In the weeks ahead of this November’s election, the Portland Townsman engaged in a series of interviews with the mayoral candidates focused on one thing:
While there’s a lot that goes into a vote – experience, competence, trustworthiness, honesty, and so on – we here at the Townsman wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of running the city. Here, it’s not about who you are… what matters is your plan.
On November 8th, Mark Dion, current City Councilor and former state legislator and law enforcement officer, was declared the winner of the mayoral race after the full five rounds of instant runoff calculations. Now that he is Portland’s official mayor-elect, and will soon be taking up the reins of office, what can Portlanders expect from Mayor Dion over the next four years?
I had the good fortune to ask Mr. Dion questions to this effect in the comfortable studio at the Portland Media Center, in a session that made him feel “like I sat for the bar exam.” The full interview can be read here or listened to on Spotify here, but for those who already have (or don’t have the time) it’s worthwhile to review some notable highlights from the conversation. These comments may provide key insight into how Mayor Dion plans to lead Portland over the course of his term.
While the mayor-elect has a robust resume of experience, he also came into the race with firm positions on many of the issues that matter most to Portlanders. Policy, in other words, mattered. Let’s review these issues, and how Mayor Dion will deal with them.
What does Mark Dion think the role of the mayor in Portland is?
“I tend to look at the mayor much like the Speaker of the House. They’re a legislative leader, and they advance a collection of ideas. And I think that’s important here. Mayors are not presidents. They don’t come with a full-fledged program outline with 150 checkpoints they hope to accomplish in four years. I framed my campaign as one that seeks to answer two critical questions. Are we safer, and what does that mean for us as individuals and as a community? And are we affordable? So those are the lenses that I will apply to proposals that come either from myself or from my colleagues on the council.”
How does Mark Dion feel about the new Clean Elections Fund?
“I do not have an argument with the principle. My protest vote, I guess you could look at it that way, is that we were allocating way too much money. I’m pretty sensitive that between property re-evaluation and increased tax levy and just a general condition of wages and expenses. I couldn’t justify the amount of money that they wanted to put towards, especially the mayoral race… I’m old enough to have witnessed a number of elections where he or she who gathered all the money didn’t necessarily win.”
What would Mark Dion want to change about the Citizen’s Initiative/Referendum system?
“I think a referendum in question should at least have a projected fiscal cost. I vote on a bond issue in a state election and they give me a particular cost, because a bond is a credit card and someone’s gonna have to pay for it.”
“[L]isten, this idea [that it] can’t be touched for five years makes no sense to me. I’m sorry. There’s always unintended consequences… I don’t think that’s fair. I think that’s kind of disrespectful to the voter. But I think if we’re going to be able to do that, within 18 months or two years that some unanticipated wrench surfaces as a consequence of the passage of that referendum, that the council should act.”
What does Mark Dion think about cooperation between towns?
“I think we have an underutilized resource called county government. You know, I – Jim Gailey is a good guy. I like him. We’ve talked about some of these issues and I’ve served in county government. So I appreciate the fact that we provide some really basic services and we’re almost forgotten as a platform where municipalities could engage. And rather than say, do we really need county government? I would like to lead the conversation as, why can’t we consider county government as a platform where we could have common agreement on common issues and execute that way?”
“[I]t lessens the cost on municipalities if they want to transfer some of those mutual responsibilities and expectations to a county platform. When I was sheriff, Peter Crichton was the manager and he had thought that the whole General Assistance, welfare piece, rather than fragment it across 28 communities, ought to be centralized with county government and it probably would work better. And it would incentivize other municipal leaders to see this as a joint issue. So, yeah, that’s what I’d like to do as mayor.”
How does Mark Dion feel about the activity of chronically homeless individuals in Portland?
“Being homeless is not the basis to conclude you’re a criminal. All right, we’re homeless for all sorts of reasons. What I’m concerned about, what neighbors are concerned about, business owners are concerned about, is the absence of a police intervention for intentional criminal conduct. Worse yet, brazen, open, notorious criminal conduct. If you or I were to engage in similar behavior across the street. The fact that we can claim a residence makes us eligible to have a sanction applied to us, whether it’s arrest or summons or some other legal diversion. The confusion in the city is that it seems like we, this collective we, have to follow rules and they don’t.”
