you want better outcomes, you need to do better well before a meeting begins or well before a meeting is scheduled. And so that ability to ask tough questions and ask them early enough in the process so that people have the information that they need to make good decisions and feel confident, whether it’s a yes or no or it’s a postponement or whatever, that is the essence of a leader. Is making sure your team has what they need to do their job well. And that effectively, for good or, you know, I mean it’s not that crystal clear in the city charter, but that’s effectively what the mayor’s role is. I mean it’s not much more than, you know, chief question asker and chief, you know, getting people ready, you know, to facilitate a discussion. And so, I think I’m uniquely qualified in that because I’ve been, you know, steeped in the City Council process for a very long time. I’ve seen all the players, you know, uh, wriggle this way and wriggle that way. And I just have seen just human beings struggling with a really tough job. And I feel like now’s a good time for, if we’re going to help Portland, you know, get through the next four years. Now’s a good time for me to step up and apply all that learning. And hopefully, I mean, again, I respect everybody on the council. I don’t always agree with them. I certainly have critiques of a lot of their performances at times, but that’s probably true of just everybody in the world. We’re not always high performers, but I really want to make everyone step up their game. And the only way to do that at this point, I feel like is being in office. So.
You’ve certainly been a staple at City Hall. People have said, you know, they should just put George Rheault on the agenda at this point. You’re always there, always. There was some pretty, sometimes quite insightful questions, often quite insightful questions, and I’m sure that’s how most people are most familiar with you, is that if they watch City Council meetings or board meetings, they’ve become familiar with this most passionate and prolific of public commenters at City Council meetings. As you’ve alluded to, though, you can be pretty bitingly critical, especially of the council as a whole, and occasionally even of individual members and of course also of the habits of city staff. If you were elected, how do you plan to build collegial rapport with your fellow electeds after such a long history of being quite harshly critical?
Well, I mean, I think that there’s a lot of different leadership styles. I think most people and often privately, often off-camera or away from the council chambers, most people recognize, because I’ve sometimes had to explain it to them, that the council gives people three minutes to speak on these topics. And sometimes these are enormously complicated things. They are not things that are amenable to three minutes of commentary. And so over the years, because I have been a fixture, I often can dispense with the niceties. I can dispense with the introductions. I can dispense with the thank yous and the thank you for your service and stuff. And if you don’t know who I am, if you’re seeing me for the first time, you might feel like I’m being super abrupt or taking some liberties there with our public servants who are just trying to do a good job.
But the fact is that you know, that is a particular kind of civic participation. And it just doesn’t lend itself to, you know, holding back. I mean, you only have three minutes to make your points. And so you got to get in there and sometimes be very blunt and very in your face, to be honest with you. And a lot of times people appreciate it afterwards. They’re saying, wow, you said things that no one else was willing to say. And you said. it in a way that people needed to hear, or you made us think, and wow, I didn’t even realize that. And so, you know, there’s a place for that, and I think everyone understands that that has, you know, I’m acting in a particular way because of the structure of that forum and the structure of public comment. There is a lot more time and ability to do things differently, obviously, when you, you know, have a Monday through Friday. And you go into the city hall to do your job between eight o’clock and five o’clock when the city workers are there. And you have the ability to do a lot more persuasion, a lot more collaboration, a lot more discussion. And you can get into a lot more detail without having to, you know, be so blunt and, you know, frankly, fast paced. I mean, I’m a pretty fast talker because if those, if you aren’t in those three minutes, you pretty much run out of time.
So- So it’s a, it’s a, to channel McLuhan, it’s a, it’s a, character of the format that you think that’s why you’ve been pointy.
Well, I mean, I’m lucky that I’ve been able to get a pretty good education over the years and experience. So, I’m not doing deep rehearsals for these. These are not like elaborate performances that I prepare. I’m mostly just speaking ad hoc, extemporaneously, but you know, I have looked at the agenda and thought about the issues and, you know, as I’m listening to whatever comes before public comment, you know, I can kind of pounce because I’m kind of ready to be like, oh, that’s what I wanted to know and nobody’s talking about it. So, you know, but there’s absolutely some performance aspect to it because the format only gives you, you know, a certain amount of time to do what you need to do and you get in, you get out. The best thing is, and it very seldom happens, and this is one reason why I’m frustrated at this juncture of my life in Portland and stepping up to run, albeit a little bit on the late side in terms of skipping the nominations process this summer, but a lot of these folks, they will pat me on the back, but they won’t follow up. They won’t be like, well, George really brought that important point to fore, but we’re not going to follow up with him and do the extra work that we need to do to sort of help him or anybody else who is thinking that get good answers or get beyond, you know, sort of the stuff that didn’t get, didn’t get dealt with appropriately.
So, you know, there’s a diminishing return to public comment. I think everyone recognizes that, right? Like, you know, It’s one thing to, I think I’ve kept modeling that behavior over the years because I want people to feel confident that even though this is not a real terrific way to affect public policy, that this is an avenue available to people. It’s kind of a safety valve to be quite honest with you. And so people should know what you can do with it. And I think that’s a really important and people should be excited to be able to be like, okay, well, I can’t, I haven’t done enough to do anything else, but I can go to the meeting and I can speak up. And I think that’s a really critical first base for a lot of people getting involved in city politics or any politics.
Well, somewhat orthogonal to your candidacy, but public comment has been on a lot of people’s minds and a lot of people’s tongues and agendas recently because so many are abusing the public comment system, especially specifically through Zoom. Right. None of these people are showing up at the podium to say these things, but people are calling in saying racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic slurs, and just in general slowing down the process and making things ridiculous. So if there was an expert on public comment, it would be you or Stephen Scharf, probably. So do you have any quick takes on how the council should address?
Well, I don’t even have, I have the quickest take of all. I mean, when I announced the first real public utterance of my candidacy was at general public comment at the council meeting in their second September meeting. And I was very upfront when I made those remarks that part of the reason I was running had to do with the fact that, our council has been really anti-public comment for a long time. In fact, there have been multiple junctures in the last eight years where I and other people have had to speak up and make sure that they kind of preserve public comment as a viable and functional tool for people to use. And again, it’s mostly just to have that safety valve. Like if the council or the city is doing something that people are angry about, and there’s not much time for them to do anything about it, if nothing else, they have the ability to come there and speak their minds during public comment, either on the specific agenda item or just as a general matter. So I said, during my announcement, I said, these folks that have been Zoom bombing and these folks that have been trying to, and it’s basically, there’s one man, Richard Ward, and it’s not entirely clear if he’s using technology to kind of do it multiple times in a meeting or whether he has friends and outside helpers. But the suspicions are that it’s mostly him kind of using aliases and whatnot.
But our council actually, I think, has kind of been enjoying it in a way. And that’s kind of the implication of my remarks was that. Politically, if you’re a politician in this world, sometimes you love distractions, right? Distractions are really useful when you want to be talking about something other than issues that people might get upset with you about. And so rather than talking about homelessness, rather than me talking about… you know, that evening, the tourist improvement district, which was on the agenda, they got to basically be distracted and spend all this energy and emotion and time dealing with these little civic vandals. And this has been going on since like January, at least. So most of this year, or basically the whole year, the whole calendar year, if not the, you know, and so, you know. There’s certainly constitutional matters here that are important. I mean, I believe we have a First Amendment right to criticize our public officials. That’s been kind of abbreviated by the council rules. You’re not supposed to speak about personality.
So what sort of policies would you change? If you had a magic wand?
Well, I mean, again, let me just quickly finish. So the idea that someone has a First Amendment right to log in anonymously, with ridiculous, I mean, again, the mayor would, she sort of earnestly reads off the names on the screen of these commentators. And one of them was somebody who named themselves phonetically after basically like a Nazi salute. And it’s like that person should never even have been acknowledged. Like that was not a somebody that needed to be recognized. And if that person wants to go to court and wants to basically push either with pro bono attorney or higher attorney to sue the city of Portland for the right to anonymously with a blatantly provocative hate speech related term that is affiliated with genocide and anti-Semitism. that is probably not going to fly. A court is probably not going to say, you get to disrupt the city of Portland’s municipal proceedings because you have a First Amendment right to anonymously be disruptive. I don’t think that’s going to fly.
For what it’s worth, it’s an interesting example that you brought up, which the screen name of this person was C, period, like the initial, and then Kyle, which, reading it. If you’re just reading that, that may not be obvious what it is, but if you say it out loud, “C. Kyle,” you can get it.
Well, but you’ve seen the mayor, she earnestly, I mean, this has happened multiple times. The same person’s been doing this again and again. I don’t know if it’s Richard Ward or one of his acolytes, or friends, but she does this, like she knows what’s coming, and yet she will earnestly read it into the record. And that to me is like, once someone starts speaking, there is some First Amendment flexibility there for them if they want to rant and rave and talk nonsense. To some extent our system allows that. I mean other you know First Amendment cases around the country involving public comment have certainly given courts have given people a lot of very wide you know, parameters for them to basically embarrass themselves, right? I mean, they get to, it’s a court of public opinion that is what is at issue with public comment. Like, if you want to go out and make your points and try and convince your fellow citizens that you have something to offer, your point of view is valid and legitimate, and you want others to join with you, you, avoid generally trying to look ridiculous. Like you try and speak clearly, you try and make sense, you try and be logical.
Not everyone wants to do that. These guys, and I think that’s all guys, they basically want to cheapen the process, make a mockery of it, disrupt. And to some extent, unfortunately, we do have to, once they start opening their mouths, we probably do have to give them some of that leeway. But it’s unfortunate, but we also don’t have to let them hide in the shadows. They can come out and identify themselves and that’s why they should have been putting in place a registration aspect of this.
So there should be a registration?
