Another marathon City Council meeting took place on Monday night, with the greatest focus being on the Neo-Nazi demonstration and violence in downtown Portland occurring last Saturday, April 1st.
Given the outpouring of attendees looking to comment, the meeting began with Councilor Dion making a motion to broaden the public comment period to discussion of the Neo-Nazi demonstration, breaking with typical Council procedure. Dion’s motion passed, and in addition to his request, Mayor Snyder moved Communication 32 Regarding Police Response on April 1, 2023 to the top of the agenda.
The incident in question involved NSC-131, a Massachusetts-based Neo-Nazi group making appearances in cities and towns across New England over the past few years. An estimated 15 to 25 group members showed up in Monument Square on the afternoon of April 1st with signs broadcasting hateful propaganda before marching to other parts of the city. The group also shouted homophobic and racist slurs at people passing by. The demonstration became explicitly violent when the Neo-Nazi group confronted a number of counter protesters holding a rainbow Pride flag in front of city hall.
According to the police statement, the police department could not determine how the violence began, and were not able to arrest the Neo-Nazis because witnesses and victims would not provide a statement. However, during the public comment period, many members of the public who were present on that afternoon made statements to the contrary.
Two public commenters, Leo Hilton and CJ (who declined to give his surname,) were two of the people holding the Pride flag outside city hall. Both speakers emphasized that they were peacefully holding the flag when they were attacked by the Nazi group. CJ stated that nobody asked him to make a statement, and requested the release of police body cam footage to corroborate his claim. Hilton confirmed that he did not give a statement when prompted at the time of the attack, but has done so since the incident.
Charlie, another commenter who declined to give his full name, shared that he sustained a brain injury and over $1000 in medical bills after being attacked alongside Hilton and CJ, calling it an “unprovoked hate crime that happened directly in front of police.” He also claimed that since the police had already allowed the Neo-Nazis to walk away before asking, even if he had given a statement, the police still would have been unable to arrest anyone.
Karen, (no last name given,) further underscored the inconsistencies between the police statement and eyewitness accounts. According to her public comment, Karen was on a walk downtown when she encountered the Nazi group making Sieg Heil salutes. She confronted them, and shouted for them to “get out of this [expletive] town now.” According to Karen, members of the group grabbed her phone and umbrella, throwing the phone across Monument Square and causing her hand to bleed. At this point, Karen stated, no police were present. Following the altercation, she went directly to the Portland Police Department headquarters to report the group, but was told no officers were available to speak with her and that they were already aware of the group’s presence. “I don’t feel safe or protected by the police,” she said.
Over forty other members of the public also shared their opposition to the Neo-Nazi group, as well as their disappointment and outrage at the police response. Many emphasized not feeling safe or protected by police in Portland, as people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Others contrasted the police response on April 1st with the police response during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, where police were equipped with riot gear and pepper sprayed protestors. Particular criticism was directed at police for not requesting identification from the Nazis, who were masked, enabling them to walk free.
Several commenters drew parallels to the ascent of Nazi power in 1930s Germany and the behavior of NSC-131. Alex, a Holocaust educator, urged the Council to remember that the behavior of groups like NSC-131 is often normalized incrementally, leading to larger atrocities down the line. Betsy Whitman, an Oakdale resident, recalled living in Germany and coming to the realization that, during the Holocaust, “nobody didn’t know what was happening.”
Speaking exactly to Whitman’s point, many expressed frustrations that the police statement characterized the demonstration as unexpected. Elizabeth McCormack pointed out that Councilor Pelletier was targeted by white supremacists nine weeks prior, at which point the Council had also hosted a discussion about hate speech and white supremacy on the rise. “This is not new, and there’s been plenty of time to think and strategize,” said McCormack.
Commenters placed special emphasis on the idea that the Neo-Nazi hate speech should not be tolerated, and criticized the city government for seeing this incident as a two-sided issue, a stance that commenters saw as further emboldening the Neo-Nazi group. “You cannot both-sides your way out of this,” said Olivia, a West Bayside resident. “To say that this is a two-sided issue is to stand on the side of oppression and violence,” said Lily, of the West End neighborhood. “Neo-Nazis are not here to gently express differences of opinion,” Ron, a Maine resident since 2007, added.