What is Mark Dion’s legal strategy for handling homeless encampments?
“First of all, I have to convince the council that Martin v. Boise applies to the ninth circuit… Martin v. Boise was a case brought on behalf of some homeless individuals who could not find shelter in Boise on a particular evening. And as a consequence, were taken in custody by the police department for unlawful camping… it made its way to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which dictates for 10 western states what federal law should be and policy that would flow from that. And that court concluded that there was no choice around whether you committed the violation of public camping if there wasn’t an alternative shelter for you to take refuge in. Those shelters have happened to have been all run by faith-based organizations and most of the unhoused rejected being subjected to the preaching that went along with going into the shelter. I think they have a point there. But nonetheless. That decision suggested that camping should be allowed if there was no available shelter bed… But their idea of camping was to engage in lawful behavior while camping. Their understanding of camping wasn’t licensed to build semi-permanent structures.”
“As a lawyer, and let me digress for a moment, what the Ninth Circuit has to say is interesting but has no relevance. We live in the First Circuit. And the First Circuit hasn’t had a case on the matter. That case might have some persuasion value. But nonetheless, it’s not the law of the land, though people are treating it as it’s almost a Supreme Court decision. Now, couple that to this moral panic that occurred in the state legislature of what to do with the homeless, they issued a protocol that tells the police that if you confront an unhoused person involved in criminal conduct, you have to take all these diversionary steps as a matter of first instance. And the Attorney General issued a protocol accordingly. But inside both documents, they do have an escape clause that says, however, if the circumstances warrant, the police can do their work if it’s necessary. I say all this because the council needs to understand that the city of Portland can determine its own public safety trajectory as a situation. I think the legislature, I’m gonna read the decision in the best possible light. They were envisioning a one-to-one transaction between a police officer and a homeless person, and this was their preferred manner of dealing with it. I’ll give them that. I don’t think they anticipated the spread, the growth of encampments here and in other cities as the actual interaction that was gonna possibly occur between the police and the homeless.”
What is Mark Dion’s practical plan for managing encampments?
“[W]e can deal with homelessness without sacrificing their safety, because I don’t think it’s particularly safe in those camps. I go down there, I know some of my former clients. They’re at risk for exploitation, for sexual assault, they’re at public health risk for overdose or alcohol poisoning. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on there that I don’t think a reasonable person would say, okay, that should be allowed just because they’re homeless. So I’m taking a long way to try to explain to your listeners is that we might have to consider the possibility of declaring some space as safe and managed for camping that you can enter here, but there’s some rules. And that’s often one of the reject points when offered housing. Well, I’d go to the shelter, but I don’t like their rules. Well, that’s unfortunate. The rules are designed to keep you safe and other occupants of the shelter safe as well as staff. And if you are camping outside of that designated area, then that will be treated as a violation of the ordinance. So I’m still working out the details of that, but this current state of affairs cannot continue.”
“I just don’t think we can allow this constant proliferation or resurrection of new sites as we deal with another. That would give a central location for our team that’s working on engaging the unhoused on an individual basis to get them the services they want.”
What is Mark Dion’s proposed policy for a homeless camper who doesn’t want to move to a central, managed location?
“[They would be] obligated to move. I mean, we can’t, I don’t see another way. And I don’t see another way. And if they follow the rules, then it’ll be a safe space. And that’s, isn’t that our primary responsibility as a city is to ensure everyone is safe. It’s not about, I’m sure when I bring this up, someone will say I’m trying to do fascist police tactics. And that’s the furthest thing from my mind. But I – I’m not. It’s like we feel handcuffed by something that was decided in Idaho. I think we can decide for ourselves.”
How would Mark Dion respond to concerns about safety in schools?
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents and they would like school resource officers to come back. You know, and I appreciated that the Board of Education decided otherwise, but I think that was short-sighted. I think the current state of affairs across the nation is such that I would hate to be in the position as mayor standing with the chief of police, and we measured the life expectancy of your child against a response time metric. I want officers there, one, for safety, but two, every one of my 30-somethings that I talk to in the city knows their school resource officer when they were there, they had good relationships. And what people don’t appreciate is that personal interaction develops trust and understanding of what the police officer is and who he is or she is or they is. And the cops learn who the kids are in a non-crisis environment. Now, come summertime, you get a 911 call for juvenile crime issue, everybody’s a stranger. We totally misread each other. And I can tell you events where school resource officers, because they go back to regular patrol in non-school time, can intervene, and tell the police, I know this person, they’re already talking on a first name basis. I think it diffuses and redirects the outcome to something a little bit more positive.”