Absolutely. I mean, if you want to participate, I mean, I show up as much as possible in person. I’ve always done that. During the Zoom pandemic years, obviously, that wasn’t an option. But I think that one of the things that the… people have been worried about, and that’s why the Zoom option has never allowed commentators to be on camera at their homes or wherever they’re logging into, because they don’t want people having, being disruptive visually, which makes a lot of sense. But you can have time feeds, and it’s not clear at all that the city has made any kind of effort to investigate that from an, from a information technology point of view. So basically, you know. We all know about, you know, major sports broadcasts, right?
Is it like on a delay?
Yeah, on a delay. Exactly. So basically, you know, you have five seconds to see whether someone is, you know, waving their genitalia in front of the camera, right? Or, you know, streaking across the field or something. And so, you know, we’re going to have to wait. So, you know, nobody, especially minors who might be watching are not going to be offended.
So, sounds like you would want to institute some sort of delay.
It should have been that, but the registration thing is easy because a lot of communities have done it, which is you have to tell us your name. And also what needs to be done on the background is we can have a city ordinance that basically makes it, probably a misdemeanor, it’s obviously not going to be a felony, but some kind of even, you know, maybe even a minor like civil penalty or something. I don’t know exactly. I don’t, I’m not a lawyer in Maine. I’m a licensed lawyer in California and New York, but I’m not a licensed lawyer in Maine. I’ve never practiced in Maine and don’t intend to, but we can have an ordinance that says that it is basically, you know, you could be subject to a penalty. $250 fine if you basically lie on the registration about who you are and where you’re calling from and what you’re about. And so that basically flushes these people out so that they have to basically identify themselves and if they want to be disruptive, if they want to waste everyone’s time, if they want to waste their time and look ridiculous, at least we know who they are.
And that’s basically the minimum thing that I think the First Amendment, you know, arena in this world of municipal public comment over the years, I think is the minimum we should be able to expect, which is you can come out and embarrass yourself, but you can’t do it in the shadows. You can’t do it anonymously. You can’t do it, you know, as a basically a game and a gimmick without us knowing exactly who you are and where you’re coming from. And so, you know, I wish that our leadership, at all levels, like every member of the council, I think is responsible for this, but also the mayor and the city manager and the corporation council, they should have been on top of this immediately. Because it’s again, something that’s been taking place well even before the pandemic. You know, there’s, I mean, I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and there was a lot of activity up at Los Angeles City Hall that I was familiar with and, you know, had contacts with activists and others and occasionally participated even back then. And they had, there were always people homeless activists and Occupy Wall Street folks and all kinds of people that wanted to be disruptive. And the fact is that they were allowed to be disruptive to a certain point, but there were guardrails and there were ways that the, the, this is not our proceeding. I don’t It’s not my meeting, it’s the City Council’s.
So you don’t think this is a particularly, you don’t think this is a particularly complex problem? It sounds like you just need the will to deal with it.
Well, but here’s the thing. I got a fundraising email from Pius Ali very shortly after one of these events, one of these episodes. And that’s, and Mark Dion, I know, for a fact, has had at least one or two occasions, has made very big pronouncements, either in these debates that have started to occur with the election cycle, or, because we’re doing this interview a little bit on the late side, so I’ve had the benefit of seeing some of the candidates in these debates that I haven’t been invited to, but even though I’ve been asked to participate on the same level. The politicians are in… April Fournier, I think has done some social media about how she had been personally attacked as part of these comments. All of these folks have every right, the politicians have every right to push back on this nonsense. And I am glad that they are to a certain extent. But it’s also interesting that they’ve allowed this nonsense to continue to the way it has and to be as disruptive as it has. And they’ve also kind of feed it, are feeding off of it, right? Like they’re using it to fundraise, they’re using it to raise their profile, they’re using it to show how powerful they are about pushing back on this stuff. And again, that’s all posturing and pandering in my view because there’s real issues that we should be addressing rather than dealing with literally one guy.
And again, we don’t know much about Richard Ward. The press hasn’t been very good about highlighting his circumstances, but to be honest, this is a very troubled man. You know, he is not constructive. He’s not trying to do very much. And city government has been one of these things where he’s kind of found a place where he can be somewhat relevant in terms of the discourse, but not in any constructive way. And certainly nobody, he’s not really buying any real supporters or, you know, there’s really nothing else there other than him just basically, you know, having a little soapbox. And that’s not what this is about. Right?
Absolutely not. So I don’t want to spend too much more time on this subject. If there was somebody like yourself, somebody that is so perennially coming in to comment and indeed to criticize your administration, if you were mayor, how would you want to handle somebody like that?
I would welcome it. I mean, again, depending on how they approach things, I probably would extend an olive branch, like let’s have a meeting, let’s sit down. You can come to City Hall, you can have a coffee, I can come to your house, we can take a walk in your neighborhood. I think that it’s a lot of, and there’s been a lot of different politicians that over the years that I haven’t really seen eye to eye on a lot of topics, but some of the… the quote unquote old guard under Jon Jennings, you know, people like Nick Mavadones and Jill Duson who had spent many, many years on the council. You know, they didn’t love to hear my voice, but they, for the most part, were smart enough to realize, like, listen to the guy, because that’s basically, there’s no choice, right?
Yeah, I mean, you have to listen to you, right? They don’t have to hear you. You know, I mean, it could, you know, go through one ear and out the other, but they all recognize, like, nothing good comes from shutting him down or trying to necessarily object to his mere presence, right? And if I said something that made them perk up, they appreciated it. And so, I think that I’ve stuck around and I talk about a lot of range of issues because I think if, one of the points that I think people may get from me is, for good or for bad, there’s all kinds of weird things that have to be on a City Council agenda. For some reason, we’ve decided as a body politic that this has to be a City Council decision, whether it’s an important thing or not. But yet, we want to make sure that we reserve certain things for our democratic politicians to decide. But sometimes, I mean, it’s just like watching paint dry, right? There’s some really boring things that nobody really, A) they don’t want to waste a lot of time dwelling on, but also B) they don’t want to have to think much about. But if it’s important, if it’s important enough to be on a city agenda, City Council agenda, it’s important enough to comment about. Right. So that’s been my mantra over the years is like, I’m going to look at everything. And sometimes there’s small stuff can actually really be a really interesting window into what the city is doing, you know, either at that particular moment or all the things that led to that decision, right?
Certainly a lot of the most important issues are not always the ones that are the most talked about.
Exactly, and the city works really, really hard to take really, to do incredibly big things and keep them off City Council agendas. I mean, the biggest example of that is our stormwater infrastructure. They set in motion now about 10 years ago, a huge amount of spending and project commitments with the Environmental Protection Agency through various consent orders. to bring our stormwater infrastructure up to a more acceptable level. And this is a decades in the making, basically several generations, frankly. But the city manager under Jon Jennings basically never really had to go back to the council to get kind of the permissions that he should have. Frankly, he should have been in the transparency that should have been happening. I mean, he literally took a 30 million dollar project that had been 90% designed, he took that and changed it completely overnight. And it cost years.
What plan was this?
So the big hole in the Preble Street playing field, that are these two big storage tanks, where basically when it rains more than like an inch at a time, in a short space of time, basically that overwhelms our sewage treatment plant capacity. And so that the only option was to flush that water into Back Cove and flush that water into Casco Bay. And of course that’s a bad thing if you’re trying to you know keep pollution and water quality to a good minimum standard. So basically what had happened is under Mayor Brennan And Ed Slusovic was very influential in helping create this. There was a stormwater fee that had been implemented that was applied to all property owners and there was actually penalties, or not penalties, but there was enhancements for that fee for people who own like parking lots. Because a lot of times, some of the worst stormwater quality is coming from these giant parking lots. But previously, they didn’t have to actually pay money to anything extra for the kinds of pollution that they were allowing to be created. So they call it the impervious surfaces that are around the city that are a lot of the trouble. So anyway, long story short. There was a project that had been basically ready to roll that involved putting all of those storage tanks under Marginal Way, basically about the Trader Joe’s down all the way to the sewage treatment plant.
And Jon Jennings was listening to basically a few property owners, a few powerful property owners, including Peter Casada, who owns a lot of the, he owns the Trader Joe’s, the West Marine, the Walgreens, the Planet Fitness, and then that medical office building on the way as you get closer to Franklin, he basically didn’t want that disruption because it would be obviously very impactful to his tenants. So even though it was gonna be phased in and it was probably gonna be as manageable as any of these other stormwater projects that people have had to endure. But basically Jon Jennings took it upon himself to have that, to basically stop that plan and then spend several years trying to rejigger the plan in a way that made it so you didn’t have to dig under marginal way. Well, the reality is it was probably a really dumb thing that he did, but the City Council never forced him to come back to the City Council for that permission. He was able to do it behind the scenes.
Well, that sort of opens up an ongoing issue, which is about the balance between the mayor and the council and the city manager. The city manager is of course something like the CEO of the city. They are the executive position. It’s a hired, appointed position. We recently as a city appointed manager West, who had been serving in the interim after Jon Jennings left, but she is now the permanent city manager. So even though we have this position called a mayor, as you alluded to previously, they are, it’s not an executive position. So there was a Charter Commission question in 2022 about this subject, which failed. And it would have changed Portland to a more executive structure. But for now, we’re still in this sort of hybrid situation. Do you think that more, a second bite at that apple, a second bite at charter reform in that sense is warranted? Or do you think that Portland should just muddle on with our current system?
Well, I think, I mean, practically speaking, I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite for another charter commission right away. But I do think it would be absolutely warranted because one of the things, and you know, the charter commission process was so drawn out and so painful. I think a lot of the charter commissioners themselves were unprepared for how much of a slog it was going to be. You know, they decided they were going to try and go big or go home, effectively. And they went big, they said, let’s completely reinvent this and basically demote the city manager and promote the mayor to a true executive strong mayor.
