City Council met Monday, October 16th. An outcry from neighbors over the proposed 900 Ocean Avenue rezoning and a re-visitation of last meetings’ homeless shelter debate were the major markers of the evening.
Councilor Fournier was absent; Councilor Zarro joined shortly after the 5:00pm start time.
General Public Comment
Following procedure set at the first October meeting, the Council did not take Zoom public comments, only hearing from those physically present in the chamber. The meeting was still available for viewing online.
The 5:00pm public comment period began with Steven Scharf, a regular commenter in chambers. Scharf objected to the city’s handling of the shelter issue, and advised that any motion to enact a state of emergency, as was later on the agenda, ought to be passed as an emergency – meaning that a supermajority of seven votes is required. This distinction would be reviewed later by the council.
The majority of general comments pertained to the proposed rezoning of 900 Ocean Avenue as part of a housing development project. In total, ten residents of the area came out to oppose the project. Residents cited environmental concerns, as well as the lack of sidewalks and transit infrastructure to support a larger population in the area. Patty Weber gifted councilors with a copy of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to dissuade them from allowing trees to be cut. Ron Morris criticized the planning board for not visiting the site, (“Nobody left their little cubicle,”) before allowing the plan to move forward. Another criticism was that it did not “fit with the neighborhood,” and that it ought to have a larger parking lot.
Speaking on a separate issue was Courtney Foley, a Congress Street resident. Foley reported that her neighbor was attacked in his own yard with a machete and was still recovering. Foley expressed exasperation at the city’s lack of response to crime in the area. “I hope you sweep the camps, this is ridiculous,” said Foley.
Announcements and Proclamations
Moving on to Announcements, Mayor Snyder announced Portland Public Schools teacher Joshua Chard’s naming as Maine Teacher of the Year for 2024. The announcement was met with much applause. Chard teaches second and third grade at the East End Community School. Snyder noted that this is the third time in the past four years that a Portland Public Schools teacher has received this award. She also noted that the East End school is one of the district’s most culturally diverse schools.
Chard, who was in attendance, offered remarks following Snyder’s announcement. He explained that he hoped to use his platform to counter both “negative narratives about high-needs urban schools,” as well as “stereotypes about veteran teachers.” He shared that he has been a teacher for 31 years.
A second announcement came from Councilor Zarro, recognizing Sustainability Director Troy Moon for being named a 2023 Infrastructure Trailblazer. Per Zarro, Moon was selected from a pool of over 800 candidates. Zarro commended Moon’s work, noting how Moon managed to expand electric vehicle charging stations at no cost to the city. Moon briefly thanked the council for the acknowledgement.
Two proclamations followed. First, City Manager West made a proclamation honoring the life of Heather Brown, a city employee who passed away from breast cancer on September 26th. A tearful West praised Brown’s work as Assistant City Manager from 2019 to 2021, especially for her role in assisting asylum seekers in 2019. West presented a Key to the City to Brown’s family, including her two young children.
Councilor Ali proclaimed October 2023 as Hate Crime Awareness Month. He defined hate crimes as “criminal conduct motivated by bias against race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and/or physical or mental disability,” and reinforced the city’s stance against such violence. Representatives from the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition and Unified Asian Communities accepted the proclamation and thanked the Council.
The Annual Meetings of the Portland Fish Exchange, the Fish Pier Authority, and the Portland Development Corporation
Next up was a series of brief meetings from city bodies, as is mandated by law.
First, the annual meeting of the Corporator of the Portland Fish Exchange. Bill Nedelman, Vice President of the Board for Portland Fish Exchange, presented the Council with a Summary of Activity and financial statement for the group. The Council then unanimously approved Robert Odlin and Timothy Merrill to the Board of Directors.
A pro forma meeting for the Fish Pier Authority also took place, once again with a summary and financial statement presented to the Council. Nedelman reported that a merger of the Fish Exchange and the Fish Pier Authority may take place in early 2024.