How would Mark Dion direct the Portland Police Department?
“We can do it better. I’m proud of my service. I am proud of that institution and my membership as an officer. We don’t get it right all the time. And I think one of the trends that… has increased the gulf between the department and our very dynamic demographic of residents is the fact that they do just respond to 911 calls. That’s not the best time to meet you, Ashley. If you’re in the middle of some sort of crime crisis, I have no read on you as a person. So it gets very mechanical. And I think the police department has excellent technical know-how. in a given law enforcement situation, I’m confident they’re gonna do the right thing. What I’m not so confident about is the degree of relationship they have with the community. And here’s the cue, they have community policing officers. Well, what’s the reverse of that assumption? That means everybody else doesn’t have to do community policing? I mean, it’s… Having a relationship with the community is not a specialty. It should be a responsibility for every member of the department. And one of the vehicles in the past that helped cement that view and build those relationships is we relied a whole lot more on foot patrols than we did on cruiser response. We – prior administration said, look, we’ll get to your call maybe more slowly. That’s measured in a minute or two or three. And we’re gonna put more officers who are gonna walk the beat, talk to the kids, get to know the neighbors and the residents and the business owners, and get a sense for what a neighborhood expects for their level of safety.”
How does Mark Dion plan to address the housing shortage in Portland?
“Here’s the one place I think we can have an impact. They’re not going to make a movie about it, and it’s not glamorous, but we have to be very intentional about reforming our inspection process and permitting. What do I hear from every developer, from multi-units to the carpenter who’s trying to put a deck on the back of a home? Right, as mundane a project as possible. They all tell the same story. It takes forever for the city to process a permit. Then when we go through the permitting process, we’re given a list of things to do, it gets done. That’s done, they go, ‘oh, by the way, here’s the next list.’ And sometimes it’s as much as three experiences of that in one permitting process. Projects go to a bank and they pencil out the cost and the timeline that it takes to achieve that cost. If you disrupt that timeline, you automatically drive up the cost of that particular housing unit. So the one most immediate thing we can do is take a look at our permitting process and do something about it.
When I became a councilor, I said, oh, I’m gonna get all the police complaints, right? No. I’m hard pressed to remember when they called my home or stopped me on the street to complain about the police. What I get every week are inspection issues, every single week. Now, Danielle West has heard some of that and she’s hired a consultant to come in and take a look at it. I’ll be happy to take a look at the report, but whatever it says, I’ll probably wanna double the acceleration of getting to outcomes that makes sense for builders. Anyway, renovation. I know one of the candidates is proposing a… a vacancy fee, like if you don’t fill your apartment quick enough, you get penalized. And I go, how does that make sense? It’s 180 days, may not, after 180 days, it may not be enough time to get contractors on site or even get materials. I did some minor modifications in my own home. It was like eight weeks to get the stuff I needed to get the job done. If we can accelerate that permitting, it would be helpful. I served as co-chair of the School of Construction and Renovation Committee. Listen, what did we really talk about? Inspections and the fact that the city had difficulty keeping the timelines.”
What does Mark Dion plan to do about AirBNB in Portland?
“[C]reate a financial incentive for short term rental owners to return their units to the general market… Well, the incentive is to say, we want them to return for a one-year period. During that time, they wouldn’t lose their short-term rental license, and they would be given a bonus predicated on the number of bedrooms that they had in the unit. We’re trying to lure them back in the general market, okay? And hopefully convince them that it’s to their advantage long-term for their property to have some permanency of tenancy in that space. So we’ll see if the rest of the council agrees with that, but it’s a way to address the fact, one, we need the housing, two, that sometime owners of STRs are seen as renegades or ne’er-do-wells, and they’re screwing up the housing economy. I don’t have time for that kind of finger pointing, but if we can incentivize somebody to provide a service and a commodity that we need for our residents, then we should do that.”
What does Mark Dion think about the ongoing ReCode process?