But also take the mayor out of the City Council. They would no longer have a vote as the current mayor does.
There would be, it was root and branch. It was a very different system and what – that failed. That failed at the ballot boxes. I think it was very hard, you know, the Charter Commission, you know, people forget these were just volunteers, part-timers, you know, they represented sort of a coalition across the city, but that coalition never really, and this is the problem with a lot of these referendums, you know, there’s not, it’s very hard to get money behind it to sell this to the public, even if you’ve been able to negotiate a solution at the Charter Commission level to bring this to the voters, right? So they really didn’t have an opportunity in the city, powers that be, Mayor Snyder and some of the other people on the council, there was no appetite. for having a lot of public marketing and education and explication and debate, frankly, about this in the run-up to the election.
So basically it got demonized as we’re gonna have some kind of like, you know, Tammany Hall, which is just sort of a ridiculous notion, right? Because I think in this day and age, it’s pretty hard for someone to be openly corrupt or, you know, but, you know, there’s no question that you can have… poor implementers of this. Fall River, Massachusetts had a very young mayor who was kind of like a little sort of young man on the rise. Turns out, under their strong mayor, former government, he was actually, he was openly corrupt. He was twisting arms of like cannabis retail shops and whatnot to, you know, literally get money, like cash payments and things like that. And he was convicted of that and it all fell apart. But so that was a real example that, you know, we could have somebody who doesn’t take this seriously. But I think the thing that I wish the Charter Commission had done was to really have deeply looked at what the Charter Commission had done in 2010 and say, could we could we fix this or tweak this so that we would give voters a middle option? Like we could go big. But we also could just make, if we’re going to end up sticking with this clunky system that we have now, which doesn’t serve anyone all that well in my view, can we put some more detail around what these duties are? Because there’s been dueling legal opinions for years.
Or could we go back to the system from before 2010?
Well, but I don’t think that served either because here’s the problem. I like the full-time mayor. I like the fact that one member of the council has the full-time job of basically, for better or worse, and there’s all kinds of sports analogies you can use here, but basically being the quarterback, right? And in my view, I think that There’s a lot of different ways of executing that job, even though there’s a lot of vagueness and a lot of imprecision in the city charter descriptions around the mayor’s hours and duties. The thing that’s most important is the mayor has the ability to go out there and mix it up Monday through Friday and beyond, and they’re paid to do that. They don’t have to worry about another job. They are not a part-timer. And so when you have a part-time council, the other eight councilors, they get a stipend. Right now that stipend, I finally got some numbers out of City Hall. It took me about 10 days to get some answers, but basically each councilor gets like a, roughly like a 70, like doing seven and eight thousand dollars , I think right now, closer to seven, to tide them over, you know, for all the meetings that have to endure. And they get some city benefits on top of that. I think they can opt into getting health insurance and stuff, which is actually supposedly a very good plan and much superior to a lot of other people’s plans that they can get through their normal avenues. And so –
If you want good healthcare, consider running for office.
Yeah, I mean, it’s – It’s an inducement. And I think some of the city councilors over the last 10 or 15 years would admit that it was a nice benefit to them and maybe cause some of them to stick around longer than they might have. But the point is, is the stipends are- are very modest. And when you add up those eight stipends, about $7,000 each, you are roughly at half the amount of money in compensation that the mayor is making right now. Because the mayor’s compensation has been escalating with every year in basically its index to inflation. And so the mayor, who started making under Brennan about $65,000 a year, is now is now making almost clearing $100,000. I think it’s like $99,000 and change.
So they can almost afford an apartment in Portland.
They can almost, exactly. In fact, every year, the mayor on their salary is basically benefiting from the gentrification of Cumberland County and Portland because as the cost of living rises, and it’s indexed to the median income. if more well-to-do and more affluent people with higher salaries are moving in, the Census Bureau is telling us that the incomes are going up. The mayor literally benefits from that. And so. They get a raise every time, you know, while more people get pushed out of Portland, you can’t afford it.
I mean, you could just as easily frame that as the people of Portland are becoming more prosperous than so does the mayor. And you could also frame it in the sense that surely we would want to attract competent people as mayor. We’d want to attract somebody that can do the job and they might not be too interested if there’s a lame… recompensation.
Exactly. I mean the thing is there’s no objection to paying a not just a living wage but you know a good wage. I mean it’s obviously unconscionable separate discussion that the you know governor of Maine makes so little money. I mean I think that you know we probably have gotten what we’ve what we pay for over the years in Maine by making that such an unlivable, you know, for such an important position not a particularly lucrative salary but, but way out of whack for most states. But the point about the mayor being a full-timer, getting a good, fulsome salary, they get to go in there and do the job. They don’t have any distractions. They don’t have to worry about making a living. The other eight people, if they’re not retired or they don’t have pensions or other streams of income, they are out there trying to make a living, dealing with their families, you know, having other things to occupy their time. And so if it worked well, and I think it can work well, you have someone out there that’s working hard on behalf of those other eight colleagues, making sure that those eight colleagues have what they need despite the fact that they’re part-timers. And I kind of call it, again, this isn’t like out of language out of the city charter, but effectively when you read through it and you can imagine what this person can do if they were doing it right, you’re basically a super secretary, right? You’re a super secretary for the other councilors to basically go out there and round up the information that needs to be in front of them for them to make good decisions.
And to be a bridge between city staff and the city.
Exactly. And city staff, I get how, you know, if you are getting hit with questions all the time, you know, again, I sometimes help explain people like I grew up in a very big family. There were seven siblings in all. And my mom worked. My dad was not always present in terms of being a very active and involved parent, but my mom was, and she constantly had demands on her time. And she, and there was definitely some of my siblings over the years that have had, look back and feel like they might’ve been neglected or not given as much attention, but the reality was my mom had basic things she had to do every day, right? The laundry, the getting food on the table, shopping, making sure people were doing schoolwork, like the basics. And then there were all these constant things on top of it, like, you know, mom, I want to do this extracurricular. Mom, I need a ride here. Mom, I want this or that. So, you can imagine that’s kind of how every city manager feels, that they’re supposed to basically be running a lot of these basic services in the city, and basically they are not in a position to always be able to jump when the City Council wants, you know, has a special project or has something new and different or new different initiative that they want to City Manager to assist them with.
And so, and that applies to the city clerk, less so, because there’s usually less specific things that are demanded from them by the City Council. But the corporation council is also in a position because they’re constantly being asked legal questions and legal interpretations from the City Council. Like, what can we do? How creative can we be? And so what ends up happening is, Jon Jennings solved the problem from his point of view was just by pretty much just shutting down the mayor completely. Like he literally just froze out Ethan Strimling. And because Ethan Strimling hadn’t really built a proper coalition, that freezing out was final. I mean, if the City Council doesn’t have five votes to come back to the council for a meeting and say, hey, city manager, whoever you are, man or woman, good or bad, if there’s something that the city manager is not doing, the City Council always has the ability to order them to do something. And it has to be a vote of the council because no individual, including the mayor, no individual City Councilor has the right to order the city manager around other than as a collective decision.
So, if the City Council is permanently fractured, then there’s no check on the city manager.
Exactly. And that’s exactly what happened with Jon Jennings. That’s exactly why he stuck around for as long as he did, is there was at least five, for the most part, five City Councilors willing to have his back. And that was really corrosive. And it actually, it served no one well, because it made Jennings, I think, feel very omnipotent and unaccountable. And I think he took a lot of liberties that way. \
Well, he’s gone now.
Yeah, well, he’s gone now, but I think that the specter of that is clear. If we continually have a council that encourages a city manager to act like somebody who has freewheeling authority, it’s just a matter of time before they take liberties to do that. And I think there’s been cases already under Danielle West’s tenure that she’s been very, I think that she should have been curtailed or she should have been asked to do more stand-and-delivering and the council didn’t know how to do it. And that’s one reason why we’re getting better results.
Specific example in mind?
Well, I mean, I think that, you know, this has been an incredibly challenging year for homelessness, right? I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s a accumulation of a lot of things, but, you know, we knew coming out of the pandemic as a lot of the pandemic relief funds burned off that… and you know things like eviction protection burned off, things like you know general assistance, hotel resources burned off, that we were going to have even more homeless people in this city. And then on top of that the judicial system has been limiting what municipal authorities across the country have been able to do in terms of you know, the old way, and I live in Bayside, I live a couple blocks down from Congress Street, which is still central Portland, but you know, historically, since the 1950s, it’s kind of been described as Bayside or West Bayside, which is sort of silly, it’s just central Portland, but part of the downtown. But the point being that the old way of doing it is the government, the police basically moved people around. They would herd people into Bayside, into my neighborhood, because if they were bothersome somewhere else in the city, whether it was the West End, Old Court, Congress Street, you know, East End, anywhere, frankly, Back Cove, they were basically told to go near the Preble Street Resource Center, and you will be less likely to get in trouble, or we will bother you less, we will harass you less, as long as you hang out there and not anywhere else.
But that ability to do that has fallen away because the Cumberland County Jail is so severely understaffed that you can’t arrest people for basically misdemeanor and public nuisance behavior very much anymore. And the district attorney is also understaffed and overwhelmed and not particularly interested in prosecuting you know, these very minor crimes, which you know, they are minor but you know, if somebody is constantly routinely doing nuisance crimes, you know at some point you do need to send that person a message that there might be consequences but it’s very difficult to do.
And to bring us back to the relationship between the city manager and the City Council...
So anyway, Danielle has been dealing with this problem and basically what she’s been doing is months have passed where she does literally virtually nothing visible. But then all of a sudden she pops up with this big, enormous solution that is dramatic. And of course, Riverton in the Riverside area of the city, District 5, has kind of had two big slaps to the face where they’ve had this shelter that just kind of came out of nowhere on Riverside Industrial Parkway, right behind a… It’s not connected by road, but it’s basically on the other side of everyone’s.
