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Portland, Gaza, and Other Minutiae – City Council Review 1/3/2024

The City Council meeting on January 3rd was shaping up to be a quiet one, but the inclusion of a resolution from Councilor Ali to take a stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict underway in Gaza brought out torrents of emotional comment, both from the public and from councilors. Before getting to this most sensitive of issues, however, the meeting started with a celebration of the bravery of Portland’s finest.

Recognition of First Responders

Mayor Dion took this recognition out of order, placing it before even the general public comment period which is customarily taken before everything else.

He formally recognized police officer David Shertz, firefighters Michael Casey, Jacob Garrison, Ronald Giroux, Dan Verrill, David Crowley, Torin Hultz, and Patrick Hourihane, and civilian skipper Manny Kouinos for engaging in a daring operation to save the occupant of a car which had launched into the sea. Dion recounted the harrowing details of the rescue, which required quick thinking and decisive action by all responders, and involved even a civilian boat captain who happened to be nearby. The car in question had recently been stolen from a South Portland home. “Actions like this bring credit to all involved who risk their lives to save another,” the mayor concluded. “Thank you very much for your bravery and dedication to duty.”

Allowing the first responders who had gathered in chambers to get back to work, the agenda progressed to the general public comment period for items not on the agenda.

General Public Comment

Meeting regular Steven Scharf, after correcting the Mayor’s errant reference to a “dais” instead of a “podium,” brought up the November 13th Finance Committee meeting of the School Board. He recounted a lengthy quote from Emily Figdor, of the board, who suggested that budget proceedings begin with an open and collaborative meeting with the City Council, rather than the customary closed-door meeting of the Council alone. Scharf agreed with part of this, especially her call for openness and transparency, and reiterated that the school board should know what their financial standing really is.

Ed Suslovic, a former city councilor, stepped forward next, first offering his sincere thanks to various members of city staff for their hard work. But he then moved to criticize the council’s last-minute adoption of Councilor Trevorrow’s resolution against encampment sweeps, (which would come to be referred to as “Trevorrow’s Resolution,”) which he decried as undemocratic. He sharply condemned the process by which the council gave no warning to the public that they’d be considering such an order, that they adopted it late at night with little public input, and that the text wasn’t available to read even if one was there. He brought up that in years past, there had been large-scale protests in favor of building new shelter space for the homeless, but that now many of those same people were “hindering” city staff from utilizing that shelter which had been built.

Before the next comment, Mayor Dion reminded the audience to refrain from any outbursts or interruptions during other residents’ comments.

Nancy Walker thanked Councilor Rodriguez for introducing the amendments he collaborated with the Urbanist Coalition of Portland on, noting that they would be a boon to building much-needed housing in the city. She also reiterated Councilor Sykes’ concern about using funds intended for low-income housing to build middle-income housing, and recommended banning the “buy-out” option from Portland’s IZ law.

Kristen Carreras thanked City Manager West for her courage in dealing with an uncooperative council, and echoed Suslovic’s criticism of the lack of input which Trevorrow’s Resolution received. “Being denied the right to speak, to be heard, is not democratic,” she said, “Think twice about that. Let us speak.” Steven French, in what was becoming a pattern, thanked City Manager West and the rest of city staff, and criticized the council’s actions around Trevorrow’s Resolution.

Keegan Duffy, a Bowdoin College student, began to speak about the Israel / Palestine conflict, but Mayor Dion informed her that as a resolution on that subject was on the agenda, she couldn’t comment on it now. Duffy continued with what she described as a second point, and said that the forces of “violent dehumanization at work in Gaza” were also at work in Portland, evident in Portland Police officers’ clearing of an encampment. This appeared to enrage Mayor Dion, who interrupted her, saying “I’m not gonna let you conflate the two. If you have a comment about the encampment, I welcome it, but incorporating the Gaza issue is a separate item.”

