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School Budget and Museum Demolition Approved, and Voting on Hypotheticals – City Council Review 5/20/2024

On the evening of May 20th, 2024, a surprisingly quick meeting sped through two high-profile decisions and efficiently dispatched a number of minor matters. In less than two hours, the City Council approved the School Budget and sent it on to the voters, overruled their subordinate commissions to clear the way for demolishing 142 Free Street, and formally established the polling parameters for the June election. First, as always, Mayor Dion opened the floor for a period of public comments about all items not on that night’s agenda.

General Public Comment

First to approach the podium was Jaime Willey, complaining of an inadequate railroad grade crossing at Brighton Street. The unfinished work at the crossing, according to the commenter, is the responsibility of freight company CSX, and has made driving over the point both uncomfortable and dangerous for drivers. He asked the city council to look into this.

Next, several members of the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PBPAC) spoke before the council. PBPAC is a private organization, though as its members explained, it has enjoyed periods of close cooperation with municipal officials over its 20+ year history. As Winston Lumpkins, Chair of the PBPAC explained, the group recently completed a “walk audit” of the Riverside neighborhood, where “last week three people were struck by two drivers on Riverside Street.” The Homeless Services Center (HSC) is a large homeless shelter in the neighborhood, and Lumpkins insisted that should “traffic calming measures” not be implemented, these casualties may just be “the first of many this summer.”

Zack Barowitz, former city commissioner, spoke as a member of PBPAC to the history of the committee and the seriousness with which its recommendations ought to be taken. After complaining of the low ebb the group faced during the tenure of former City Manager Jon Jennings, he expressed optimism for more intensive cooperation with the administration of new Manager West. John Clark, a member of the group’s Executive Board, further elaborated on the recommendations from PBPAC’s Riverside audit, developed in conjunction with Portland Trails. “The fact that there’s no crosswalk or any form of road calming by the HSC is insane, and the infrastructure for the bus shelters is unacceptable for the number of people who need to use them.”

Steven Scharf, habitual commenter and – though he did not introduce himself as such – also an affiliate of PBPAC, followed these comments, raising concerns about the presence of cars and trucks on Monument Square. “There are no other parks (without roads) where cars are allowed to drive and park.” While he had been optimistic about a story in the Press Herald which seemed to inaugurate a period of stricter scrutiny, (though he was sure to say he did not typically “read that rag,”) Scharf felt that the Council was not going far enough to protect pedestrians in Monument Square. “Trucks… have no reason to be there.”

Briefly, Bri Lane introduced herself as a representative of Pride Portland, and ensured the City Council was aware of her presence that evening. She made no other comment.

George Rheault, waiting until the end of the period, renewed the concerns he expressed at the last City Council meeting about the Preble Street Chapel. This 19th century building, Rheault explained, enjoyed none of the Historic Preservation designations or protections which similar buildings in other neighborhoods possessed, and he claimed the structure was now under threat by expansion plans from local NGOs, who “feel as though they have no choice but to demolish the Preble Chapel.”

Characteristically, he alluded to the “powers that be” who had not deigned to protect the blighted Bayside neighborhoods, and urged the Council to act to protect this former house of worship which was established with the famous Mary Preble. “It’s been there since 1851!”

Proclamations and Licenses

With the period of public comment having been called to a close, and with no other announcements, the City Council made a number of proclamations. The first among these was National EMS Week, announced by Councilor Bullett as the week from May 19th to 25th as a time to “remember and honor those who have lost their lives defending ours.” Councilor Rodriguez recounted his own experience of Portland’s paramedics assisting his mother-in-law, remembering them as “very professional,” (he also reassured the public that following treatment, “thankfully, everything went well.”) Councilor Phillips echoed these sentiments, sharing her own experiences and saying “I don’t know how they do it, they come with a smile on their face every time.” Mayor Dion joked that “I’ve been the patient more than once, I’m a mess,” and harmonized.

Councilor Pelletier announced June 2024 as Pride Month, Councilor Phillips proclaimed May 19th to 25th as also being National Public Works Week, and Councilor Pious Ali named the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month.

Several business licenses were also unanimously granted, using the recently-implemented method of reviewing all applications at once to save time. These included an outdoor dining licenses for Quanto Basta at 239 Congress Street, and outdoor entertainment license for Clam Bar at 199 W. Commercial Street, and a Class I Food Service Establishment license for Thames Landing at 60 Thames Street, formerly the site of Helm Oyster Bar.

Also approved was the Pride Portland Parade and Festival, set for June 15th, and a new downtown Farmers’ Market to be held regularly in Monument Square.