Are you referring to the homeless services shelter, er, the homeless services center, my bad, or the new…
This is a warehouse that Kevin Bunker is converting. It’s going to be converted to hopefully have a place for those who are basically classified just as ‘asylee’ you know, assisted populations, to basically not have to be at the official homeless services shelter mega shelter over…
And technically not a city shelter, but the city is partnering to create it.
Exactly. They’re doing everything they can because they want to get a quick approval. And so they basically made this as private as possible so that they can avoid the city necessarily being implicated and slowing down the approvals process. Because if it’s a pure city operation, it’s going to just get bogged down and probably take a lot longer to get approved and be stood up. But that implicated District 5 in a particular section of District 5. And then on top of that, we just found out at the beginning of September, that the first week in September, that the city manager also wants to dramatically increase the capacity of the official homeless services shelter, the mega shelter out on effectively Forest and Riverside, just a little in from that. So the city manager, basically, she’s quiet and she’s thinking and maybe she does need some ability, obviously, to think behind the scenes. about where some solutions might lie, but the City Council basically has allowed her to basically be silent and basically not addressing this crisis, but only in these enormous bursts or burps.
And I think it hasn’t helped anybody because it’s made people really frustrated. We just have seen sweeps after sweeps. Whether it’s the city doing the sweeps or the main department of transportation for some of these ribbons along the highways that, you know, the homeless have felt like were sort of like no man’s land that they could occupy without, you know, anyone bothering them immediately and up front. But basically, you know, the city manager should have been asked for a better plan because we know what’s happening. I know what’s happening in my neighborhood, which is a lot of the homeless folks. I make it a point of pride to respect my homeless neighbors. They own the sidewalk in front of my house just as much as I do. So, I try and respect them. For the most part, in my eight years, they’ve recognized, oh, this guy isn’t trying to get me in trouble. This guy isn’t trying to harass me. This guy isn’t just being a jerk. He sees me as a human being. I get a lot of cooperation. A lot of people who are homeless chronically and spend a lot of time in my neighborhood, they know. That guy, he will let you know if you’re being a problem, but he also will be decent about it.
You have a strong relationship with the homeless.
I don’t have a strong relationship. I mean, there’s so many folks in this position that, a lot of people ask me for money, and sometimes they get to know me on a first name basis, but I can’t help all these folks individually. They know I’m not a social worker. They know I’m just trying to live my life. And I want to extend that to them as well. But the point is, is that this year was the first year that I’ve had a really, really hard time getting that cooperation. Not so much from people who know me, because obviously they know who I am and they generally respect that. But a lot of the new people that have been coming on the scene they’ve been through, just like everybody, they’ve been through a really tough time the last few years, and their lives are upside down. And if they’ve already been moved around and harassed by the city and had their tents confiscated and had their belongings destroyed, and they’ve been treated shabbily from their point of view, they don’t really care about the guy who doesn’t want his landscaping trampled or is upset that you’ve defecated on his foundation for the third time this week. Those are things that they have bigger things to worry about and that’s what’s happening in our city is if we keep using the hammer, these folks have less and less of a stake in respecting the rest of the people around them. And that is going to eventually, I mean, it is, it’s as we head into winter, I think we’re going to. It makes it hard for everyone to do their jobs. Social workers, police, homeowners, residents who are volunteering their time to try and help these people in real direct ways.
So if you see the current administration is using the hammer… What would you do as mayor? How would you go about fixing it?
Well, I think, you know, there’s a lot of talk all over the country. I lived in Los Angeles for years, for 10 years.
And, well, you know, every place in our country and our beautiful nation has its advantages and disadvantages, but it is, you know, we all know Southern California is weather-wise is a pretty predictable and constantly nice place weather-wise to live for the most part. There’s definitely some extremes here and there, but you know we all know that a lot of people would gravitate in that direction because of the weather and because it was the hope that because it was a big thriving metropolis, Southern California is huge economically. That these folks would, you know, everyone would be like, oh, you know, we’re overwhelmed with homeless because everyone wants to come here. And a lot of people anecdotally in Portland think that there’s all these homeless, you know, flooding in from other parts of the country, other parts of New England or other parts of Maine. And that’s not all that true. I mean, it’s actually demonstrably not true in the most cases, because, you know, there are lots of people whose lives just like mine, you know, they’ve come, lived for a portion of their lives in Maine at some point, maybe childhood, maybe early adulthood or beyond, family, friends, they’ve had work and other kinds of professional engagements here. And so people come and go, we’re allowed to come and go in our country through all the 50 states, whether we’re rich or poor. And so a lot of these folks do have local connections. They may not necessarily be as ripe as they were when they were spending more time here, but those folks. are not just coming to Portland because there’s services here. They’re not just coming to Portland because, oh, the GA rate here is better than somewhere else. They’re not doing these like elaborate calculations of like cost-benefit analysis, which is, you know, how other people think that this is happening. But they often come here for an opportunity and it doesn’t work out, and or they’re here for a sober recovery house opportunity and that falls apart.
So there’s a lot of reasons why these folks are basically falling apart, including evictions and things like that, which are happening with even greater regularity, but being priced out. But the point being that if you’re going to recognize that we can’t just push these people away, we can’t just hammer them, we can’t just sweep them out, because basically they’re just gonna pop up somewhere else on somebody else’s doorstep. we should be trying to create some clusters that are managed. I mean, I am not a huge camper, but I’ve definitely car camped many times in my life with myself and with other people. And every campsite that I’ve ever been to, whether it’s a state park or whether it’s a private campground, there is management there. There are services, there’s a curfew, there is registration, there’s check-ins. There’s somebody wandering around telling people if things aren’t being done correctly at your campsite. And I think all of these folks, for the most part, that are in these encampments, they’re lucid enough and can be worked with enough that they can engage with that level of supervision. It’s not the same as a hyper-regulated indoor shelter, but you can work with these folks. And the fear of doing this is, A, we don’t want to create liability for the city. We don’t want to be responsible for them. But we also don’t want to encourage more people to come because the word will get out that we have a well-managed campsite or three or four well-managed campsites in Portland.
Sorry, to be clear, your plan would be a sanctioned camping area for anyone to set up a tent, have services, maybe it’s well lit, well-policed?
I think that if we are basically de facto allowing each of these campsite situations, these big encampments to grow for three or four months at a time, which is effectively what we’ve been doing. You know, the Trader Joe’s one took maybe about five to eight weeks to really metastasize before it was broken down. But if we’re effectively encouraging these people to cluster in a certain area until we can’t take it anymore and we clear them out. So if we’re going to do that, if we know we’re doing that, we should be creating some minimum standards and some basic structure so that these folks can come and go. I think there should be a registration process so that you know who’s coming and going. And you might even have to put a big construction fence around some of this so that there is at least some perimeter security.
So to ground this slightly, where would this campground be?
Well, I mean, obviously, I would be if I, you know, was had the trust of the voters and was able to, you know, prevail in November. I mean, I won’t be taking office until the first week, first Monday in December, right? So pretty poor time to be figuring out, you know, at the beginning of winter, where you could potentially do these things. So a lot of this –
Alternatively, the very best time.
Well, the planning could begin in earnest, but you wouldn’t be able to pull that trigger probably until the springtime. But the fact is that it should be on the table. If it had been on the table, we would have at least been able to buy some time because all of the, and I’m one of these folks that, you know, I live in the midst of a lot of unfortunate human misery, and I try and live my life and not be too distracted and disturbed by it. But a lot of these folks, know, and Bayside has had this going on for a long time, so I’ve had time to sort of quote unquote “get used to it.”
But the people that are in the vicinity, I mean Harbor View Park is a great example. None of those people had, that are neighbors and that are frequent users of that park, dog walkers, all of those folks, none of those people have ever had time to prepare for literally, I mean it’s probably, it might be in the triple digits now, the number of people that are, you know, cascading down the hillside of Harbor View Park right now. I don’t know if you’ve been by it recently, but… You know, that sprouted up overnight because you basically had broken, the city had broken down the Fore River Parkway. They had broken down some other places. The main DOT had pushed people out of Deering Oaks. And so they’re going somewhere else. They’re going somewhere else because there’s no other place to go and the city doesn’t have a good, you know, they can’t do the Whack-a-Mole fast enough. They have to wait.
A key part, and I don’t think it’s just a detail. I think it’s foundational to the policy, because you know occasionally people do bring up this idea of a sanctioned campground. Where would it be? Because if the answer is off on the outskirts of town… Well then we’re right back at square one because that’s one of the biggest objections that people have to going to the homeless services center is that it’s a million miles from anywhere especially if you don’t have a car.
The big mistake, I mean to be honest there were aspects of the Fore River Parkway and I think there was some unofficial, official encouragement of people moving in that direction. I mean I don’t know if people, it’s a detail that’s lost so many but Avesta owned Logan Place, which is a basically a quasi-housing-first facility on the edge of the Fore River Parkway where everyone was camping. And they basically, Avesta was able to use, you know, the city was able to work with Avesta and use some service, you know, be able to provide some services through the Avesta’s property and like garbage and sanitation, a few other things, but. Basically, there was an unofficial, official sanction of people moving to the Fore River Parkway. But the thing was, it wasn’t done with a great deal of thought and intention. It was done basically, and I’m not afraid to say it, half-assed. And so what happened was, it was a place to stick people when we needed them out of the way of Trader Joe’s, behind Trader Joe’s and on the Bayside Trail. But we didn’t do it with enough forethought and planning and smarts to basically allow that spot to look and feel like it was being well handled.
So you think the Fore River site would be a good spot?