“Is it?” Duffy responded. “It is,” said the mayor, to which she replied “I disagree. The military-industrial complex is absolutely connecting the sweeping of the encampments and what we’re witnessing in Gaza right now.” After contemplating for a moment, Dion allowed her to continue. “Literally using bulldozers to forcibly displace people, while the shelters, as we know, is [sic] not an option for many of the people living at these camps… the shelters, in large part, are designed and operated like correctional facilities, and nobody wants to stay there, especially people who have PTSD from having been in correctional facilities.” She then went on to suggest that homeless encampments could become “family-friendly social spaces which are designed to enable cross-class, intercultural dialogue… it’s not as though the land where these camps have been erected is really being used for anything else.”

Dion had to interrupt again after Duffy concluded, scolding the audience for misbehaving. “Finger-snapping is not appropriate, okay? You can save that for some other locale.” After dealing with a technical difficulty and calling out for any other public comments, the mayor drew the period to a close.

Recognitions and Announcements

The city clerk, at the mayor’s direction, briefly read out a statement recognizing the Barron Center’s rating of “5 out of 5” and “High Performing” in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of “Best Nursing Homes.”


Mayor Dion then recognized January 15th, 2024 as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, celebrating the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and the personal virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Moving into the part of the night where the council approves business licenses, the body first unanimously approved Class I Food Service Establishment licenses for Pai Men Miyake and Miyake, which are undergoing a change of ownership. A new establishment at 571 Congress Street, Thai Tree Restaurant, was also unanimously approved for a Class I FSE license.

Bingo for Free?

Deering Memorial Post 6859 VFW, undergoing a reclassification, was also unanimously approved for a Class I FSE license. The same establishment, however, also then came up for a proposed fee waiver for its Bingo License fee. This VFW post proposed that since it is of “direct benefit to the citizens of the city,” it should be exempted from this otherwise standard fee.

Dave Acito stepped forward to give public comment, asserting that the laws which govern licenses and permitting in Portland are “archaic,” and that the city “needs to do more to facilitate permits and licenses.” He was amicably cut off by Mayor Dion, though he sympathized with the man’s comments, as he was drifting off-topic. Steven Scharf then stepped forward to speak more germanely to the issue at hand, specifically, that he opposed the fee waiver. “There is no point in even having… the provision if we then turn around and waive the fee for everyone,” he stated. “As long as we have a license fee, we should be charging it.”

With no further public comments, Councilor Fournier suggested that “giving back to the community” is a weakly-defined metric for establishments to meet in order to justify a fee waiver, and that until the system is more thoroughly overhauled she would oppose such waiver requests. Upon being asked for clarification from the mayor, she concluded that she’d prefer to send these requests to a committee for more thorough review, but would vote in the negative if obliged to choose. Councilor Rodriguez broadly agreed, stating that he had a lack of background knowledge on the issue, and that this should be more thoroughly reviewed by committee.

Councilor Bullett asked if there was any precedent or procedure for determining who gets fee waivers, “is it just anyone who asks?” The City Manager reported that she isn’t aware of any fee waivers which had been given, to which Jessica Hanscombe, Director of Permitting, agreed. “I’ve been here seven years and we’ve never waived any fees.” Bullett responded that she’d also prefer to table these requests. Rodriguez and Dion, too, expressed an inclination to table.

Upon a request for clarification by Councilor Ali, Hanscombe explained to the council that the applicants had already paid their fees, and what was being debated was whether or not to refund them the fees for being beneficial to the community.

Councilor Bullett moved to refer this order to the Housing and Economic Development Committee, which passed unanimously.

The following item was also a request for a fee waiver, this time for a Class III & IV license for the Irish Heritage Center, totaling $1,406.00 annually. Jean Haney, treasurer of the Center, explained the background of their initial request being tabled months ago, and nothing having been done with it, has floated back before the council tonight. She emphasized that the statute is clear: the council has the right to use their discretion in waiving fees. Haney asked the council to consider the good work which the Center does, and to waive this fee for them, which could be the difference between hosting an event and not hosting it.

Councilor Sykes moved, likewise, to refer this order to the HEDC committee, which passed unanimously.


City Manager West drew the council’s attention to a memorandum from the city’s lobbyist on the legislative process in Augusta. The memo can be found here, and it provides an accessible breakdown of how the Maine State Legislature operates.


