PORTLAND, Maine — Opponents of what’s proposed to be a four-tower, $150-million project in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood accused city officials of erasing, destroying or just not creating public records related to the development.
The city responded Friday in a statement saying it was never obligated to videotape planning board meetings, but it complied with the opponents’ requests for recordings as completely as possible, given an equipment malfunction that went unnoticed for several months.
The opposition group Keep Portland Livable, members of which filed a Superior Court lawsuit against the city for its approval of the first phase of the so-called Midtown project, said Thursday that the city has informed them there are no audio or visual recordings available for six of the 14 public meetings or hearings at which the development was discussed.
The group — which distributed to reporters an email from city planning staff explaining that public discussions of the project from late January 2013 through late March of that year were “inadvertently erased by the recording equipment” — added in its Thursday announcement that no meeting minutes were kept from the sessions either.
Recordings of an additional two hearings “cut out” during the beginning of the discussion of the Midtown project, Keep Portland Livable attorney Sandra Guay said. The group did not allege that recordings of the seven-hour Jan. 14 meeting at which the first phase of the development was finally approved were inadequate.
The group did go on to claim Thursday that opponents have only been supplied with notes taken by city staff from the events, in addition to agendas and other background materials developed in advance of the respective meetings.
“It brings to mind what happened during the Watergate scandal,” said Keep Portland Livable co-founder Tim Paradis in a statement. “When it came time for the court to determine the facts, a whole section of President Nixon’s voice recordings was mysteriously erased, supposedly by his secretary Rose Mary Woods.
“In the case of Portland’s Planning Board, we hope it’s just incompetence and not something else,” he continued. “But it speaks volumes to the ongoing disregard of the public voice and public interest by our city officials.”
Over more than a dozen workshops and meetings, opponents argued before the planning board and City Council that the project is too massive for a smaller-sized city like Portland, that the towers would cast shadows too large and create winds too uncomfortable in the burgeoning Bayside neighborhood.
But the development also received vocal support from others during the public proceedings — including from the Portland Community Chamber and a residents group that formed to back the project, Portlanders For Sustainability — who said it’s a significant upgrade to the former industrial scrapyards there now and represents an economic boon to the city.
On Friday, Portland Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian released a public response to the lawsuit and described complaints about inadequate record keeping as overblown.
She wrote that the city “is committed to compliance with the Freedom of Access Act and takes issues of open meeting law and public access seriously,” noting that the city developed a special Web page to provide public access to all the documentation associated with the Midtown project.
“Staff keeps a written record of each planning board meeting, and on the next meeting’s agenda, lists all actions taken, which the planning board then announces publicly,” she wrote, in part. “The appellant’s attorney has been provided all notes and the minutes from each of the meetings in question.
“Although not required to do so, the planning board also generally videotapes all meetings. However, unknown to staff or the planning board, there had been an issue with the videotaping machine in their meeting room,” Hill-Christian continued. “We discovered that in late 2013 and early 2014, not all the video recordings had been archived. There is a request in the city’s budget for a new recording machine to resolve this problem. However, it should be noted that the videotape was never viewed as a substitute for the written record of meetings, and again, the videotape is not specifically required under state law.”
Developers from The Federated Cos. of Florida have only received city approval for the first phase of the project — a 165-foot-tall, 235-unit apartment building with nearly 44,000 square feet on the lower floors designated for restaurants and shops, and a nearby parking garage that will be 75 feet high and include 700 spaces. Estimated costs for the first phase are between $45 million and $50 million.
By the time the proposed Midtown project is complete, after a decade’s worth of construction and projected $150-million investment, the complex would include four towers with 1.16 million square feet of building space, including 700,000 square feet of residential space, 100,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,100 garage parking spaces.
The development would occupy the stretch of Somerset Street between Elm Street and what will be an extension of Pearl Street, bisected by Chestnut Street. The largely undeveloped city-owned area was formerly industrial scrapyards.
Gary Vogel, an attorney representing the developers, told the BDN after the lawsuit was announced his clients “are committed to moving forward with” the project.
“They feel the planning board did a good and thorough job, and that the project met all their requirements,” he said at the time. “We will make that argument in Superior Court.”
Paradis’ group said Thursday it plans to use lack of records of the planning board proceedings as grounds to ask the court to either throw out the project’s approval or send it back to the city for reconsideration, “with instructions to create a clear record of its proceedings.”