I think there were elements there that if it was a blank slate and people hadn’t already converged on it and hadn’t been encouraged to converge on it, that you could potentially, because the way that the topography is and there’s access you had, basically you can get small utility vehicles in and out of there, you could have set up and you would have done it intentionally. You would have not said. We’re going to have 100 tents here, but you could have said, we will do 35 here. And we will –
Well if there’s only 35 tents there, where do the other 300 tents –
Well exactly. You probably would have had to put some other people. But the thing is, I think that one of the things that people forget, and again, I’ve been here eight years, there was a tremendous amount of camping going on around the city before the pandemic. And people, you know, there was a huge cluster of tents behind the Lowe’s off of Brighton. There was actually, and this is a whole nother story, which we don’t have time for today, but you know, the big Rock Road development of the old quarry on the Westbrook-Portland line. We, the city of Portland, sold them a big chunk of what now that giant campus that they’ve assembled. And the section that we sold them was the strip between the Westbrook line and the Turnpike. And that, I remember walking that when that was up for discussion for the City Council, being sold to the Rock Road developers, basically for like, you know, pennies on the dollar. I remember walking through there and I was a little, I hadn’t expected it because they were pretty well hidden. There was a very large encampment out there. And I don’t know, I haven’t been out there more recently, but I don’t know if Rock Row, because they haven’t done much with that particular parcel that we sold them. They’ve literally, I don’t think done anything with it. But I don’t know if Rock Row, now that it’s privately held, if they’ve done anything to rouse those people or not.
But the fact is, one of the things that we’ve been doing for years is the City Councilors in different districts have been asking the police to remove these people that have been hiding out in the shadows. And that actually got even worse during the pandemic. Literally, the CDC said, don’t remove people who are camping, homeless people, because especially during a pandemic, because it’s bad policy. What did the city of Portland do? It ignored that. It went ahead and actually did push a lot of these people out from these places.
So you would oppose sweeps?
Well, I think that the whole problem with the sweeps and the concentration of poverty in tent camps right now, it’s an accumulation of a lot of policy decisions that’s taken place over years. A lot of these folks that are out visible today are out visible because the city is actually push them from somewhere else, and in some cases, push them onto the peninsula. They would not have been on the peninsula, but because they weren’t allowed to stay where they were, kind of hidden off in little places behind the vocational high school off of Allen, there were a lot of different pockets where people were finding their way. I mean, I was, even around the Homeless Services Center that just was opened in March and April, there are little pockets of people camping. And you either see an abandoned campsite or you see very active campsites in these little pockets still.
But the fact is that if you’re talking about where can we put all these people? The first thing you do is you don’t concentrate them in any one place, if you can help it. But the idea that they can only be on the peninsula or they can only be off peninsula is sort of silly. A lot of these folks have different preferences. Some people are happy to be out in District 5 or District 4 or you know on the Westbrook line or you know you know in different places. Some people want to be on the peninsula. A lot of these people do work which is again something that isn’t all that well known by people. So they have jobs to go to and so some of them go to a convenience store and work the night shift you know off peninsula. and they don’t necessarily mind being closer to the suburban belt of Portland.
But it feels like you’re, it feels like you’ve been having two separate perspectives here. And obviously this is a long-term failure of a lot of policies over many years. We understand that, but here we are now. Time only flows in one direction.
On the one hand, you were talking about the idea of like, and other people, I believe Mark Dion spoke about this as well, the idea of a single one or not that many sanctioned campgrounds like here is a place where there are trash cans, where there is, you know, medical assistance, where it’s well lit, where police are involved to make sure people are safe. Right. It’s basically a kind of outdoor shelter.
And it’s not cheap. I’m not going to say that that’s easy to create and have it be a good situation for everybody.
But the corollary of that is that if the city is doing that, then that means the city is taking some liability, they’re taking some responsibility. And if you’re camping just wherever, then the city has the ability to relocate you to this camp. However, then on the other hand, there are people that say that… camping on public property should just be allowed. It’s not the city’s responsibility to be sweeping and organizing and pushing around these people and trying to let things crop up and sweep them away. And instead, we should just let them have the autonomy, let people camp on public land.
I would call that a corollary (alternative pronunciation.) Was that the word you were looking for?
I think they’re somewhat mutually exclusive.
No, I think that the fact is, and this is the problem with our with the United States today. You know, to be quite honest, there’s a tremendous amount of entitlement, right, from a lot of corners. We have the entitlement of our very well, most well-to-do and most affluent and powerful. They feel that by virtue of being where they are with their vast resources, that they are entitled to pretty much do as they please. And they’ve certainly made that pretty much the law. I mean, they don’t have the same tax responsibilities as the rest of us in proportion to their income. But to be honest, a lot of really troubled and poor people, indigent, there’s all kinds of ways of describing them, they have a tremendous amount of entitlement too. I mean, if your tank of gas is empty, you know you can’t do very much, right? And so, you do feel like anyone asking you to do anything extra is a burden. And you do feel a tremendous amount of entitlement that, hey, I got nothing, so why are you making me do something? But the reality is that we live in a community that is, you know, human relations is always an element of reciprocity, right? Where there’s no one human being, we’re, you know, a human society. So asking a lot of these folks to abide by some minimum standards and by having to ask them to cooperate with the rest of us is not an extraordinary thing.
And I think the idea of letting people camp wherever they feel, like wherever they need to rest their head, there’s an element of that that’s fair. But if you’re tired and you need to rest, OK, maybe today we’ll leave you alone. But the idea that you can stake your claim to wherever you want in the city, any public property, and stay there repeatedly, day after day, week after week, is not something that is, I mean, that’s just very corrosive, right? Like you can’t, we all have to answer to one another and that is a minimum thing, which is, you know, public property is, you know, it belongs to everybody. And so you have to ask these folks and respect them. I think you do it as best you can. But most of them get it. They still have connections to their friends and family and people that they respect, and they are constantly engaging in reciprocal relations with their circles. So you basically say, look, we’re going to give you some options, and we’re gonna ask you to work with us. And that means you’re gonna have to give something up, which is you can’t camp wherever you feel like it, because that’s not fair to the people in the immediate area. But also, we’re going to not just willy-nilly do things to you that are unfair and that are really disruptive to your well-being. It’s not going to work with every person, right?
We’re talking about, because our entire system is all about how many good outcomes can we get collectively. there’s going to be a lot of outliers all along the way. But the thing is, and this is where maybe I have some common ground with Mark Dion, if that’s what he’s been suggesting. It hasn’t been entirely clear because he’s been doing a lot of chest thumping and law and order. He seems to be saying that we need to do much more aggressive sweeps. But the fact is that if you go into these situations with a sense of entitlement and a sense of no rules, no expectations, it’s no surprise that things get pretty unruly pretty fast. And that it doesn’t help anybody because it basically says that anything goes and then the city sits back and waits months for the anything goes to rise up to such a level that they then can justify doing some kind of quote unquote “public safety” justified sweep. It just it sets everyone back, right?
Well, you’re asking the people of Portland to write down your name as mayor. I’m asking you, this is your chance, but, you know, be straightforward here. What’s your plan? What will you do? Because I feel like you’ve taken a few different avenues here. Everybody I’ve spoken to more or less considers homelessness to be one of, or if not the, single most pressing question.
Well, I think every candidate, especially in a handful of debates that have already taken place when we’re recording this interview, every candidate recognizes that any kind of quick and easy and overnight solution to homelessness in the city of Portland is an absurd notion. And so, you can challenge me on the fact that I’m perhaps not putting something immediately on the table, but I’m going to be coming into a situation based on what we’ve seen the council doing now with in cooperation with the city manager, that there’s going to be this new asylum seeker focused shelter out on Riverside Industrial Drive that hopefully will be opening around Thanksgiving. The new council will be seated about a week or so after that. So we will already know how much that is helping or hurting in giving capacity to the system. We will already know whether, because they’re gonna now phase in maybe an extra 50 beds in the homeless services center through the bunk bed mechanism apparently, and they’re gonna sort of transition that in stages.
That’s looking like it’s not gonna happen.
No, no, no, it seems like that is, you know, she’s selling it and you’re right, it’s not a done deal.
Well we’ll see.
But the 150-bed explosion of new capacity, that is not going to happen anytime soon. And that what she’s positioning is, and I think a lot of these folks are just the City Council’s just going to have to accept it because there isn’t a lot of good solutions on the table. They probably are going to have 50 extra beds through the bunk beds. So you’re going to have at least some window because there is, it’s oversold, but there is some truth that as things get colder and things get harder outdoors, you do see some people leaving Portland in the winter and finding other means of shelter and other avenues for taking care of themselves outside of city limits or indoors, off the public property, off of the tent encampment sites. So we’ll see, I mean, it may, these solutions that are like not good, they may at least give us some breathing room, but the fact is, like, I don’t think, you know, anybody is gonna be able to dramatically improve conditions overnight, and certainly not with, I mean, literally, like, it’s gonna take probably a few months for the new council to get up to speed on what we can do. So. I’m not going to promise any overnight solutions to anyone because I think that’s irresponsible. It simply isn’t going to happen.
Well, let’s look at the city’s current strategy, which is the Encampment Crisis Response Team. It’s a big interdepartmental effort, brings in a lot of nonprofits and different parts of the city government.