Just one resolution was on the agenda for that night, Resolution 5, “Calling for an Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza and Israel” from Councilor Ali. This resolution, as initially drafted, called for the City of Portland, Maine, to recognize that thousands of lives in Gaza and Israel are at imminent risk if a ceasefire is not reached, and to join with representatives in other cities in calling for an immediate ceasefire between the belligerents.

Apparently there was a realization that a call for a ceasefire without a call for release of hostages was tantamount to supporting Hamas’ cause, and Councilor Ali also submitted an amendment to the original draft which called for a release of hostages as well. This amendment also explicitly cited the name of “Palestine,” which was not present in the original draft.

Public Comment

Public comment opened with a representative of Healthcare Workers for Palestine, who did not give her name. She lamented “the tragedy unfolding in the Holy Land,” spoke at length about the impact of psychological trauma, and accused the mainstream media of whitewashing the responsibility of Israel and the United States for the violence today. “Genocide of the Palestinian people will not lead to a safe and secure Israel. The cycle of trauma must end.”

Tyler Redsky, a nonprofit coordinator, said that “to look at October 7th and blame Palestinians for what happened for 75 years, and to call it a conflict, and to call it ‘complicated,’ is the same mechanism that allowed us to have enslavement, that allowed us to have genocide on indigenous people.” Citing Biden’s plummeting approval ratings, Tyler insisted that Portland adopt this resolution. Anthony Abdallah, also of Healthcare Workers for Palestine, echoed much of the previous comments regarding the intersectionality of issues at stake. He also drew connections between American indigenous struggles with that of Palestinians.

Cora Kercher stated unequivocally that “Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza… with U.S. tax dollars and U.S. support.” Mayor Dion followed her comment with yet another plea for calm from the audience. Leo Hilton, who proudly proclaimed his Jewish faith and his membership in the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, joined other commenters in accusing Israel of genocide. He recalled his part in a sit-in at Chellie Pingree’s office demanding a ceasefire, and how he was arrested for doing so, and highlighted the difference between Judaism and Zionism.

Pastor Lisa Siciliano, of the Portland House of Prayer, agreed that “all of our hearts are broken” over the horrible news coming out of Israel, and even described Israel’s actions as “genocide,” but questioned whether it was the duty of Portland to be taking a position on a distant conflict. “Is it our place as a city to take a stand?” She advocated for the councilors to vote against, but was interrupted by shouts from the audience. Mayor Dion again scolded the disruptors, but Siciliano said she recognized that those upset by her comment were reasonably concerned by the terrible news in the world.

The pastor thanked Councilor Ali for his cultural contributions and then stepped down, but disruptors from the upper level in the chambers continued to shout down at the council.  Dion tried to settle the crowd again. Elizabeth Ackerson spoke next, urging the council to adopt the resolution, recalling her memories in Haiti and accusing Israel of “not going after Hamas, but after all the innocent Palestinians.” She also contradicted the amended resolution and said that the ceasefire should not require the release of hostages. Dave Acito, who spoke earlier about licensing and permitting reform, spoke again here to join the chorus condemning Israel for genocide. “Give hope to our voices, and stand up for us.”

Anna Gamultz mirrored Mr. Hilton’s position that her Jewish identity should not be conflated with Israel’s unjustifiable bombardment of Palestine. Ethan Schechter, Jewish, fluent in Hebrew, and former Jerusalem resident, echoed the same sentiments. “Nori,” another Jewish commenter, declared her own anti-Zionism and urged adoption. Two more brief comments urged the council to adopt, as did Mahal Alverez-Backus, a pediatrics student at UNE, who accused Israel’s attacks on medical infrastructure of causing the deaths of uncounted infants and children.

Bobbi Cope, another commenter identifying as Jewish, opened with a quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is… a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” Looking up to the council, she declared “This is a time for war. Yes, war is the only answer.” She recounted the misdeeds of Hamas, including rape and murder, and stated that the terror organization must be eradicated to prevent further attempts to commit genocide against Jews. She continued to speak past her allotted time, and Mayor Dion had to cut her off.