The Portland Development Corporation (PDC) also held its annual meeting. The PDC is a city authority with members appointed by the City Council who are tasked with giving grants to struggling small businesses. The President of the Portland Development Corporation, James Dowd, gave a brief communication, sharing that the PDC gave over $600,000 in grants to 7 businesses over the past year. Snyder offered personal thanks to the PDC for its work supporting “entrepreneurism” and helping keep businesses afloat during the pandemic. Two individuals – Kierston Van Soest and Nathan Henry – were unanimously appointed to the PDC’s Board.
Appointments and Licenses
More appointments followed; Phil Steele to the Clean Elections Review Board, and Andrew Weaver to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Directors were also appointed for the Widows Wood Society, a charitable organization that provides heating assistance in the winter months. All appointments passed unanimously.
Counselors approved four business licenses unanimously. Two were for existing businesses: a liquor license for Bayou Kitchen, and an expansion of the premises for Oxbow Brewing Company. For new businesses, a lounge license for Thistle and Grouse at 10 Cotton Street, once the location of Rivalries, and a food service license for Mesa Grande Taqueria at 140 Fore Street were also granted.
Communication on the Homeless Winter Emergency Response Plan
Heath and Human Services director Kristen Dow gave the only communication of the evening, providing an update on the city’s Homeless Winter Emergency Response Plan. This plan governs the operation of “warming shelters” in dangerously cold weather. Dow explained that from November to March, a daytime high temperature of 20 degrees (or under) or 10 inches of snow will trigger these new warming shelters to open. This new plan is a modification to last year’s policy, when the threshold was a daytime high of 0 degrees or less. Dow went on to say that the HHS team would monitor the weather and give a 48-hour notice if the plan was to go into effect.
Due to lack of city-owned space and city staff, Dow’s department is partnering with Greater Portland Peer Services to administer these warming shelters. The director declined to give the shelter location, stating that she would do so once state funding had been secured. Total capacity for the warming shelters is expected to be between 100 and 150 people, said Dow.
Questions from the Council clarified that the funding would be confirmed by the end of October, and that should a cold snap come on suddenly the shelters would still open, even if 48 hours’ notice had not been given.
Reconsideration of the State of Emergency
At the last City Council meeting, by a very narrow 4-5 vote in which Councilor Phillips’ vote was only very hesitantly cast, the body chose to reject the proposal for enacting a limited state of emergency at the Homeless Services Center (HSC). This state of emergency would have allowed city staff to disregard certain zoning and building regulations to increase the maximum capacity at the shelter on Riverside. While those in favor cited the desperate need for additional shelter beds, those who opposed the motion did so for a diversity of reasons, ranging from a desire to discourage the further reliance on city services to the belief that the city should stop all sweeps of encampments instead.
Mayor Snyder with Councilors Ali, Fournier, and Rodriguez had voted in favor last time, while Councilors Dion, Pelletier, Phillips, Trevorrow and Zarro opposed.
After the last meeting, this plan was presumed to be dead. However, Councilor Phillips (whose opposition had been wavering at best,) announced to the council that she had changed her mind upon hearing further information from city staff and moved to reconsider the vote. A period of confusion over procedure followed, during which Corporation Counsel clarified that Steven Scharf’s comment about this motion requiring 7 votes was incorrect. Councilor Pelletier seemed especially exasperated by council rules. Eventually the council did pass the motion to conduct reconsideration, and discussion opened. Councilors Trevorrow and Dion opposed reopening the discussion at all, across two interrelated votes, and Zarro joined them on the 2nd of these.
As this was a reconsideration of a matter which had already received public comment, no further public comment was taken.
From the outset, it was clear that only Councilor Phillips was seriously rethinking her vote. “We’re choosing between a bad decision and a worse decision,” she lamented, “I’ve been debating the issue over and over in my head.” While she understood the need for shelter space, she felt this was indeed unfair to the residents of District 5, who had taken on a lot in their neighborhood. Mayor Snyder backed her up, insisting that the city needs “more options,” and that this state of emergency would provide them. Snyder also, however, stressed that it may be too early to reach an agreement, and that a special meeting should be scheduled on a coming Monday. Councilor Ali concurred.