Well I think that’s basically window dressing. I mean, I’ve been attending for years this thing called the Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee. That is basically what… That group should have been working on this problem for years, but that group has been basically devalued and it hasn’t been given much authority and it hasn’t been given much resources or leadership. Basically that group, it’s called ESAC, basically has been rebranded as this encampment task force. And the reality is, it’s pretty much the same people. They have a little bit better focus and administrative help from like, you know, the fire department’s providing some administrative overview or administrative like structure and maintenance, but it’s basically the same people. And they basically have been rebranded and people they’re also in these meetings aren’t public. Which is actually probably the most corrosive thing, which is we don’t, the public doesn’t understand how small our city is and how small the people that are actually working on this problem are, there’s not like legions of social workers like flooding these encampments on a regular basis. It’s literally like a handful of social workers. And there’s some times when those social workers have paperwork to do, they have, you know, grant writing, they have responsibilities for their own organizations. There’s days and hours where there’s literally nobody in these encampments doing this kind of work. But we create this illusion, and I think the media has been terrible. And again, the media, local media has been, basically, they’re even worse shaped than most of these social service nonprofits in terms of staffing and resources and ability to do anything effective. The local media has, they love to trumpet the encampment task force. It’s a paper tiger. There’s no juggernaut that’s out there working on this problem. It’s literally Band-Aids and paper clips and toothpicks. And I mean, it’s like, it is literally an ad hoc makeshift thing that really isn’t bringing a lot of extra firepower to this. It’s basically a rebranding of the same old people doing the same old thing and we’re expecting better results, which is not fair.
I don’t deny that it is, to a certain extent, a lot of makeshift, a lot of improvisation, but their strategy basically has been when they target an encampment that has metastasized in your terms, that’s a good word, whether it’s the one at Trader Joe’s or whether it’s the one at Fore River or whatever. They set a resolution date, which is a euphemism for when they’re going to come in and clear everybody out. And then during in the intermediate time, you know, they publicize it, they say, look, we’re giving you, we’re giving all residents here three months warning that this is a hazard. This is a public safety, this is a hygiene hazard, you can’t stay, but we’re going to be doing everything we can to house you or put you in a shelter or do whatever we can to get you placed somewhere else until then. Right? Now I’m not saying that’s a perfect solution, but that’s what they’ve been doing. How would you change this strategy?
Yeah, but it’s not even a solution.
How would you change this strategy?
It’s a cop-out and it’s a cheat. It’s an administrative…
Well then what would you do?
It’s an administrative… Well, the thing is, I think we should be honest with people that… all you’re doing. I mean, we’ve saw it with the Fore River Parkway. We had supposedly months of all this activity and effort and work, and it resulted in very, very, very few people actually getting any real change in their circumstances in terms of, of any kind of transitional housing or permanent housing. It’s just there’s not a lot there. Although I have to say, and this kind of colors into land use, which is absolutely completely pervades this entire discussion, we have a homeless problem in Portland because a lot of people are invested in Portland not changing and not creating housing to house everybody. So basically like in my neighborhood, I literally, across the street from me, I had a four-unit building empty out because of gentrification. A few doors down for a few blocks, like a block and a half away from me, under above the old Ricky’s Tavern, there was basically, it was basically like a single room occupancy kind of environment. It was like seven to nine people were living there in sort of kind of a carved up apartment situation. That was emptied out again because of gentrification. Those were very modest buildings, nothing fancy, nothing special, they had no inherent historical significance, but they were both basically 19th century structures. Those things… Basically, where did those people go? I mean, in the case of the building across the street from me on Hanover Street. You know, those people were all working. They found other housing. Half of them moved out of town.
In the case of the much more fragile and precarious people living above Ricky’s Tavern, we don’t even know where they went. They probably, some of those people probably went right into homelessness because that’s exactly what happened when Crandall Toothacre renovated a whole slew of buildings on Wilmont Street, right next to the Franklin Towers in 2015 and 2016, they literally, some of those people literally were evicted and forced out and they literally walked to the Oxford Street shelter that night. And so people are wondering where are all these homeless people coming from? Well, it’s because we have a city that’s finally growing, a city that’s finally having some economic prosperity that’s sort of taking hold. And we have destroyed literally thousands of units of housing since the 1950s in this town for all kinds of reasons. And I don’t think people, I was having a discussion with someone recently, a voter, and they were like, well, what do you mean? And I was like, well, you know where Reichi school is? That was all housing. And it was wiped off the map because they decided that was a great place to put, to both eliminate this quote unquote blighted housing. at the same time that we found a place to put a new elementary school that was funded basically by the federal government.
And so people are like, oh really? I didn’t know that. And it’s like, yeah, well, you know, there was a reason there were 77,000 people living in Portland in 1950, in the 1950 census. But there were also less people in Portland today than there were in 1920. And it’s because we’ve destroyed a lot of housing, and we aren’t putting it back in nearly the amounts that we need to, to make sure that we aren’t pushing out people who can’t afford to buy into the new housing that is being created.
So if the short-term solution to homelessness and to the encampments is not something that can just be wished into air. It sounds like you’re saying a long-term solution has to be building up our housing stock, allowing more homes to be built here in Portland. Yes?
Absolutely. I mean, there’s a great book called The Slums of Aspen. I urge everyone to pick it up. It’s basically a bunch of sociologists writing a little bit in the academic style. So basically it’s talking about how affluent communities get created across the country but they basically, they have their core, and then all of the people that serve that affluent oasis, they have to live on the margins. And we are literally creating the slums of Portland that once were inside Portland, but now they’re on the fringes. And basically, there’s a whole bunch of people that because they are successful and they have money and they have lives that are often not even centered all that much on Portland, but they come in and out of Portland, those folks. are being catered to by the market, but the market doesn’t have any ability because of all these, you know, people like their paradise. They like their oasis. They don’t want anyone to mess with it. They don’t want to share it with anybody. So if you’re not sharing your oasis, what you do is you get slums on the margins, right? And that’s exactly what’s happening in Portland. And right now, the worst aspect of it, because we don’t have the public ability to just flush these people and herd them somewhere else, they’re literally in our parks and on our sidewalks.
So to the end of building more housing, as the slogan goes, what would you as mayor want to change in concrete terms?
Well, I mean, I think we need to have, you know, there’s a lot of folks that are –
Why isn’t more housing getting built and what would you do to change it?
Well, we have to, first of all, we have to legalize housing, right? And again, I can say that really loud and like- I don’t know how many rooftops I can shout it from, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to people, but legalize housing, which… Housing in our zoning code is treated basically like toxic waste. It is regulated to an even greater degree than a lot of these harmful industrial uses that we’re also concerned about living next to. But the reality is, we in this country, in America, for years, and in Portland since the 1920s, we treat those who do not have a lot of resources for housing, we treat those folks as lepers. We treat those people as things we don’t want in our community. They’re basically considered toxic waste dumps. And so we only allow, handful of projects to happen on a over every two to three years across the city. You know the affordable housing cartel and it’s basically a little cartel.
There’s only a handful of affordable housing developers in the region that can stand up any project and they kind of rotate. They rotate through the state subsidies and the IRS tax credits that are available to them and they basically are constantly doing a little dance like how can we massage you know a neighborhood or our city elected officials to give us some subsidies to build a little project here, a little project there. And Maine State Housing [sic] is also very complicit in this because they have cost caps, which basically make sure that these projects are always very small. Like they’re never actually able to address the problem and the need because they are literally by law, they’re forced to basically waste money. The subsidies that are going to these projects end up with like, you know, if you have a 35 or a 45 unit project, the per unit cost is expensive. If you wanted to do a 60 unit, 70 unit, maybe even 120 unit, that would scare the neighborhood, that would scare the municipality or the town that that might go in. So they basically at Maine State Housing, they short circuit that, they’re like, we won’t even let you build that because we will have a cost cap that will prevent you from ever getting to that scale.
Well, to bring it back to the land use code, which is I think what you were talking about. The city’s been undergoing an effort to change and update and revise its land use code, ReCode is what it’s called. It’s been going on for a while. Do you have any specific changes that you want to see out of that ReCode?
Absolutely. I mean, we have to. So basically, you know, housing and people joke about, you know, there’s a lot of people who are very suspicious of real estate developers. And I certainly believe that there’s plenty of real estate developers that you know, it’s right to be suspicious of. But because it’s like any business, you know, there’s people who are in it for the money. And there’s people who, you know, are concerned about quality and about longevity and in the long term, and there’s other people who are in it for the short-term profits, but that’s just about every industry, but that the housing is a really sticky thing. I mean, it takes a lot of work to have housing get created and it’s not something, and it’s there for a very, very long time, right? So neighborhoods hate it. Neighborhoods don’t want any change. And we’ve given this entitlement to people to think that zoning is this sort of sacred pact. Like once there’s a zoning regime in place in a certain corner of the city, that it’s meant to be there forever. when in fact zoning is just like any other ordinance in the city. The City Council literally could change it overnight. They obviously have to be careful because we’ve written in a lot of complexity into our planning code. And so, you have to unwind that complexity to some extent. But the reality is that we segregate and we exclude and we impoverish by design, right?
So, we’ve created this problem. We’ve created a city that can’t create housing. And also it’s unfair because the rhetoric that gets thrown out there is we hate private housing because it’ll compete with the housing that we already own, right? Like why, if I own a single-family house, why do I want somebody building a nicer single-family house next to me? that will just either make it harder for me to sell my house someday, or it’ll just make me feel, you know, every time I come home into my driveway, it’ll make me feel like bad because I’ll be looking at a nicer house across the street. But the fact is, it’s very selfish. And that selfishness has been going on for so long that we have constricted the private housing markets from really creating very much product. I mean… We, Portland people again, go to your Wikipedia page about Portland and look at the census figures from the last 150 or basically since they started taking the census in the state of Maine, you can see how our city has grown. And there’s been a lot of stagnation for many years, many decades, but then there’s also been these big burps.
Portland grew tremendously. We grew after we absorbed Deering in 1899. It was the 1900 census, and that was about included about maybe five or six thousand people from Deering, the Deering annexation, and we were about 50 some odd thousand people. By the 1920s, by the 1920 census, we had grown tremendously, like thousands and thousands of people, more growth than we had ever seen before in our city before. you know, compared to what we’ve been seeing, the anemic growth we’ve been seeing since the 1980 census here, which was our low point and for Portland, which is like a little 60,000 people and change, but it’s still a lot of people. Basically, between 1900 and 1920, before there was a zoning code, before there was a thing called city planners, we had the private market in Portland built a tremendous amount of housing. Now, back then, there was a lot more land available, so a lot of it was in the form of triple-deckers and multifamily housing on a very modest scale. But back then, the private market, it wasn’t perfect. There were definitely people who were probably poorly housed and that weren’t getting what they needed when they needed it. There was a lot of overcrowding. It was not perfect by any stretch, but the market did create a lot of housing very quickly, and that actually continued into the 1920s. A lot of our nicest multifamily buildings, especially on the peninsula, were all a lot of them were created in the 1920s. But we have prevented any of that from being built on a wide scale.
