The Portland City Council held a special meeting this Monday, October 2nd, opening with a State of the City address from Mayor Snyder.
All councilors were present in chambers.
State of the City
While the office of Mayor in Portland is not an executive office, the intent of the 2010 reforms was nevertheless to frame the popularly-elected Mayor as a leader of the city. Part of the Mayor’s role in this is to provide a “State of the City” address every year. This was Mayor Snyder’s fourth and final such address, as her term is coming to a close and she declined to run again. She approached this evening with “excitement and a little bit of sadness.”
Mayor Snyder opened with the good news that the ballots for this November’s election had arrived earlier than expected, and that in-person voting will begin on October 3rd. She then ran through the variety of challenges facing the city, including threats to safety, a heavy responsibility adopted towards asylum seekers, a critical housing shortage, bigotry and intolerance spreading both on the streets and in city meetings, and other common refrains. She emphasized how relatively new these challenges are – or if not new, then substantially intensified – compared even to one year prior. Much, Snyder conveyed, had changed.
“The budget is our number one policy document.” The Mayor then went on to discuss the manner in which Portland spends its money, stressing that the administration of funds is the single most important way that the city engages with the problems it faces. She urged Portland residents to pay attention to the drafting and amending of the city’s budget going forward. Staffing shortages were highlighted as a key obstacle to city functioning; the Mayor also shared that 659 building permits had been issued in 2023, and recited a number a statistics about housing construction since 2018. She stated that those who plead with Portland that not enough housing is being built, and those who complain that too much construction is going on, can both feel correct.
“Homelessness is the number one thing on people’s mind.” Mayor Snyder shared that every department of the city, from Parks to Finance, were working hard towards the city’s response to homelessness and providing services for those affected. Among other acknowledgements, she thanked Portland Public Schools for opening King Middle School’s gymnasium to house hundreds of asylum seekers recently arrived in Portland while a dedicated Asylum Shelter is being set up, and thanked the Governor and State Legislature for providing funds to address the crisis.
Mayor Snyder recounted with pride the creation of the Encampment Crisis Response Team with almost thirty “community partners” to respond to the growing tent encampments around Portland. “Our goal is to resolve encampments by quickly connecting people to shelter and housing,” reads the ECRT’s mission statement, part of which Snyder recounted. She also thanked Preble Street and other nonprofits in Portland, and encouraged everyone to do their part. “There’s a lot of work to do.”
Also recounted were Portland’s records on sustainability, equity, and prosperity for business. Investments in new environmentalist programs, a new department focused on equity, and new resources for businesses were all touted as successes, if overdue. Similar to the paradox of construction earlier, Mayor Snyder also described the paradox of restaurants appearing to all be closing while new ones are still constantly popping up.
She noted that, in the light of this election season, that virtually all of the City Council were relative neophytes to the body, with Pious Ali in his third term being the longest-serving of any of them. This trend shows no sign of abating, as new councilors will be elected in districts 4 and 5, (Councilors Zarro and Dion are both giving up their seats to run for Mayor,) and April Fournier’s at-large seat is also being contested. She urged both current and upcoming elected representatives to focus on public service and what unites them, instead of what divides them. “It’s so easy to show disdain and to point fingers. But I think we need to be here for the work, and not for the fight.”
Updated 10/19/2023: A previous version of this article misstated Councilor Ali’s term. Thank you to Sarah Michniewicz for the correction.
With this, the address came to a close.
General Public Comment
After a brief break, the meeting moved to public comments made on non-agenda items. There was just one general public comment offered, speaking against the alleged environmental impact of a proposed new development at 900 Ocean Avenue. Such comments have become a regular feature at City Council meetings.
No Zoom comments were taken under the council’s new practice, which as the Mayor was to later describe, returns City Council meetings to a default form of in-person participation only. Hybrid meetings will remain on the table as an option, to be considered on a meeting-by-meeting basis.
Announcements and Proclamations
Mayor Snyder opened with an explanation of a minor agenda shakeup, which would see the council push Order 38, concerning a limited state of emergency, to the end of the meeting. At that time, after public comment is taken, the council will enter a private executive session to further discuss the matter.
Councilor Pious Ali stood to recognize the recent death of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, and asked the room to observe a minute of silence in her honor. Following this moment of respect, the Council continued with their agenda.