In addition to these public comments, three troll comments came in via Zoom, and unsuccessful City Council and School Board candidate Richard Ward made a comment touting white nationalist falsehoods and implying that he is armed and prepared to defend himself.
Public Comments on Other Topics
A small number of citizens made comments on issues other than the Neo-Nazi demonstration. George Rheault and Stephen Scharf called for greater transparency from the Council, on the five-year Capital Improvement Plan and on the city’s fiscal year 2024 budget, respectively.
Also on a separate subject, Vivienda, a tenant commenting over Zoom, accused their landlords of evading the rent control ordinance by charging for the storage that has always been free and included with the unit. According to their comment, the Housing Safety Office would not investigate without a signed lease, which, per Vivienda, would violate the privacy of the tenants union. They requested that the City Council investigate the matter.
A short break followed the two-hour public comment period, but the Chamber was no less crowded when the meeting resumed.
City Response to Neo-Nazi Incident
At this point, Interim Portland Police Chief Heath Gorham was brought forward to give Communication 32-22/23 on the police department’s response to the confrontation. Gorham was quick to clarify that the values of NSC-131 are not in line with the values of the police department. He then stated that the role of the police department as being “facilitating first amendment rights,” and that the police department cannot “take sides” or “express views” in these situations. “I support the decisions made by our staff,” Gorham said. In a statement given in the days prior, the official report of the incident was that officers on the scene didn’t have a clear view or understanding of what had happened, and that under the circumstances, police present acted “in accordance with the high standards and values” of the PPD.
Following the Interim Chief’s statement, Interim City Manager Danielle West spoke to share a press release from the Cumberland County District Attorney, Jacqueline Sartoris. Sartoris supported the police response while making recommendations for action against further Neo-Nazi violence.
Councilor Dion was the first member of Council to speak. He described the situation as challenging for law enforcement, while also recognizing the impact of the demonstration on minority groups in Portland. “There is a significant trauma for individuals experiencing a biased event directed against them or a hate crime,” and that trauma is “valid and legitimate,” said Dion.
Councilor Zarro followed, echoing some of Dion’s sentiments. “It is evident and visible that the community is really shaken up,” said Zarro, while also wondering about how to proceed. “I have more questions ending public comment than I did beginning it… How do we go forward from here?”
Interim City Manager West responded to the question, citing the recommendations made by Sartoris, which include diverting resources to tracking regional activity by Neo-Nazi groups and establishing a hate crimes unit to respond to such events. Interim Police Chief Gorham also suggested looking at national trends and best practices for the department.
Evidently, these responses were insufficient for some Councilors. “This is going to take some bold steps that some people are not gonna like,” said Councilor Phillips. “We need to make sure we are doing something actionable.”
“We need to make sure we are doing something actionable.”Councilor Phillips
Councilor Pelletier was the most openly critical of the police department. “I know that you know how to arrest and ID people… I was one of the people that you pepper sprayed in 2020 – I know that you know how to do that,” she said, directing her comment to Interim Chief Gorham. She called for greater police accountability, and echoed public commenters in reminding those present that a similar discussion took place at the February 6th meeting after she received death threats. “I don’t feel like we’ve gotten anywhere,” Pelletier said, adding that she was “disgusted with [the] display.”
Councilor Ali was the first Councilor to make a concrete suggestion, asking if the Neo-Nazis could have been arrested for hate speech, given that they were recorded on video using slurs. A representative from the Corporation Counsel’s office responded that using a slur alone is not a crime; police would need to witness the slur being used during an assault in order to bring forth that charge, which, according to the police statement, they did not witness. She also stated that previous attempts by the city to suppress hate speech had been overturned by federal judges. A general back and forth ensued on the issue, without a clear answer coming forward.