Councilor Zarro asked City Manager West whether there would be additional options provided at such a special meeting, to which she replied that this was the only realistic option her team had. Councilors Pelletier and Trevorrow both re-voiced their opposition from last meeting, underscoring this plan as little more than a justification for further sweeps of encampments. Trevorrow explained that many homeless people don’t want to go to a “central location,” and that they “don’t like the ‘feel’ of a large institution.” She reminded the council of the opposition from groups “on the ground” who were helping the homeless there.
Councilor Dion also reiterated his opinions and shared that they had not changed; he felt that District 5 was being shafted, that it was an unsustainable plan, and that indeed the City Council shouldn’t make a habit of holding these sorts of reconsiderations as it reflects poorly on them. Final decisions, he reasoned, ought to be final. Councilor Phillips defended her motion to reconsider to Dion, stressing that she just “couldn’t live with my vote last week” and that she had received positive updates from city staff.
To further explain this, Director Dow again stepped forward, touting her department’s “tremendous success” at bringing 9 individuals from the Marginal Way encampment to the HSC in the past 10 days. She stressed further that many homeless people feel as though they have no autonomy, and that by taking away this option of an expanded shelter, the council would further strengthen this feeling of helplessness.
Councilor Zarro thanked Ms. Dow, and asked how many encampment residents had been offered a shelter bed in total. In response to this question, she replied: “I no longer say how many people were offered beds, since I don’t want to put that on the unsheltered community.” She reminded the council of the shelter’s strained capacity, “We are full every single night, we have been at-capacity ever since we’ve opened.”
Councilor Zarro seemed to further believe that the opening of the public-private Asylum Seeker shelter would release much of the pressure on the HSC, since a majority of the residents at the HSC were asylum seekers. While this was true, the precise number was somewhat obscure, and City Manager West indicated that the total was lower than Zarro seemed to think. City staff in general downplayed the impact that this Asylum Seeker shelter would have.
Councilor Rodriguez indicated that he, too, would stand pat on his ‘yes’ vote, but that he concurred with concerns about sweeps, and that they ought to be stopped. Since everyone’s position seemed clear and unwilling to change, the council moved towards a vote.
With Phillips flipping to the ‘yes’ column, a majority of the Council was now theoretically in favor – but Councilor Fournier was absent during this meeting for work-related travel. As she was not present, the vote broke down 4 – 4. A tie, with Rodriguez, Ali, Phillips, and Mayor Snyder in favor, with Dion, Trevorrow, Pelletier, and Zarro opposed. It is uncommon to see Councilor Dion on the one hand, generally a more conservative voice, and Councilors Trevorrow and Pelletier, generally on the council’s left flank, to stand in such lockstep against the Mayor’s position.
With no majority to pass the state of emergency, there was also no majority to kill the motion, so it will automatically be considered at the next City Council meeting on November 13th. There was some discussion about considering the matter before then, but no plan was established. Mayor Snyder stated that she doesn’t “sense an urgency” among the council members to do so.
The council then took up joint Orders 32 and 33, Authorizing and Appropriating a $1,684,816 loan from the School Revolving Renovation Fund. Finance Director Brendan O’Connell explained that 30% of the loaned money is expected to be forgiven.
George Rheault was the sole public comment, questioning why it took so long for the matter to come before the council. He also pointed to a previous borrowing from the same source – the Maine Municipal Bond Bank – which was canceled without explanation in November 2022. Rheault wondered why this borrowing was expected to be any more successful than the last. His comments were not given any serious response.
Councilors passed both orders unanimously.
Next, Order 40 – Approving Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Agreement between Efficiency Maine Trust and Portland – and Order 41 – Amendment of the Portland City Code Chapter 6 Re: Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) – were considered together.