Mayor Snyder proclaimed October 2023 as Domestic Violence Action Month, raising awareness for this crisis which affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men. Councilor Fournier proclaimed October 9th, 2023 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, recognizing Portland as being on the “Dawnland” territory of its native peoples. A further proclamation honoring the life of Heather Brown was postponed until her family could be present.
Disclosure, the author is a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board, though did not play any role in conducting or reporting this study.
There was only one communication this Monday evening, the Historic Preservation Impact Study Report which had been requested by the City Council several years prior. This study provides a detailed analysis of the Historic Districts in Portland, and how they relate to such topics as density, racial equity, occupancy tenure, and housing costs.
“This is a resounding finding,” stated Christine Grimando, Director of Planning & Urban Development, regarding the fact that “No evidence that Historic District designations impact displacement, home prices, household income, household tenure, and overall demographic composition.” Her team had been prepared for “uncomfortable” results, but was evidently satisfied with the report’s conclusions, which also found that historic districts are significantly denser than the rest of Portland, even the peninsula, and enjoy related sustainability benefits.
Councilor Zarro, who had been “waiting for this report for three years,” asked Director Grimando for more details on the effect on housing prices in Historic Districts, to which she replied that while certain parts of the city command a relative premium, it seemed to not correlate with historic designation within these broader geographical trends. As an example, she explained that a mid-19th century single-family home in a historic district, and a mid-19th century single-family home outside a historic district, would fetch similar prices.
Zarro went on to ask about the density benefits, and whether this was due to many historic buildings having been construct prior to the implementation of zoning in the mid-20th century. The Director affirmed his suspicion, that pre-zoning buildings were often much denser than could be built today, but also noted that plenty of new dense housing also existed in these districts. Asking about whether historic preservation can interfere with climate goals, such as installing energy-efficient new appliances like heat pumps, Grimando responded to the councilor that while it could occasionally present some friction, that she didn’t feel it was a major issue, and would be happy to look into establishing further exemptions.
No other councilors had any input on the report.
The first of two major topics to be addressed by the council came up next, which was Resolution 2 from the Health, Human Services and Public Safety Committee to “deprioritize” the enforcement of laws against “psychedelic plants and fungi” for personal use. The Committee, consisting of Councilors Trevorrow, Pelletier, and Fournier as Chair, had voted 3-0 to approve this resolution, which would formally state the City Council’s preference to put as low a priority as reasonably possible for law enforcement to arrest anyone for the use of these drugs, such as Psilocybin mushrooms. Introducing the measure, Councilor Fournier stressed that “One of the things I’ve learned from my ancestors and from our tribal knowledge are different ways that plants are able to help me naturally manage what works for me.” There was a strong emphasis on personal choice.
Many public commenters stepped up to support the measure, including a number of representatives from Decriminalize Maine, a nonprofit dedicated to psychedelic decriminalization. The organization’s members shared the ways in which these plants and fungi can be used for life-saving medical intervention, but specifically and emphatically opposed any notion of “medicinal” legalization only, as they felt this would deprive lower-income people from obtaining the appropriate medical approval. Instead they preferred a regime in which mushrooms could be freely grown, harvested, and shared between individuals.
Selma Holden, a physician therapist who operates a Ketamine clinic, also offered her support, as did multiple decriminalization activists from Boston. Yeshua Adonai, an ordained Sacred Mushroom Church minister and member of Psychedelics for Maine Veterans, also shared how this “sacrament” had helped him recover from the trauma of serving.
Moving into council deliberations, Councilor Dion almost immediately raised the concern of this resolution causing more confusion, and possibly danger, to users than help. Since this resolution was merely a statement of Council preference, and not any sort of actual decriminalization ordinance, he feared that people would misinterpret the resolution and assume that mushrooms and other psychedelics had become simply “legal” in Portland, when this would not be the case. Going on, he also stressed that the police should maintain a relatively high freedom of discretion in handling encounters with drug users, and asserted that the proper venue for a discussion of decriminalization and/or legalization of psychedelics belonged at the state-level, not the municipality.
Echoing some of the same concerns, Councilor Zarro asked city staff how this resolution would affect day-to-day operations of the police and other city staff. An assistant corporation counsel responded that, as this is merely an “advisory opinion” for the community as a whole, the City Manager and Police Chief would retain the freedom of decision as to whether to make any changes to their departments, no particular action would be required. Asked if any other Maine municipality had done anything similar, she answered ‘no.’
