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Three Absent Councilors Cause Snow Plowing Delay, Rent Board Report, and Rats – City Council Review 1/17/2024

Meeting on a Wednesday due to scheduling concerns, this meeting featured only five of the eight City Councilors, with Councilors Fournier, Trevorrow, and Pelletier absent. The lightweight agenda betokened a brief meeting, but the missing councilors would prove to be crucial for at least one matter before the body. But first, the night started (as usual) with a general public comment period for all things not otherwise scheduled.

General Public Comment

Bob Mittel was the first to speak. He thanked the Mayor, the City Manager, and the rest of the council for “doing what needed to be done to clear the encampment” in Harborview Park, across the street from Mr. Mittel’s home. The encampment had been resolved days earlier. He went on to discuss the infestation of rats which had afflicted his neighborhood, but reported that once the encampment dissipated, the rats did too.

Elise Smorczewski, a volunteer naturalist, spoke next, requesting that the city cease use of a particular poison, Bromadiolone. She, too, brought up the colony of rats which lived in Harborview Park, but stated that these were in fact domestic rats (not wild rats) which ought to be rescued and spared poisoning. She explained the way in which the poison works to kill rats, and shared that local cats and dogs could be at risk if the chemical continues to be used. She urged that the city change tack to help save as many of the rats as possible. The rescue operation has been ongoing over the past week. Philip Tebow, Olivia Wilcox-Aimes, and Alec Adams also later spoke to a similar point.

Next Tamara Gallagher, a childcare business owner, rose to discuss the hazard pay provision which had been in place in Portland. Under a municipal ordinance dating to the coronavirus pandemic, when the city is in a state of emergency, (which can be declared by either the city or the state,) the minimum wage for workers rises to $22.50 an hour. Governor Mills had declared a state of emergency across Maine in response to the storm damage and flooding, and Ms. Gallagher shared that the labor costs were weighing too heavily for her to keep her doors open; she’s already had to close her doors to children in previous days.

She further textured this point by explaining that for childcare businesses, like hers, which accept state subsidy to help needy families, she’s restricted from raising prices to respond to higher labor costs, (but she clarified “even if I could charge parents more, I wouldn’t.”) She tried to convey the seriousness of the threat to her business, “I don’t want to close, and I don’t want to close for good, but we can’t afford paying $22.50 an hour to everyone.”

With no further public comment, Mayor Dion called the period to a close and moved into announcements.

Announcements, Appointments, and Proclamations

Councilor Phillips offered an announcement, sharing with the chamber that Jim Devine, a well-known advocate for the homeless who is a regular feature of City Council meetings, is in the hospital recovering from being hit by a car. Phillips shared some information about Mr. Devine, including his rock-solid bona fides as a Portland native, his huge network of friends and family in the city, and his tireless activism for the benefit of homeless people. She asked the council to extend their well wishes to Jim and his family, to which Mayor Dion warmly agreed, asking Manager West to look into sending him a personal message.

Rat Concerns

After this, Councilor Rodriguez asked the City Manager how the Council could best respond to the situation with the Harborview rats. Manager West explained that humane traps are already being deployed by volunteers with staff assistance, and that non-poison methods of handling the rat population are being coordinated for deployment in the next several days. Rodriguez asked whether the rats being recognized as “mostly wild” or “mostly domestic” would have any impact on how the pest control contractor is responding to the infestation, to which West gave a “probably not.”

Councilor Sykes picked up the baton, asking whether – if the rats are indeed domestic rats released as the encampment was being cleared – the police would investigate this odd occurrence. She wondered aloud if “a large number of rats purchased from a pet store, perhaps,” had been the culprit. West doubted the police would become involved, but said she’d review with staff. Rodriguez’ and Sykes’ questions would be responded to more fully with a staff memo prepared for the next meeting.

New City Attorney

With the rat questions resolved, (for now,) Corporation Counsel Michael Goldman introduced Avery Dandreta as a prospective new Associate Corporation Counsel, with a salary of $114,266. Goldman stressed Ms. Dandreta’s experience, energy, and deep knowledge with property and transactional law. The councilors approved this appointment swiftly and unanimously.

An Awkward Proclamation

Mayor Dion then asked Councilor Pious Ali to read a proclamation recognizing Black History Month 2024. Councilor Ali said he wasn’t expecting to read that proclamation, to which Dion remarked “I wouldn’t imagine anyone else reading that this evening,” perhaps a reference to Ali’s African ethnicity. After briefly trying to deflect responsibility onto Councilor Phillips, a woman of color herself, (“Nice try,” parried Ms. Phillips,) Ali did finally read the announcement declaring February 2024 as Black History Month.


Two licenses were up for consideration that evening, first for Ocotillo, a Class I Food Service Establishment at 211 Danforth Street. Previously the Danforth, this new application was approved unanimously. Councilor Rodriguez only commented to prompt the owners of the business to correct the pronunciation of the name, Ocotillo – “oh-koh-tee-yo.”

The other application for the evening was also for a new Class I FSE, Mr. Tuna at 83 Middle Street. This license, which also includes outdoor dining on public property, passed unanimously.