Councilor Phillips suggested a workshop to further delve into appropriate responses, emphasizing the urgency of the issue.
Ultimately, the response of the City Council came down to the suggestions of the District Attorney, further research into legal repercussions on the Neo-Nazi group, and a potential workshop in the coming days or weeks. At this point the Council moved on to other agenda items.
Mayor Snyder kicked off the regularly scheduled agenda with an announcement about the City Manager search, which has been narrowed down to three candidates. The public is invited to meet the candidates at City Hall on Friday, April 14th at 6:00 PM.
Leading the proclamations, the Mayor proclaimed this week National Community Development Week, a recognition of communities supported by the federally funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), including the HOMES program. The City has received over $5 million in CDBG funding and over $3 million in HOMES funding over the past three years.
The Mayor also proclaimed this week as Public Safety Telecommunicator Appreciation Week, which commemorates the work done by personnel at 911 centers.
Two appointments were passed unanimously; first, Patrick Ferraiolo, a park ranger who was appointed Constable for 2023; Ferraiolo will enforce park ordinances, but will not be allowed to carry a firearm, make arrests, or issue parking tickets. Second, Elisa Marr was appointed tax assessor for the City, with enthusiastic support from the Interim City Manager.
George Rheault made a public comment expressing support for Marr’s appointment, given her history of frequent re-assessments in her prior role with the city of Windham. Following Rheault’s comment, Councilor Rodriguez asked the Interim City Manager if there is an intention to re-assess the city more frequently. She stated that the goal is to re-assess every five years (or more frequently); Rodriguez and Snyder both voiced their support for this.
Consent Items and Licenses
Order 160, a consent item, declared April 29 to October 31 as “In the Square Festival” in Congress Square Park. The item, which passed unanimously, gave way for Friends of Congress Square Park (FCSP) to hold a variety of community activities in the park throughout the summer.
Five business licenses were granted: Quanto Basta, a food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar restaurant serving pizza, which will open at 249 Congress Street; Freedom’s Edge Cider, a cidery from Albion, Maine, which will open an establishment at 31 Diamond Street; a change in license for Urban Farm Fermentory; a re-opening of Thai Esaan at 65 Portland Street, after a fire at the previous location in 2021; and finally, a new bar called The End at which will be at 229 Congress Street.
The owner of Thai Esaan was also given a universal congratulations by councilors for welcoming a baby daughter into his family that very same day. A curious Councilor Rodriguez also asked the owner of Quanto Basta whether the food truck will still be operated, to which she said not this year, but will hope to bring it back some time in the future.
Interim City Manager West shared Communication 29, reflecting a small change in Harbor Commissioner fees. Communication 30 followed, concerning the implementation of the charter changes that passed on the November 2022 ballot; West shared that all of the changes are currently being worked on by city staff and in council workshops, as appropriate.
Communication 31 prompted more engagement from the council, this time on the topic of asylum seekers. Interim City Manager West shared that while the city had just that day opened the Expo on Park Avenue as an emergency shelter, that capacity was almost immediately filled. As of her communication, 275 of the 300 available beds had been taken.
“It is with a heavy heart that I must say we are unable to guarantee shelter”Interim City Manager Danielle West
West added that city leadership has been pushing for additional state and federal support to house the new arrivals, but at present, the limit has been reached. Councilor Dion echoed this, and suggested some form of “intentional, coordinated transfer of people coming to the city.”
Prompted by questions from Councilor Rodriguez and Councilor Ali, West and Kristen Dow, Director of Health and Human Services, clarified that the Expo will continue to be available as a shelter until the end of the summer, with 3 meals provided daily. They also shared that citizens looking to help can sign up to volunteer or make a donation on the City’s website.
West stated that over 1,200 individuals are currently being housed in city managed shelters, with more being housed at the Salvation Army and other temporary shelters. Though the Blueberry Road shelter is forthcoming, by the time it is finished, its capacity will likely be immediately reached.
With Communication 32 having been moved to the top of the agenda, the next item was Resolution 7, concerning 2024’s Community Development funding.