Councilor Zarro also asked whether this would result in any greater liability for the city, to which counsel again responded in the (probable) negative, since – stressing again – this would be merely an advisory opinion. Dion stepped in to flesh out Zarro’s thoughts, posing the hypothetical: “Next week a Portland Police Officer makes a decision to arrest someone for possession of a Schedule X drug, what consequence does that arrest [have], as it flows from this resolution?” He asked whether the officer, the police, or the city would be liable. She again stated that, to her understanding, no such liability would exist.
Mayor Snyder picked up the point, asking what impact this would have on the City Manager’s directions. Again, she was assured that this did not constitute any particular order binding on the Manager or any other staff member. Councilor Phillips asked whether or not any state-level initiative was taking place to realize the decriminalization of psychedelics, to which state representative Grayson Lookner (in chambers to speak on a different matter) stepped up to answer that yes, a bill was being considered, but that its passage and time frame were still in question. Phillips went on to agree with Councilor Dion that this would cause more confusion than acceptable, and would prefer if the issue was hashed out in Augusta.
Councilor Ali, trying to act on that suggestion and bring everyone to the table, asked about whether they could pivot towards the city’s state delegation, and use this resolution to advocate for decriminalization in Augusta, to which Mayor Snyder assented.
At this point, Police Chief Dubois stepped forward to offer his two cents. “It, in all honesty, seems like a non-issue to me, because I asked pretty much everybody I could in the police department and nobody could recall arresting anybody for any of these things that we’re talking about.” He stated that occasionally it would appear alongside other drugs following arrests, but that the PPD doesn’t emphasize any drugs, or even drug use in general, in their enforcement. Rather, they operate on an encounter-based model, focusing on the particular incidents in all their uniqueness. He also noted that the last time there was a “situation” with a significant amount of mushrooms, it was a suicide case over 40 years ago.
Councilor Ali also confirmed that this wouldn’t affect dealing large quantities of psychedelics, and received confirmation that this would be aimed at personal use only. Councilor Rodriguez, seemingly somewhat dismayed at the conclusion the council had apparently reached, contested the idea that this resolution would have no impact on the city’s operation. He reminded his colleagues that these resolutions represent the official preferences of the City Council, and that the City Manager is expected to govern in correspondence with these preferences. If she were to “completely disregard” these preferences, then this would reflect poorly on her management and possibly jeopardize her continued employment as manager.
Councilor Pelletier said that the committee had been considering this for over a year, and that other cities had enacted similar resolutions. Viewing the issue through the lens of racial equity, she considered this measure essential to harm reduction. Dion replied that while he didn’t disagree with the priority of harm reduction, he would prefer to obtain “concrete, tangible” results, and that means engaging with the issue in Augusta. He suggested passing instead a public health resolution aimed at influencing state legislators, but could not support the public safety measure in front of him.
Dion at this point also noted that several of the individuals who had offered public comment in support of the resolution were not residents of Portland, and from his interactions with Portland residents, he did not feel that this was a high priority for them. Councilor Trevorrow retorted that while imperfect, a resolution like this was the only policy vehicle available to them, and so if the Council wanted to make its opinion felt, this was the way.
Mayor Snyder also indicated that she would not support the resolution, and shared that she was primarily concerned by the city’s relationship as an employer with the City Manager and Police Chief. She agreed with Councilor Rodriguez that these resolutions can impact the Manager’s continued employment with the city, and as such felt this was an unfairly ambiguous burden to place. Some discussion from Councilors Ali and Fournier followed about attempting to create resources to avoid the confusion that Dion and Zarro were concerned about, but Manager West and Corporation Counsel informed them that it would be unlikely any city staff members could spend time creating these resources. Zarro proposed again refocusing the city’s efforts on supporting state-level changes, but Councilors Fournier and Trevorrow rejected this idea, as the state’s efforts were both different from the city’s nuanced approach and unlikely to succeed in the near future.
Discussion exhausted, the matter moved to a vote. The resolution passed, with Councilors Trevorrow, Fournier, Pelletier, Rodriguez, Phillips, and Ali voted in favor, while Councilors Dion and Zarro and Mayor Snyder voted against.