We literally only allow a handful of people to build anything at a time in the city. And then we wonder why we have thousands of people wanting more housing options and not getting them. I mean, it’s frustrating, but what’s happening is the politicians and the planners continue to perpetuate this. They do not want the system to change anything other than the tiniest, most incremental ways. And that’s what the recode process is serving up as we speak. Literally, we have created thousands and thousands of man hours and thousands and thousands of dollars of staff time and consultant time to basically do little tweaks, little tweaks. It’s like, you know, if you are drowning and someone throws you a life preserver, and it doesn’t have enough rope to reach you. It doesn’t help us to make the rope six feet longer when you need it to be 25 feet longer to reach you, right? But our city planners, I’ve been told by the politicians, including people like Mark Dion, he’s been shouting from the hilltops most of this year. He’s like, don’t touch the outside, don’t touch the suburban belt in Portland. All these single-family neighborhoods, don’t include them in any of this. And of course, some of the island communities have also basically been told, don’t worry, nothing’s going to change out there. The fact is we need the entire city. to effectively do their part. And if we create a legalized housing community, we would basically have many, many opportunities for entrepreneurs and people who wanna build housing to basically go out there and find opportunities. And hopefully if we open up those opportunities enough citywide, no one neighborhood is necessarily gonna feel like this rush of development. Obviously there is going to be preferences, like most of the world would rather live on Munjoy Hill or the West End or somewhere on the peninsula than a quiet little corner of Deering Center. But the fact is that everybody who wants to build something new will look around and see what are the opportunities, where can I do something?
And if the options are very, very tiny, most of those people will basically say, I can’t do anything and I’m not going to do anything and I’m going to either go somewhere else or I’m just not going to do anything at all. And that’s how we keep getting this problem worse and worse and worse every year. It’s great if you already own property. Because you, I mean, I, my wife and I bought a property in 2015. It was the right decision for us. That property is probably worth twice as much as what we paid eight years ago. Did we do much to that piece of property to reflect that value? No, it was all unearned. We literally created artificial scarcity and we caused homelessness and destitution and created a less dynamic community simply to basically hoover up all of that unearned equity because there’s still a lot of people who want to be part of Portland and are willing to pay a premium to do that outside of sort of the normal economics that would exist if we allowed a lot more housing to be built.
Very good. So I wanna…
That was a lot.
That was a lot.
I don’t know if you thought there was anything there that needed to be fleshed out more, but again, we’re not solving all of this, but I am very critical of the ReCode process because not because I don’t have respect for our poor planners who are always buffeted by these political ramifications, but they simply haven’t served up much that’s gonna move the needle. And like I said, that analogy of like… you have someone drowning out there and you need to throw them a buoy, a life preserver, and you need 50 feet of line and you only have 25 feet, giving them six more feet of line isn’t going to do it. And so, you should be ashamed that you are actually saying that six more feet is a solution, right?
Absolutely. All right. So, I kind of wanted to do like a lightning round of some of some controversial topics and you just give me kind of a real brief take on what direction you’d want to go in, if anything, if you even see an issue with the status quo.
Referenda. Current system, as everybody probably knows by now, you get 1500 signatures, you put it on the ballot. If it passes, then it cannot be altered for five whole years except by another referendum. Is the status quo acceptable?
I think that protecting that five years has a lot of merit because if you are going out to referendum, you do not want the City Council monkeying with it, honestly. I think we should raise the signature level. I know that actually personally, because here’s the deal. With a write-in candidacy, I have been shut out of these debates. A little tangential, but bear with me, even though it’s a lightning round. I have been told that I can’t participate in these debates because I did not get 300 signatures and go through the traditional nominations process to have my name on the ballot. But we know that getting signatures in Portland is actually pretty easy. It’s not hard to get 300 signatures.
We love signing our names on things.
The idea, even though I made my decision late, which is the reason why I didn’t get my signatures, not because I didn’t think I could get them, but I just didn’t, I had not, was not in a frame of mind early enough in the process to be able to go that route. The idea that those 300 signatures are super meaningful, that they get you a benefit. Your name is on the ballot. My name is not on the ballot. You have to write my name in for it to count, for me to participate on your ballot and to count. But the fact is that getting signatures is actually really easy. And if we are gonna use that as a proxy for how much popular support does this really important referendum that’s gonna be on everyone’s ballot, we should make people step up and to do a lot more outreach and get a lot more signatures. And I’m not saying like, you know, large magnitudes.
I think, I think that it should be tied to the last state election.
Gimme a number.
So it should be a higher percentage of that. And basically force these organizers to really work hard to get the And that’s the benefit of that five years.
I think 5,000 sounds a little bit much. I’m not going to settle on the number.
I think it could be, let’s say, 30% more than it is today. Because I think that what that does is people have organized. And of course, I think the DSA is sort of the one that’s done the most…
But I think the Landlords is the poster child as well, because they’ve been very active too. But Both of these groups have figured out a way to do it under the current system pretty effectively without too much heartache.
I have a feeling you would be against a fiscal statement.
I would be against a fiscal statement because I think that’s just inherently political and that’s for the debate during the election. If someone wants to generate a fiscal statement or ask their City Council to work with city staff to create some ideas about what that would look like, that’s part of the political debate leading up to the referendum. But just to quickly let me finish on the referendum, so you have to get more signatures. That’s a lot of extra work. The benefit is… that it’s gonna make everyone stand and pay attention so that if you do get that passed, and because you’ve had to get more signatures, hopefully you’ve built even more political support for your initiative out of the box, you will get the benefit of no one tinkering it or with it for five years, which means everyone has to pay attention and be really serious what they’re doing and not play around with screwing around with things like, the Congress Square Park stuff, which was, I think, a terrible, I mean, that’s a whole nother thing.
Get rid of June referenda? Make it November only?
I don’t think we should do that. I think that, like I said, I think that the signature requirement should probably be cued to the bigger elections. But I think that people should have the flexibility to take advantage of an election if there’s an election, you know, and we do that with all kinds of things. And I don’t think necessarily having it be a… just to the big elections is, I don’t think life gives us the option of saying the only important stuff happens, you know.
In November. Yeah. All right. Airbnb. A big topic. Lots of referenda have been about this. They’ve all failed so far. Do you think that the current system’s all right?
I think that, again, I am really troubled by Airbnb because before the internet and before these internet platforms, we hated short-term rentals because it was usually just poor people. And so we cut them out of the zoning code. We made it really impossible for you to have boarding houses, which is one reason why a lot of people were able to get housed in the 19th century and 20th century before our land use codes went crazy and before we had building codes that would make it cost prohibitive for somebody to run a modest boarding house and have boarders in their house. I mean, you can still informally have boarders in your house, but it’s not the same way that it used to be. But we housed a lot of people through that mechanism. Now, it’s very lucrative. You can cast your wide net, rather than a couple of longshoremen or sailors coming in for a few days in between boat trips, like it was in 1910. Now you have people with real money, and so it’s become a big business.
So, I think that business has a responsibility to the rest of the city. I think it is way oversold that the idea that these folks that are running some of these operations whether they’re owner occupied or not, that those would be quickly converted to long-term rentals or long-term rentals that would be affordable to a lot of the people that desperately need housing today. I think it’s oversold. And so, I think people… They don’t want to focus on our land use code and legalizing housing, and they don’t want to focus on the inherent not-in-my-backyard selfishness of a lot of our neighborhoods and homeowners and property owners. They don’t want to deal with that because politically that is hard. You’re going to upset people. It’s much easier to blame this little subset of short-term rentals, which, you know, I’m on my street. I have like, you know, quite a few of them in a two-block stretch. And so, it has changed the complexion of my neighborhood. So, I don’t love it, but I think it’s way oversold that it’s a real solution, certainly a long-term solution to our immediate housing needs. It’s not gonna change anything overnight, even if we rapidly try to go after it. And I think politically, there’s stomach for people to protect that as an option with their property. And I think we should honor that as much as possible.
All right, rent control.
Renters are core constituency in our city. You know, I grew up, my family owned the triple-decker that I grew up in. My father had financial difficulties and he had to sell it to his brother. But my brother, my uncle was our landlord and for a period of time, me growing up. And that flexibility that a landlord knew who we were and could work with us when we needed it was essential for me and my family to have had the stability that we had growing up. And that is exactly why rent control and rent stabilization has a place in our public policy.
If we are not creating new housing, if we are not building, you know, we have a tremendous amount of demand, we have rents rising, we need to deal with that by building more housing. During World War II, there was rent control. And why was that? Was because we were a wartime production zone and basically it was forced on us by the federal government. The landlords hated it. They screamed and yelled. And that’s one reason why after the war ended, you know, it went away, but because nobody wanted to ever have that idea ever come back. But the fact is at the same time that the wartime rent control was in place, the wartime authorities were also doing a lot to incentivize housing. It never actually solved the problem definitively. There was still a lot of overcrowding and the shipyard workers were crammed in trailers. And there was this thing called the hot pillow days, which is like literally you had three shifts of shipyard workers living in some of these boarding houses where somebody would literally come in from their shift and go to a bed that somebody else had just been sleeping in and the pillow was still hot and still warm for the person who had been there before. I mean, hopefully they did change their linen or pillows. But anyway, you get the idea.