None of these items received any public comment or other substantial discussion.

School and City Budget

The first major item considered for the evening was the FY2025 School Budget, which had received its first hearing at the previous meeting and would now be up for a vote. Councilor Trevorrow, chair of the Finance Committee, briefly introduced the item as being crafted with the school board and recommended by her committee for a final decision by the City Council. While the budget did technically contain a decrease in spending from previous years, due to the end of temporary federal windfall grants, it would still mean a rise in property taxes.

Mayor Dion called for public comments, reminding those in council chambers that anyone who spoke at the previous hearing would be barred from speaking that night. Lily Kendall, Program Manager of Cultivating Community, spoke in favor of the proposed budget and against any last-minute cuts, as did Aoife Nugent, expressing her “unequivocal full support” for “keeping excellent teachers and administrators and [drawing] new teachers and administrators.”

George Rheault rose as well, saying “I support this budget, it’s probably better than what people had expected a few months ago, but it’s a shame that this budget involves staff cuts.” Rheault described the “pitched battles” between the “school side” and “city side” of past years’ budget fights, particularly under Manager Jennings, and criticized some of the “city side” expenses which could be going to the schools. “The Greater Portland Council of Governments,” for example, “sends us a bill for about $140,000 every year,” which, according to Rheault, “subsidizes two former politicians – Belinda Ray and Andrew Zarro – to have cushy jobs there.”

With no further comments, a number of councilors led by Trevorrow thanked the school board for their work on the budget, and expressed regret that some hard choices had to be made in spending levels. “I wish we didn’t have to cut any,” Councilor Ali said, “but that is what it is.” Councilor Rodriguez, noting that this is likely to be the last school budget he votes for, spoke at some length about how much he’d learned about the process, and how important it was to not pit people against one another. Mayor Dion agreed, vaguely acknowledging Rheault’s comment, saying “I have witnessed the budget process between the school and the city be confrontational, and there was a lot of backroom sniping [in previous years]…, that has not been the case here. It was really a team effort.”

The school budget was approved unanimously by the City Council, but must still be voted on by the public as part of the June election.

Several first reads of the general municipal budget were also entered into the record, for hearings at the next City Council meeting.


After the budget items were disposed of, the City Council heard two communications from staff. First, Assistant City Manager Greg Watson announced to chambers that the city was planning to permanently raise the capacity at the HSC from “208 to 258 beds,” and would be planning hearings associated with this goal. Second, a number of minor adjustment to the city’s Housing and Community Development Budget were announced. These revisions had to do with actual federal disbursements compared with Portland’s estimates, and amounted to only small differences compared to the previously-expected estimates. For example, while the estimated CDBG allocation had been $1,843,198, the actual allocation ended up being $1,833,541.

Opening Polls and First Reads

Mayor Dion suspected that the 142 Free Street question, which had taken up so much of the council’s time at the previous meeting, may similarly drag on that night. Because of this, the Free Street Museum question was pushed to the end of the agenda, and all other matters were teed up for dispatch first.

Most notably among these was the opening of the June election’s polls, which was set for Tuesday, June 11, 2024 from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Before this typically uncontroversial procedure could be ratified by the council, George Rheault rose to offer comment. “The origins of this is always a little strange in an age of absentee ballots,” Rheault observed, “because as our City Clerk said, people are already voting!” He pointed out that even though the school budget had not been approved by the City Council until just minutes prior, mail-in ballots had already been sent out asking voters about said budget. “How [did] people make sense of the school budget? Because the school budget didn’t get passed until tonight. So, I’m not entirely sure how someone could have filled out their absentee ballot for or against the school budget which was still hypothetical when absentee balloting opened!”

Noting the evidently ridiculous and “archaic” nature of this procedure, he speculated that this would be a good subject for an amendment to the city’s charter. Other than a brief comment from Councilor Bullett expressing gratitude that “attacks” on voting rights elsewhere in the country weren’t happening here, the poll hours were approved unanimously without further trouble.

Two orders also received first reads at the night’s meeting, and would be the subject of votes at the meeting following. These were accepting and appropriating a $10,000 anonymous donation, and approving a new contract with the firefighters’ union.

142 Free Street

For a detailed look at the question which the City Council considered, read Historic Preservation and the PMA: A Guide to the (Actual) Question for the Out-of-the-Loop, published earlier on the Portland Townsman. This author serves on the Historic Preservation Board which adjudicated the issue in 2023, but has not directly played a role in the proceedings since.