Councilor Zarro explained that C-PACE, a program which gives business owners financing for building energy-efficient infrastructure. In 2021, the state legislature passed L.D. 340, allowing municipalities to institute their own C-PACE programs.
Sustainability Director Troy Moon added that no public dollars are required for the program – lenders can offer lower rates since the city backs their loan by putting a lien on the property until the loan is paid off.
Marie from the Portland Climate Action Team gave a public comment supporting the order. Per her comment, 34% of Portland’s emissions come from commercial heating and cooling; this plan would bring that number down to 0.
Both orders passed unanimously.
Orders 42, 43, and 54 all concerned changes to parking and traffic rules.
Councilor Zarro, in his capacity as Chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, explained that the orders updated definitions and expanded rules around bicycle lanes. Included in these expansions was a broader definition of “crosswalk” to include such areas which aren’t marked by physical paint. The orders also removed parking meters from portions of Forest Avenue, Marginal Way, and Chestnut Street, on the grounds that the meters did not generate enough revenue to merit keeping them there.
Steven Scharf supported the orders, calling the changes “excellent;” George Rheault also praised the changes to definitions, while wondering why they hadn’t been implemented sooner. He cautioned, however, against the removal of parking meters on Forest Ave, given new housing development expected to occur in the area which could make the meters more profitable. Rheault also noted an aspect of the orders that forbids people from living in their cars, and criticized the Council for advancing this “anti-homeless initiative.”
With little further comment from councilors, all orders passed unanimously of those present.
Order 44 followed, amending Chapter 35 re: Delivery of Adult-Use Marijuana and Marijuana products.
Councilor Trevorrow, standing in for absent Councilor Fournier as chair of the HHS committee, described the proposed amendments. In compliance with state law, the proposal would legalize the delivery of marijuana products.
She also offered two immediate modifications to the proposal for the council to the discuss. The first amendment would allow for one driver to complete deliveries rather than the proposed requirement of two. This was originally stipulated in an effort to prevent robberies, but the proposed amendment aims to alleviate burdens on small businesses. The second amendment would allow new patients to receive delivery without having a prior, in-person relationship with the company.
Associate Corporation Counsel Nicole Albert added that the orders should be passed as an emergency so that the city would be in compliance with the state law by the deadline, which is October 25.
Tom Mourmouras, owner of Fire and Fore, gave a public comment to support the amendments. He agreed with the lowered requirement of one delivery driver, stating that an additional person in the car would do little to prevent a robbery.
Jill Cohen, an attorney specializing in cannabis law, also supported the amendments, calling the two-person requirement onerous and expensive.
Council discussion elucidated further details of the order. The changes would apply to both medicinal and recreational cannabis purchases. Currently, deliveries from marijuana businesses outside of Portland are prohibited from delivering into the city, and permitting staff are monitoring and enforcing this law. Some discussion of the lowered one-person delivery requirement took place, but overall councilors seemed to agree that the two-person requirement would likely not be much of a deterrent. Snyder pointed out that the Council could always amend the provision should it become problematic.
Trevorrow’s amendments passed unanimously, as did the whole of Order 44.
The final order of the night – Order 45 – would ease requirements for citizens to serve on the Land Bank Commission. This is motivated by the ongoing vacancies on city boards and other bodies for want of volunteers. However, Mayor Snyder asked the Council to delay the order so that it could be discussed by the Legislative and Nominating Committee before going to a full vote. The council voted unanimously to postpone the order.
The remaining orders were first reads, including a number of grant appropriations for housing development, and a rezoning of the area around the intersection of Washington, Bates and Veranda. After the clerk read the orders into the record, Mayor Snyder adjourned the meeting at 8:16pm.
Erica Snyder-Drummond – Erica is a proud Portland resident, documentary filmmaker, and baker. Previously she has been a campaign canvasser, an immigration advocate, and a server. You can see more of her work at www.ericajsd.com.