In terms of the rent control ordinance that was passed in 2020 and amended in 2022, if that’s what the voters want, you don’t have any interest in changing it?
I have… I think we can have conversations around that, but I am not by any sense somebody who thinks that this needs to give the heave ho in any kind of fundamental way, because the fact is most homeowners in America are subsidized by the government. Their mortgages are subsidized by an enormously complicated, basically system of mortgage regulation. And that is you have the option of having a stable mortgage, if that’s what you want, if that’s your choice. And so, we make it easy for homeowners because we privilege homeownership in this country in an enormous way, property ownership in this country. give people the option to have stability and predictability. And giving some of that to renters is completely 100% fair if we want a community that is not just constantly buffeted by ups and downs. I mean, it could work both ways. People forget that Portland has been extraordinarily affordable during some of these big dips in the economy. I mean, in the 80s, there was a huge explosion of development in Portland. It was still a fraction of what it was during its heyday in the 1920s and before that when we saw these big bursts of growth. But the fact is that was artificial and it was subsidized basically by poor bank regulation and poor lending practices and it collapsed. And so in the 1990s, Portland was a dead zone and it was actually really cheap to live here. And that’s where a lot of folks that are now part of Portland today, that’s when they came in because it was super cheap. And so, and we did see a lot of, you know, basically discounts being offered after the great financial crisis, which didn’t hit Maine as hard as it did other parts of the country. But it was certainly, there was a lot of high price increases going on in 2006, 2007, 2008, and then boom, it evaporated and Portland got cheap again for a while.
And then of course, once the economy started to heat up again, and of course we had zero interest rates for like ever until just recently, things kind of picked up in 2012, 2013. And then we started to start to, all of a sudden these renters were suddenly getting priced out again. They had some leverage over the landlords is what I’m saying and I think we should always it should be fair to give renters leverage in that negotiation even if we have to regulate it at the municipal level.
I think that we have to follow the state, to be honest with you. I think this idea, I mean, it’s very important to make these kinds of stakes with our minimum wage workers and people who are just starting out in a lot of industries where they get lower wages, but it has to be on a regional and a state level. We can’t just be thinking that Portland is this special little place All it does, frankly, is send more businesses to Scarborough. I mean, there’s been a tremendous growth, and frankly, from a climate change point of view, if we’re sending more economic activity outside of Portland to the surrounding communities, we’re probably just making it a lot more likely that people are going to be driving a tremendous amount in this region, which is the last thing that we want to do during the climate change era that we’re in.
Makes sense to me. The Green New Deal with inclusionary zoning, a lot of people say that’s a big obstacle to building housing, what do you think?
Well, again, the Green New Deal, I felt was, you know, it was unfairly marketed. I think having a building code that asks our public buildings and buildings that have public subsidies associated with them asking them to do their level best to be state of the art and to make those long-term investments to be as environmental as possible, that’s a good thing. The idea that we tied it to this really expensive 25% inclusionary thing, I think it is, that is inherently the reason that passed, to be quite honest with you, had nothing to do with affordable housing, it had everything to do with stopping development. We saw this during the first rent referendum in 2017, which did not pass. And people forget, in 2017, the rent stabilization opportunity there specifically excluded new construction. It allowed us to continue to build new housing without penalizing people who wanted to do that. And so why didn’t it pass then? Because literally there were a lot of people in neighborhoods around Portland that were indifferent to the renters, to the plight of the renters. And they saw no upside to passing this because they were not going to be able to it wasn’t actually gonna stop development, which is the thing that they actually cared about the most.
But I know in my neighborhood in Bayside, the Port Properties just did a massive master plan for like six buildings, six or seven buildings. And they basically are getting around that 25% and the city is helping them. In fact, the state is helping them. And basically the spirit of that 25% inclusionary zoning requirement is basically being destroyed, but everyone is basically looking the other way because it’s in their interest. Because A, we desperately need the housing, although it’s not gonna be there. none of those Port Property buildings are going to happen overnight, but the fact is that it is basically hurting us because we don’t have the flexibility, especially on a project by project basis, where we can temper that inclusionary zoning. And I think there’s a lot of merit in having a mixed income building, you know, and having, but you know, 25 percent, there’s usually, I mean, the City Council is a great example. Do we have 25% of the City Council being low income? I don’t know, we haven’t really tested that. But most of the people on the City Council own private homes. So why are we insisting that every new project have to have this 25% cutoff when in some cases 10% might be appropriate, 15%, maybe in some cases, especially with subsidies, we could do 25% or do 20% But that should be on a case-by-case basis, and it shouldn’t be a hard and fast thing that we don’t have any flexibility for, because not every project can come together, especially on a site-by-site basis, with these sort of ridiculously stringent things that are just blunt instruments.
So you definitely want to modify that downwards.
I think that there’s definitely stomach from me. I don’t know if there’s going to be stomach from others on the council, but it’s certainly something that we, that in my four years on the council that I would like to see potentially investigating. But again, there’s other ways of handling that, right? Like you could, if we had a much more liberal zoning code that had a lot more flexibility and didn’t have so many – and effectively, like I said, if we legalized housing in a real meaningful way across the city, there might be a lot more opportunities for developers to do a viable project and bring it in with that 25%. So it’s not crazy to say 25% maybe can be achieved, but it’s not fair to say that it should be a blanket, lying in the sand every single time. Yeah, something’s gotta give.
All right, makes sense. So glad we were able to touch on some of those later subjects. I’m gonna give you two minutes. Just give your final pitch about why should the voters of Portland include you and written on their ballot.
My pitch is look we’ve got three councilors sitting on the council that have been I think they’ve at best they’ve been indecisive. At worst, they’ve been deliberately not asking the right questions, seeking the right answers, or doing the work. And I feel for them because they’re part-timers and they haven’t gotten the leadership from Mayor Snyder and they haven’t gotten the leadership from the city manager. But they also, I think, politically, I think they have a decisive majority and if they wanted to get themselves organized, they should have done it by now. But the three of them are saying, everything’s screwed up. but promote me, give me a promotion, and then I’ll start actually creating some solutions with the same motley crew that I’ve been working with. But they’re only motley because they’re just simply not doing the tough and courageous things.
They’re not being leaders. And again, when you run for office, so many people love to give you these really inflated notions of what you can do. but they never tell you what actually happens, which is, gosh, it takes me like a year or two to even figure out how things are going around here before I can even open my mouth intelligently. So, but they’re not honest with you up front. So, the fact is these folks have had lots of time, especially Pious Ali, he’s been in office now over two full terms. He should have brought things to the table by now. Mark Dion is basically had his way with the council. He and Mayor Snyder, they’re two people, two votes out of nine, and they basically have been getting most of what they’ve wanted. So again, it’s kind of ironic that Mark is suddenly being like, I’m gonna do all these great things as mayor, but he probably could have gotten some of those things done already. Justin Costa, he decisively lost, I think he got like 33% of the vote against April Fournier here in 2020. He, I think, is overselling his experience. I think, and of course, Dylan Pugh, really nice guy, nice neighbor. I think he’s very earnest, but he has no experience. He hasn’t even been following city government, I think, in any meaningful way. And so he wants this big promotion himself to kind of get around all the learning curve. And it’s going to be a disaster, obviously, if the voters suddenly, you know, ride in to put him in charge.
What I’ve done is I’ve seen the practical abilities. The only thing you can do is get in there every day and work, work, work. Ask questions. Get data. Work to work what is possible and support the other eight councilors, because they don’t have the Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. abilities that a full-time mayor does. I would help them bridge that, and hopefully we would get the consensus and we would move forward, but I’m also not part of the problem. These folks want a promotion after they have a pretty sorry track record, in my view. and not doing the difficult things. And so I’m gonna be very open. I’m gonna try and do some difficult things. And we may not always have the consensus to pull the trigger, but we are not gonna be gun shy under four years of George Rheault. We are gonna tackle things that are hard because we are gonna do the work.
Honestly, “I’m gonna work hard” is one of the better reasons I’ve heard to vote for somebody. I’m going to work, work, work. I like it.
Look, I haven’t done one in a while, but I’m a former marathoner. I like long, boring journeys that take a lot of training and hard work and preparation. And the fact that I’ve been able to do that, I’m a corporate transactional lawyer, you know, that’s basically what happens.
So you definitely have the wherewithal to deal with some boring –
No, but the point is, is that, and I’ve described it again as the iceberg problem, right? Is like, if you want, if you have an opportunity to do, you know, it’s a game day, right? The 20% of the work that people see is at a council meeting. But you only get good results from that 20% if you’ve done the 80% of the work ahead of time. Right now, we’re not doing that 80%. there’s days when I feel like I go to the council meetings and I’m watching the council that I feel like they haven’t even done 10% of that 80%. And so no surprise they’re getting poor results that they’re totally inhibited from making decisions about things that supposedly they’ve been thinking about deeply for months or years. And so, you know, if you don’t do the hard work to be credible, it’s very hard to convince city staff and the city manager that you’re serious about something and that you want them to move on something. If you are persistent and tenacious and you’ve done your homework and you’re asking the right questions and you’re not taking no for answers, then they will have to, you know, basically acknowledge what you’re doing and saying and, you know, either go back to the city and say, step up their game and come up with reasons why they still don’t think they should go in that direction. Or basically, they’ll basically be like, wow, you guys are a juggernaut and we don’t have any good answers and we’re going to do what you want us to do because you’ve made the case.
Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Thank you so much for letting me go here. And again, you know, there’s a lot that’s going on in our city that I wish people would pay attention to. And that’s fundamentally why I’m doing this is I really want people to be paying attention to the mayoral election between now and election day.
Well, if people paid a quarter of as much attention to things as you do, we would be one of the most informed cities on in America for sure.
I’m lucky to be able to be in that position and I want to share that with as many people as possible.