June 19, 2018
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Judge temporarily blocks petition drive that opposes Portland’s Congress Square Park sale

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Congress Square Park in Portland.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Opponents of the proposed sale of the publicly owned Congress Square Park to private developers won’t be able to circulate petitions for their cause this weekend. A judge stepped in to block the effort Friday afternoon.

Members of Friends of Congress Square Park lamented not being able to gather signatures during the popular First Friday Art Walk or the Saturday morning farmers market, but they remain hopeful that the judge’s order will be lifted in time to take advantage of traffic Tuesday at the polls on Election Day, the group’s lawyer said Friday.

Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Humphrey ordered a temporary stay after an abruptly called hearing Friday afternoon in Portland, effectively putting on ice fellow Justice Joyce Wheeler’s ruling Thursday that the city was wrong to deny the Friends group petitioning rights.

The city of Portland asked for a stay pending its appeal of the ruling, which if granted, would allow the city to stall in giving the group petition paperwork at least until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decides on the case, a point in time almost certainly to come long after the prime signature-gathering election season concludes.

With Wheeler unavailable to hear the arguments over the stay motion Friday, Humphrey stepped in and, after deciding he didn’t have the background to make the call on a permanent basis, ordered a temporary stay until Wheeler is available to reconsider the motion on Monday.

In a news release issued late Friday afternoon, the city declined to comment on the case beyond announcing Humphrey’s temporary order. The city is represented by attorneys Danielle West-Chuhta and Jennifer Thompson.

In an email to reporters Friday, Friends of Congress Square Park attorney Rob Levin wrote that the group is “disappointed” not to be able to circulate the petitions during the weekend “but understands the unique circumstances that have led to this temporary delay.”

The two parties are due to appear before Wheeler at 8:30 a.m. Monday to argue their cases again, Levin said.

“Friends of Congress Square Park will continue to urge Justice Wheeler to deny the motion to stay and hopes to have the city clerk issue the initiative petitions on Monday, in time to gather signatures at the polls on Election Day,” he said.

On Sept. 16, the City Council voted 6-3 to sell about two-thirds of the park to RockBridge Capital LLC, which plans to add conference space to the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel. The sale price is just less than $524,000.

The proposed sale — the basic terms of which have been agreed to, but which have not been finalized — has been the subject of fierce debate.

Supporters, including the Portland Community Chamber, said the project would revitalize a long underused part of the city’s downtown.

Opponents, including the newly formed Friends group, said the deal sets a bad precedent of selling public space to private entities, and the park was only underused because the city let it fall into disrepair.

The case went to court after the Friends group was told in September by city officials that its petition drive would not be recognized. The Friends group filed a lawsuit against the city, challenging the municipality’s determination that sale opponents overreached in their proposed ordinance changes.

Friends of Congress Square Park sought to collect signatures to force a referendum vote on whether the city’s Land Bank Commission ordinance should be changed to include the embattled park and 34 other properties not currently covered by land bank protections. If passed by voters, the ordinance change would be retroactive to early September and effectively force a second citywide vote to ratify the council’s sale decision.

If a September poll by the national firm Public Policy Polling is to be believed, the sale would likely be rejected by voters if that second vote takes place. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they opposed the transaction, while 34 percent approved. Additionally, 56 percent of the people surveyed said the proposed sale price is “too low.”

But the city clerk and city attorneys argued the citizens’ petition process could only be used to force legislative actions — policy changes not tied to specific scenarios or applications of law — while the Friends’ proposal was administrative or affected city appropriations.

Wheeler ruled in favor of the Friends group Thursday, and city officials have said they would appeal that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

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