Elaine Kraznick-McConnor, a former Portland resident, rejected the claims of other comments during the evening, and asserting Israel’s right to defend itself. “There are 22 Muslim countries in the world, there are two billion Muslims. There is one small Jewish state.” She thanked Councilor Ali for the amendment to the resolution, but insisted that an anti-Hamas statement be added too. Madeleine Prior, also identifying as Jewish and a former Israeli resident, supported the resolution. “I know first-hand that the Zionist idea of a safe haven for the Jews is a farce… War is never the answer, Ecclesiastes was wrong.”

Three more brief comments echoed many of the same pro-adoption sentiments, as did “Henry,” who commented on the “three school busses worth of children [who] are murdered every day.” Buddy Moore also condemned the Israeli “campaign to exterminate and erase the Palestinian people,” followed by Sampson Spadafore condemning at least “21,978 civilians” being killed by Israel.

Al Cleveland thanked Councilor Ali for bringing the resolution in the name of “murdered Palestinians.” John Wescott, an older gentleman, recalled how in the 1970s an earlier City Council of Portland had given the keys of the city to a delegation of Palestinians. He was significantly more moderate in his comments than those who preceded him, stressing that he did not oppose Israel’s right to exist, but warned of the dangers and horrors this war brings. Olivia Pennington, another healthcare worker, expressed her shock and horror at Israeli “bombing maternity wards.”

Alan Lewis, breaking the trend, defended Israel’s intentions, saying “Israel went through the Holocaust, they went through pogroms, they finally settle in their own land because they want peace. And they want peace with their neighbors, and yet they’re persecuted, and violence is committed against them. Israel isn’t an aggressor nation.” Kat Divonne followed, saying Lewis’ statements were “fallacies” and urging the council to call for a ceasefire.

Two comments in sequence both stressed the importance of cities like Portland speaking out, as did Leo Eichfeld, who shared that a video he saw of a Palestinian child reminded him of his own students. Ashley Schumacher, also with Healthcare Workers for Palestine, said that what was happening in Gaza would be equivalent to every single one of Portland Public Schools’ students being dead.

Grace Stein, also Jewish, thanked Councilor Ali and asked the council to support the resolution. She said that if Portland did not raise its voice, it would be condoning genocide. Jenson Cook discussed how war is a major contributor to climate change, and how hate crimes against black and Jewish Portlanders are influenced by this war. A number of brief expressions of support for the resolution followed in swift succession, mostly thanking those other commenters with more eloquent statements.

 Sam Zager, representative in the Maine State Legislature and Jew who has been to Israel, expressed the shared sense of horror and frustration at the events going on in the world, and he thanked Councilor Ali for bringing this resolution to the table. He suggested that the council add a broad and unequivocal condemnation of violence and bigotry in all its forms, including “the recent rise in Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish actions, and anti-Arab sentiments” in Maine. He also suggested that the council condemn Hamas as well.

Janet Droop drew a connection between the council’s honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. and the need to “condemn violence,” without further specification. Jessica Sonders, another “American Jew,” also drew a sharp distinction between Judaism and Zionism, asking the council to pass the resolution. Max Harrington offered a final, vanishingly brief plea for the council to adopt. Drawing the comment period to a close, the council took a ten-minute recess.

An Apology and Deliberations

Upon returning, Mayor Dion offered an apology for asking a member of the audience “Do you speak English?” when trying to settle the heckling crowd. “I’m old-school, trying to learn what I shouldn’t do, moving forward, to more effectively represent all of you. And I think part of that is to admit when I’m wrong.”

Moving into council discussions, the mayor and City Manager quibbled over procedure for a few minutes before opening the floor to other councilors. The first to speak was Councilor Fournier, who thanked Councilor Ali for proposing the resolution and began to draw a connection between the events in Gaza and her own Native American heritage. Recounting the tragic circumstances of the Navajo’s expulsion from New Mexico, she detailed the tactics and strategies used to displace and demoralize the indigenous people of the American Southwest. “Indigenous solidarity has no borders.” She signaled her support for the resolution.