“This is a plan that’s been advanced by city staff. All right? And because of that, it’s somewhat occurs inside a bubble and there are certain stakeholders that are participatory to the bubble. The general principles of ReCode make sense. But here’s my cautionary tale as an attorney, and maybe as a politician, is what you assume to understand ain’t so for the whole population. All right? And usually when people don’t understand policy, their first reaction is to reject and fear it. And I think, you know, I went to the North Deering one, and I was like, I mean, to me, it was an unsatisfying meeting because questions weren’t addressed or it was this idea we need to move along and look at these charts. I said it then and I’ll say it now, if the public doesn’t understand the planning process, if they don’t know the role of the planning board and how they can participate, they’re gonna intentionally wanna reject what’s coming forward because it threatens to upset their understanding of what a neighborhood is.”
How does Mark Dion plan to overcome local opposition to building homes?
“This is a new day in a new age. We don’t get by with just printing stuff in the paper. I think we have to do active solicitation of opinion. I mean, they had a bunch of surveys. I don’t know. I’m just saying. they’re not the ones that are gonna go back to neighborhood meetings now, those who attended are gonna solicit allies. And if they’re not adequately informed, they may generate some real anxiety in a neighborhood about what’s coming next. And I’m just trying to have them take a pause and say, if you think this is a good idea, city staff, we haven’t vetted it yet as a council, we need to do more education and outreach to make sure people do understand, or at least they had an opportunity to understand… But always when there’s a battle about policy, it’s a lack of understanding by one side or the other. I mean, I would have recommended to that developer to do the hard work is in building the structures is to get community support. There’s another developer that’s putting out some cooperative housing out on Lambert Street. I really give them high kudos. They’ve held so many meetings, they’ve gone door to door to talk to people and encourage them as to why they should support the initiative, all right?”
What does Mark Dion want to change about rent control?
“I would like to put together a working group, a commission, call it what you’d like, of major voices from tenants. So 57% of the people that live in Portland are tenants. You can’t ignore it as a constituency, it’s the reality. They deserve safe, affordable housing, period. Safety is a little bit easier to address. Affordability is a moving target. Rent stabilization works, as far as the consumer is concerned. What I don’t have good answers for when I’m talking with landlords is their inability to maintain reserve funds to do the maintenance and rehab of units when they open up. That’s an issue.”
“So if I get anything done in four years, I’m gonna bring those parties to the table and we’ll hash it out, you know? And yeah, the DSA has been a voice for a lot of tenants, but I also listened to Councilor Pelletier. I don’t agree with her on everything, but when she, you know, when she speaks up on this idea of tenancy, she’s right. I mean, we gotta recognize that voice in a more effective way than we have at this juncture. I know it’ll be our version of the Middle East Peace Accords but I think it has to occur we can’t continue warring as a community over our understanding what it means to be a tenant”
Does Mark Dion want to look into amending the city code to permit more office-to-housing conversions?
“Look, Either we’re in a crisis or we’re not. If we’re not, we can move along as we always have been and hope it all turns out okay. Or is the crisis an opportunity to reassess risk? Every decision has a risk. The question is how much of it do we want to tolerate? Does it, is it reasonable? And will future tenants or owners be willing to accept that same level of risk if it provides them housing where they want to be? I mean, it’s all about choices. Oh, I did some remodeling in my house. I know they said, look, the window’s going to be so big. So, okay. I said, I don’t plan on escaping through this window. Okay. If it comes to that, I’m in a bad spot. Now I don’t want to diminish safety expectations, but I think we can be creative, you know? If it works in other cities, why don’t we learn from that? We can modify it, improve it, but it does show there are other paths to a solution.”
Why does Mark Dion think he’ll be a good mayor?
“I’ve been in service to the city of Portland for 45 years. You know, I’ve been on staff. I’ve run a department as a sheriff. I’ve been in the legislature for eight years. I think I come with experience and mostly important is relationships. Nothing gets moved forward unless you have relationships that build trust. You know I’m not going to be on a circuit of introducing myself if I’m elected mayor, I’ll go to work.”
The curated selections above were chosen for relevance and straightforward messages, and may not perfectly reflect the context in which they were said. For fuller comprehension of Mr. Dion’s responses, read or listen to the full interview.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer, local small business-owner, and originally a Downeast Mainer. Her work primarily covers the mechanics of local government, the ongoing housing crisis, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiancé and can be personally reached at email@example.com.