Just one communication was on the agenda for the evening, the annual report from the Rent Board. Originally scheduled to be presented by Elliott Simpson, the Chair of the Rent Board, he was substituted by Philip Mathieu, Vice-Chair.  The Rent Board is the body established by Portland’s 2020 Rent Control Ordinance charged with the adjudication of disputes, exemptions, and violations relating to Portland’s rent control system. As of today, three seats of the seven-seat board sit vacant. The full report, which can be found here, he explained as being very detailed, but he offered a few high-level points, particularly relating to the large number of ‘outlier’ units in the data which were excluded from the main analysis for a variety of reasons.

Mathieu, however, also spent time responding to the oft-asked question of whether Portland’s rent control system is “working” or not. “I want to just remind members of the council, and members of the public, that that’s not really what the Rent Board is asked to do.” The report is focused solely on summarizing the information which the board has access to, and reaches no conclusions about broader policy achievement. “I would hesitate to draw any big-picture conclusions.”

Councilor Sykes complimented the thorough nature of the report, and noted that the board contains “a literal rocket scientist” as a member. She went on to ask about Appendix B of the report, which concerned potential non-compliance. The appendix stated that 451 covered units reported a current rent price of $0, plus twenty more which didn’t report a rent price at all. Mathieu explained the various ways in which they determined these 471 units were “covered,” (as opposed to exempt,) and how these are plausibly in violation of the rent control ordinance. Sykes worked through some procedural foibles to refer this question of non-compliant units to the Housing and Economic Development Committee.

Concluding this presentation, the Mayor moved onto Unfinished Business.

Unfinished Business

First on the list of orders swiftly dispatched by the council this evening was Order 94, accepting and appropriating a $3,533.70 grant from the Maine Bureau of Public Safety for Drug Recognition Expert Training. This passed unanimously without comment or discussion.

Next was Order 95, approving a one-year extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Portland Police Benevolent Association. As the city’s HR Director, Anne Torregrossa, explained, the Portland Police have two separate labor unions – one for superior officers, and one for the rank-and-file. This order concerned the contract with the latter, the common officers of the PPD. This one-year extension, Torregrossa elaborated, would ensure that Portland’s police remain secure while a more permanent, competitive, and long-term contract was negotiated over the coming months. The deal passed unanimously.


Moving into new business, Order 101 came next, concerning the agreement between Portland and the Maine Department of Transportation to improve Stevens Avenue. These improvements include smoothing the pavement surfaces, broadening sidewalk accessibility, adding ADA-compliant ramps for wheelchair-bound travelers, and the improvement of intersection safety. The cost of the project is split, with the city paying for 18.6% of the total costs; the city had already appropriated the necessary $114,598.50, and the council this evening was voting only to approve work starting in the summer. This passed unanimously without further comment.

Next, Order 102 proposed the city accepting “Morningstar Lane” as a new city street. This road had been built to the city’s specifications by a private developer as part of their subdivision project, and who was now prepared to transfer it over to the city. The city pays nothing for this gain of a road, but does become responsible for its maintenance.

Barbara Query, stepped forward to offer a public comment, lamenting the long ten years of inadequate care and maintenance which she had suffered as a resident of this until-now private street. She clarified that it was not the fault of the City Council, and she deeply and emphatically thanked Tim Flaherty and his partners in city staff for making this order come to pass. She urged the council to pass this as an emergency to enable public snow removal immediately, ahead of the coming storms. Other residents of the street were present in the audience, but did not offer any comments themselves.

Unfortunately, Corporation Counsel clarified that emergency measures require a seven-vote majority… and only six City Councilors were present that evening. Because Councilors Pelletier, Trevorrow, and Fournier were absent, making this order effective immediately was impossible. Without this emergency, the road would only become Portland’s after ten days.

Councilor Rodriguez asked Goldman whether it was possible for a majority of the council to simply waive the rule; “That’s an interesting question,” began Corporation Counsel, and he (with Manager West) began researching the idea then and there. While Rodriguez commiserated with the residents present over their complaints, Corporation Counsel finally declared that there was simply no way around the problem. Mayor Dion expressed disappointment with having so many councilors absent. The order passed unanimously, but not as an emergency.

The remainder of the night’s orders were first-reads, which will be voted on during the next meeting. These consisted of the acceptance and appropriation of two donations and two grants, for tree plantings, youth groups, footbridge construction, and Portland’s Special Response Team.

The brief meeting was adjourned at 6:09 p.m.

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


  1. MDE MDE

    Somehow I’m not grasping the importance – or even the significance – of having “a literal rocket scientist” on the Rent Board …

  2. So acquiring a new road was effectively ten days instead of becoming immediately City property? Am I missing why this is a Big Deal? Serious why so? Focus on the bigger and more important issue of why that block of councillors was absent from the Council meeting that night.,

    • This blog would never focus. It throws a lot of information on the wall, to the point the reader is confused. But in the end this blog is out to promote one thing, “build more housing”. This isn’t a new site, its just a blog for YIMBY activists.

  3. Chip Martin Chip Martin

    I agree with Cat. Why was that block of councilors absent? Can we get a comment from them?

  4. Joe Joe

    Mittel. His name is Bob Mittel.
    (Thanks for the excellent work, as always!)

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