Portland receives funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, combined in this action plan with other smaller sources of funds such as Cotton Street proceeds, to spend on a variety of community services. The plan for how to distribute these funds was developed by the Community Development Block Grant Committee, including expected funds for the Quality Housing Coalition, Wayside Food Program, Through These Doors domestic violence program, and other resources.
Interim City Manager Danielle West made only minor changes to the committee-approved list. She moved funding for community policing from the CDBG funds to the general fund, and similarly moved funding for public restrooms to American Rescue Plan Act resources. With the money now available, and also other funding sources at her disposal, she added $120,413 in funding to Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Legal Services, $81,295 to the Catherine Morrill Day Nursey, and $50,000 to the Preble Emergency Food program. She also raised the amount given to the Milestone Recovery – HOME program from $95,440 to $120,000.
See below for the full list provided by City Manager West, on which the council was to vote.
During the public comment period, representatives from Milestone Recovery, the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, and Quality Housing Coalition, all organizations benefiting from the city’s funding allocation, gave their thanks.
The resolution passed unanimously.
The next item was Order 166, which would allow for a parking fee increase at the Ocean Gateway parking lot at 167 Fore Street. This garage is used by many island residents for mainland parking. The current daily fee is $15; the proposed increase brings that figure to $20.
West added that the reason for this change is to bring in more revenue for the city. She also asked that the order pass as an emergency, so that it can go into effect immediately.
Responding to a public comment from George Rheault confused on the expected revenue rise, the city’s Parking Director clarified that the increase is projected to bring in $64,000 for the city this year, and $120,000 next year. Rheault also criticized the city’s willingness to “subsidize” mainland amenities for island residents.
Councilor Phillips staked her opposition to the fee hike, believing it to be unfair to those who regularly use the garage. The Parking Director shared that only 35 people use the garage currently, as it has been mostly closed for the winter, though those 35 people have not been notified of the increase.
The order passed as an emergency, 8-1, with Phillips opposing.
Orders 167 and 168 both pertained to the city’s Housing Trust Fund and how that money would be used. This Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, as prescribed by city law, is an ongoing fund for encouraging the development of affordable housing and protection of affordable housing already in place.
The 2023 Annual Plan, proposed in Order 167, detailed the amount of new money available to the fund, including $5,110,00 from the American Rescue Plan Act, and the outlined priorities of how this money should be used. Above all else, the fund is stated to assist projects where other sources of funding are insufficient, and that will help households earning 50% or less of the area median income. Private-public partnerships are the primary vehicle for this spending. Order 168 concerns the updated application process for accessing these funds.
The fund is also the recipient of the money paid by developers in lieu of meeting inclusionary zoning requirements, and as such as received a number of significant deposits over the last couple of years. See below for a provided list of deposits and expenditures of the fund:
Mary Davis, Interim Housing and Economic Development Director, shared some of the thinking behind the plan, stating that the focus of the funding is on families at 50% of the Area Median Income and on projects including rental housing.
George Rheault made public comment, criticizing the point system by the city, which prioritizes projects that don’t disturb “neighborhood character,” and generally favoring wealthy suburban communities.
Councilor Rodriguez spoke up, agreeing with some of Rheault’s assessment. He urged the city to consider using this funding for real development and add more housing. However, Rodriguez still voted in alignment with the rest of the Council, who passed the order unanimously.
Order 169 also passed unanimously, allowing for an easement at the Central Maine Power facility in Ocean Terminal.
The remaining orders were first reads, meaning that further discussion and voting will take place at the next City Council meeting. Order 170 allocates grant funding for airport improvements; Order 171 would implement a clean elections fund and other campaign finance laws, as passed by the voters in last November’s election; Orders 172 and 173 would rezone 211 Cumberland Avenue, the site of Franklin Towers, from R-3 residential to a B-3 downtown business; Order 174, another zoning change, would remove residential density limitations and allow for additional dwelling units to be used at 22 Park Avenue.
The Council adjourned Monday’s meeting at 9:48 pm.