Councilor Rodriguez, in a brief statement, joined Fournier in indicating his support, and also emphasized the importance of the amendment. Arguing that resolutions like this allow for an etching into the historical record of this moment’s feelings, he stated that the amendment more accurately reflected the nuanced feeling of himself and his colleagues.

Councilor Pelletier spoke in favor as well, “…black people and Palestinians have a shared history of trauma and oppression and genocide and anti-blackness.” She stated that this resolution was a matter of racial equity, and disagreed with the notion that the council would be obligated to condemn Hamas as well. Extending the theme, she said “There is also a long-standing history between black people and Jewish people, and the ‘You’re anti-Semitic!’ rhetoric is the same one that says ‘Saying black lives matter means you’re anti-white.’”

Pelletier continued, “There is an oppressed group, and there is an oppressor. There is a power dynamic that is inflated by race and wealth. There is a group who has been historically colonized, and that is what is happening.” She concluded by urging people to remember also the “anti-black violence and colonialism” taking place in countries like the Congo and Haiti, “Thank you all so much for coming, I feel my ancestors a lot when I have conversations like this, about them really guiding me to make sure that I really am on the right side of history.”

Hoots began to break out in the audience at the conclusion of Councilor Pelletier’s remarks, leading to Mayor Dion again having to plead with the crowd for calm. Councilor Trevorrow also briefly extended her support, noting that she could not be as eloquent or heartfelt as some of the others that had spoken. She focused on the importance of the council taking a stance, even if they had no direct power or authority over the issue.

Finally, the sponsor of the resolution, Councilor Ali, spoke. First, he explained that although he is a leader in two interested organizations, Seeds of Peace and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, he is making this decision wholly independently. Ali also shared his many deep relationships with Jews and people of all faiths, insisting that his intention with this resolution is “not to vilify anyone, it is to address and bring our voice as a community [to this issue.]” He also made it clear that he was motivated by his horror at the killings perpetrated by both sides, and expressed his desire for peace.

Mayor Dion concluded the round of comments by councilors, emphasizing that although this resolution regarded something beyond Maine’s borders, that the issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia strike much closer to home. His desire was to see Portland as a place for Jews and Muslims to live in together, and indicated his support for the resolution. “I believe in the role of the military, but I believe in the sanctity of non-combatants, and that they should be excluded from that kind of action by governments.”

Moving to a vote, the amended resolution passed unanimously, (through a fog of Robert’s Rules tomfoolery.)

Unfinished Business

At the end of that long and emotional item, the night would swiftly (and anticlimactically) progress through a final pair of votes. The first was Order 87, which would amend the zoning map around 921 Ocean Avenue and 410, 422, and 426 Presumpscot Street; the zone of these parcels would shift from R-3 residential to R-5 residential, allowing for greater height and density. As Chair Mazer went on to explain, this shift allowed for taller, denser structures with a smaller footprint to preserve more of the natural land on which the buildings were being planned.

Councilor Bullett briefly asked Mazer about the pedestrian infrastructure in the area, who clarified that such discussions will come up during site plan review, not this zoning map amendment. With no further comments or discussion, the order passed unanimously.

Finally came Order 45, sponsored by Ashley Rand, City Clerk. This item would relax the rules around appointing commissioners to the Land Bank Commission by allowing the city to appoint residents from any district. Hitherto, the City Code required that there be a balance of district seats, and as a result there have been long-term absences from the lesser-populated districts.

With no public comments, (the mayor pointed out that the audience had completely cleared out,) and no further discussions, the order passed unanimously.

First Reads

The City Clerk then quickly announced the first reads of two new orders, the first concerning a Grant for Drug Recognition training and the second concerning the contract with Portland’s police union. These will be up for discussion and action at the next council meeting.

With the councilors obviously eager to leave, the council adjourned at 8:07 p.m.

“Oh my god,” sighed the Mayor before the microphones were turned off. “Another one bites the dust,” replied the City Manager.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of the Portland Townsman, with work focusing on the mechanics of local government and housing policy, and also a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board. You can reach Ashley personally at

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