With all other matters cleared off the agenda, all that was left was to finally get to the bottom of the 142 Free Street matter, which had been left as a cliffhanger at the last meeting. While the votes were obviously there to give the Portland Museum of Art a victory in its endeavor to de-classify the former Children’s Museum building at 142 Free Street, the legal basis was not. In an attempt to ironclad the council’s case (and potentially avoid a costly lawsuit,) Corporation Counsel Goldman had requested time to draft an amendment for re-classification which could withstand judicial scrutiny. While this delay had frustrated Councilor Sykes, the councilor apparently most in favor of de-listing the old museum, the other councilors saw the wisdom in his request.

As the Historic Preservation Board and Planning Board had both made factual findings in favor of maintaining the building’s status as “contributing” to the Congress Street Historic District, if the City Council was to reach a different conclusion, it had to establish new findings to justify it, which is what Mr. Goldman had done. Councilors Trevorrow and Sykes, who had initiated the effort of de-designation, did not provide much direction to the city attorney, who came up with a justification which none of the councilors had previously given weight to – the alterations made to the building since 1926. These included replacing the entry door and transom, changing the number and placement of windows on the east side of the building, and adding a cupola to the top of the museum.

The Portland Museum of Art had initially stressed the destructive impacts of these changes, asserting that they compromised the historic integrity of the building, but much of the debate which had consumed the public and the council since the issue’s introduction had overlooked these technical points. By bringing the basis of re-classification back to this subject – the renovations made mostly in the 1990s – Corporation Counsel had tried to establish a firm legal footing for the council’s actions in overruling the HP and Planning Boards. This was important, because the council was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, not as a legislature, and so had to give  plausible justifications for its ruling which could be reviewed by a judge.

Mayor Dion, bringing the council back to focus on the 142 Free Street matter, explained that, as this was merely continuing the discussion from the last meeting, no further public comment would be taken. Councilor Phillips opened discussions on the amendment to grant the PMA what it was seeking, declaring “I will not be voting for the amendment.” Beyond disagreeing with the city attorney’s assessment that the minor changes made in the 1990s constituted a loss of integrity, she also focused on what she felt was a rushed and haphazard process from the pro-PMA councilors. “We should have more of a discussion about this.”

Councilor Sykes, one of the two prime actors in seeking de-classification, responded. “This is one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made yet, here on the council, and I’ve been saddened to see the way that it’s town our community apart.” She lamented the lack of compromise, though seemed unclear on who would have been responsible for establishing it, saying “Ideally, we’d like to see the Portland Museum of Art and the ‘Historic Preservation folks’ get together in a room and work this out, and it is really unfortunate that this has not happened.”

To illustrate her point, Sykes used a demonstration. “While I don’t believe this building meets the integrity standard,” the councilor said, pulling out a bank note from her wallet, “Look at the back of a twenty-dollar bill and you’ll see that building. This is a very powerful building.” Nevertheless, she continued, “that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of Historic Preservation… A building that strikes us as deeply American, but is not actually worthy of Historic Preservation.”

Pictured, detail of reverse of twenty-dollar bill, depicting the White House in Washington, D.C.

While Mayor Dion had prepared plenty of time for a lively discussion, this proved to be unnecessary, as no other councilors seemed interested in talking any more about 142 Free Street. More than anything, the feeling seemed to be that most of the councilors wanted the issue off of their plate at once, so after the two women who most represented opposing views on the subject finished, none others ventured to speak. This left Mayor Dion to offer a somewhat anti-climactic final word.

“There was no arm-twisting, no heavy lobbying among the members,” the Mayor said positively, emphasizing that this issue had been a decision “of conscience” for each of the individual members. He acknowledged the high feelings in the community, and related his displeasure from reading an unnamed journalist’s account of the previous meeting which described him as “pontificating” and rambling. “It hurts, it humbles, but… to me it’s a legal question, it’s not about architecture.” The legal details of the controversy required careful consideration, not gut-feeling decisions.

Councilors Pious Ali and Regina Phillips voted against the Sykes-Trevorrow Amendment to declassify, as did Mayor Dion, but all other members voted in favor. Likewise, the final vote to reverse the boards’ decision and clear the way for demolition was approved 6-3, with Ali, Phillips, and Dion opposed.

This last debate ended surprisingly quickly, and almost immediately afterwards the meeting was adjourned.

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

One Comment

  1. Cat Eldridge Cat Eldridge

    Where is the Preble Street Chapel? The Preble Chaple which is currently I believe a daycare center dates from 1851 which makes it 173 years old.

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