The vote was held by a raising of hands, instead of the roll call that the council had been used to. Mayor Snyder noted that this is how most votes are held in a traditional, non-hybrid, in-person meeting. She went on to explain that while such in-person meetings would be the new norm for City Council meetings, they retained the ability to designate meetings as hybrid in-person/Zoom meetings if, for example, a councilor could only attend remotely. This was clearly in response to the growing number of Zoom trolls, and Snyder clarified that banning Zoom comments, (as the Townsman had recommended,) meant also requiring full in-person participation by all parties.
Moving onto other orders, a number of uncontroversial matters were addressed. Orders 32 and 33, authorizing loans for school renovation, were postponed to comply with notice requirements. Order 34, accepting and appropriating a $10,000 donation towards the Congress Square redesign, passed unanimously with only a brief public comment from write-in mayoral candidate George Rheault criticizing the lack of information in the agenda packet regarding the state of this project. Manager West assured him that all the relevant information had been included in previous meetings’ backup materials. Order 35, similarly accepting and appropriating grants for historic preservation projects, passed unanimously and without comment.
Order 38 concerned entering into an agreement with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to retain a CDC Public Health Associate for a two-year period between November 2023 and November 2025. This Associate will assist with carrying out initiatives related to disease prevention and public health. Other than a public comment from a woman in the audience who mistakenly believed that this position would be open for applications, (in fact the CDC will be selecting the associate,) the order passed unanimously and without comment.
Order 39 approved the commitment of $2.8mm towards the effort, jointly with the Maine Department of Transportation, GPCOG, and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS), to redesign and renovate an area of streets in the Libbytown neighborhood. Even the critical George Rheault approved of the project in a public comment, though wondered what would happen to the parcel of land – once the home of a Denny’s restaurant – which had been acquired by the state as a part of this deal; Rheault thought that it would make a good housing opportunity. Director of Public Works Mike Murray clarified for him that the MDOT acquisition of the Denny’s parcel was actually a separate matter, though in the same area, and that the city had not heard from the state what they intend to do with it yet. The order passed unanimously as an emergency.
Orders 40 and 41 were companion orders, the latter of which requires two readings, so the former was postponed that they may be passed together at the next Council meeting. Orders 42, 43, 44, and 45, concerning parking, parking, marijuana delivery, and the Land Bank respectively, were also teed up to be addressed at the next council meeting.
State of Emergency
This left only one item on the agenda, Order 37 – Declaring a State of Limited Emergency at 654 Riverside Street. This order would allow for a number of regulations in place at the Homeless Services Center, a large emergency shelter on Riverside Street, to be suspended, allowing for the capacity of the shelter to increase by 50 beds. This increase in capacity was motivated by an overwhelming demand to address the homelessness crisis in Portland in the face of a consistently full shelter. Prior to entering a private executive session, the floor was opened to in-person public comment.
The perspectives were highly varied. Jim Devine, a regular commenter on homelessness issues at the council, seemed more than anything confused by the state of emergency, while another commenter sympathetic to the homeless in Portland claimed that it was being enacted as a pretext for maliciously clearing encampments.
Representative Lookner, who spoke earlier as well, recognized the city’s impossible situation and apologized for the state government’s lack of involvement. Nevertheless, he went on to oppose the plan of increasing capacity, calling the process of placing homeless individuals at the shelter “warehousing.” He instead recommend converting part of the Barron Center, a long-term care facility for the elderly, and building public housing. A representative from MaineHealth, against Luckner’s comments, supported the measure and strongly opposed any talk of converting part of the Barron Center.
Greg Gould, a Riverton resident, also opposed the measure, but for very different reasons. He explicated that his neighborhood had been promised by city officials and nonprofits that the shelter would be implemented as it is, and no greater, and that if capacity was significantly increased it would show the duplicitousness of shelter advocates. He went so far as to say that if the capacity of shelters could be arbitrarily increased like this, against what neighbors had been promised, that total anti-shelter activists in other Maine towns would be utterly vindicated in opposing the thin end of the wedge.
Bob Avery, representing the Preble Street nonprofit, tentatively supported the measure, so long as all beds were prioritized for those who were currently unsheltered, and the city put a stop to all encampment sweeps. Lisa Franklin, a former homeless woman herself, agreed with these points. A representative of the Maine ACLU, on the other hand, opposed the measure, saying that the increased capacity would overcrowd the shelter, that barriers to enter the shelter remained too high despite staff efforts, and that all sweeps must be stopped.
Wes Pelletier of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) echoed the ACLU speaker, calling the Homeless Services Center a “jail” and a “prison,” while accusing City Manager West of looking for excuses to “raid” encampments. He suggested implementing new taxes and fees to fund public housing construction. Against this, John Rogers, a business owner on Marginal Way, supported the measure and claimed that the encampment posed a critical threat to businesses, business owners, and their employees in the area.
George Rheault connected this matter to the Historic Preservation report presented earlier, and claimed that HP processes had prevented shelters and traditional housing from being built in more desirable places for the homeless. He accused the Council of failing to fight for housing, causing the mess the city was now in, and lamented the unmourned deaths of homeless people in Portland, including one unhoused man who was found dead just outside Rheault’s window in East Bayside.
Eamonn Dundon, from the Chamber of Commerce, disclaimed the “false choice” that other commenters were offering the council, and reminded them that enacting this state of emergency to increase shelter capacity did not prevent them from also working on any of these other measures. He also noted that since the Marginal Way encampment was on a state-owned Park and Ride lot, that the state government would eventually clear the encampment regardless of what they chose. He also noted that he opposed converting any part of the Barron center.
With no more public comments, the councilors left the chambers at 8:25 for a private executive session to discuss the issues away from the public eye, and did not return until 9:25, by which time much of the room had cleared.
Upon their return, the City Councilors began to give their opinions on the state of emergency proposal. Mayor Snyder took the lead, emphasizing the necessity of this interim measure. “Is it gonna solve all of our problems? Nope.” She was concerned about winter, that soon the weather will be “bitterly cold,” and that more capacity at the shelter was needed for purely humanitarian reasons. Snyder lamented the fact that due to the very large influx of asylum seekers, the shelter has been filled to capacity ever since the first night of its opening, and repeated that regional, state, and national cooperation would be necessary for a long-term solution.
Councilor Fournier essentially agreed, saying that while the measure isn’t perfect, the council needed to explore every avenue for expanding capacity. Pelletier, however, disagreed. “If we increase the shelter from 208 beds to 258 beds I just don’t see how that’s a long-term solution to amending our unhoused crisis or making our unhoused community feel like we are with them.” She also decried the lack of racial equity in these proceedings, and that “We are still criminalizing homelessness when we sweep encampments… There’s so much more we need to talk about.”
Trevorrow shared her inner conflict on the matter, and suggested postponing it. Councilor Rodriguez indicated his support, and considered the immediate issue of capacity to be a separate one from the other questions around barriers and long-term solutions. Councilor Ali, similarly, reminded chambers that “we’re in a crisis,” and would support the measure right now, while other solutions were discussed.
Councilor Zarro thanked city staff for their effort, but said that he would oppose the measure due to the inequitable treatment of the residents in District 5. He insisted that the city and its partners must stop deceiving neighborhoods about expanding shelter capacity, saying each time is “the last time,” when it’s clearly not true. Councilor Dion agreed, but with less inner turmoil. “It’s not difficult. It’s a principle. I gave my word, the council implied its word.” He considered voting ‘yes’ to be a betrayal to his district.
Councilor Phillips agreed with it being unfair towards District 5, but also agonized over the approaching winter, and wondered whether anyone in the encampments would even want to move into the shelter. Mayor Snyder told the council that “The easy option is to not do this.” She said that Portland doesn’t have to step forward, the city was always asking for others to step forward, and that maybe it was time for Portland to not step forward and do nothing. But she would vote for the measure to step up. Zarro strongly disagreed with the implication that voting ‘no’ would mean that Portland was doing “nothing.”
Exhausted, the Councilors moved to a vote. Councilors Fournier, Rodriguez, and Ali, as well as Mayor Snyder, all easily voted ‘yes,’ while Councilors Dion, Zarro, Trevorrow, and Pelletier confidently voted ‘no.’ This left, yet again, a tormented Councilor Phillips as the deciding vote. When her name was called in a roll call vote, she was silent for a long time, and put her head in her hands. She eventually voted ‘no,’ causing the order to fail and preventing the shelter capacity from increasing.
To dispose of the matter, the Council needed to vote to indefinitely postpone the order. Councilors Rodriguez, Ali, and Trevorrow, as well as Mayor Snyder, voted against this, while the remainder voted in favor. The City Manager, suppressing bitterness, informed the Council that now they would be barred by the City Council Rules from reconsidering any method of increasing shelter capacity for the remainder of the year.
With this, the council moved towards an adjournment at 10:02 PM.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer, local small business-owner, and Maine native. 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.