PORTLAND, Maine — In the latest move in the ongoing dispute over Portland’s Congress Square Park, Portland city councilors are eyeing an ordinance change that would compete with one being proposed by petitioners seeking to block the sale of the publicly owned space to private hotel developers.
The council’s alternative ordinance — which would provide extra protections to many of the city’s public parks, but would effectively allow the Congress Square sale to go through — is meant in part to convince any fence-straddling Portland voters that the petitioners’ proposed ordinance change isn’t necessary.
But members of the citizens groups who circulated the petitions, Friends of Congress Square Park and Protect Portland Parks, defended their version of the ordinance language and criticized the council’s competing offer during a Monday night public hearing.
“I think it would be an unfortunate end-around to pass something between now and when the citizens’ initiative petition goes to the voters, and I think it would be skirting the democratic process as laid out,” said city resident Jim Millard. “It would not be worthy of the city of Portland or the City Council.”
Friends of Congress Square Park leader Frank Turek said, “A competing measure would be contentious and an effort to confuse the voters on the issue.”
The petitioners’ proposal, if passed, would change the Land Bank Commission ordinance to include Congress Square Park and 34 other city properties not currently protected. It would further require a citywide vote to approve the sale of any of the land bank properties — unless a supermajority of the City Council, or eight of the nine members, votes to sell.
While the council can vote to enact the petitioners’ ordinance change outright at next Monday night’s meeting, the panel is widely expected to instead place it on the June ballot for a citywide vote. The council must then decide whether it wants to put its alternate ordinance change on the ballot as well — giving voters multiple choices on the same card — or enact its competing ordinance ahead of time, then try to convince many residents that the petitioners’ ordinance isn’t necessary to vote for at the polls.
According to city councilor Jon Hinck, the council’s alternative aims to appeal to voters who may not be opposed to the Congress Square sale, but want additional protections in place for areas like Deering Oaks Park.
An early draft of the competing ordinance left a number of other public spaces — including Riverside Golf Course and Fort Gorges, in addition to Congress Square — off the protected parks list proposed by the petitioners.
The initial draft also allowed the council to sell the protected spaces with seven councilor votes, instead of the eight-vote council threshold included in the petitioners’ version, and does not include provisions forcing a citywide referendum on sale proposals that fall short of the supermajority council vote.
Mayor Michael Brennan told city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta during a Monday night workshop he wants to see the council’s version updated to be “as similar as possible” to the petitioners’ proposal.
“The proposed [council] draft, in my opinion, falls far short of really protecting [public spaces],” MacMillan said. “The sale of Congress Square Park would not be part of this, because you don’t consider it a park.
“Voters under your version don’t have a right to have a say over the sale of public parks,” he continued. “Portland has a democracy problem. People have packed City Hall over and over again, and their voices are not being heard. People are losing faith in the City Council. We fear that without a referendum on the controversial sales of public parks, they wouldn’t have a say in these issues.”
Nathan Smith, who has in the past represented the developers at meetings, helped establish the current land bank ordinance as a member of the City Council in the 1990s.
He argued that criticisms the current council is ignoring concerns about protecting public space are misdirected. Smith rattled off a number of properties the council has placed under conservation easements in recent years, including the 100-acre Peaks Island Land Preserve, 47-acre Presumpscot River Preserve, nearly 13-acre Bayside Trail and 12-acre Canco Woods.
The petitioners turned in more than 4,250 signatures to the city clerk’s office asking for the ordinance change, a number nearly three times the 1,500 names necessary to force the proposal’s outright adoption or a citywide vote.
Christopher O’Neil, representing the Portland Community Chamber, urged the council on Monday night to take a third pathway: Adopt the petitioners’ ordinance, “then improve it” in an effort to restore the Congress Square sale. He said the council’s deliberations, and ultimate decision, on the property sale were “both worthwhile and well-done.”
The petition drive itself, however, also remains under the cloud of a legal challenge.
The city of Portland only turned over petition papers after being ordered to do so by a Cumberland County Superior Court judge last fall, and is now appealing that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
In its appeal, which was filed last month, the city reiterated its arguments that the citizens petition process is reserved for legislative changes, but that affecting the disposition of city property improperly crosses the line into being an administrative or fiscal action.
Deciding on city appropriations — a term which Portland Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta argued could be used to apply to property as well as money — is “exclusively within the province of the City Council,” she wrote in the appeal.
In this case, the council voted 6-3 in September to sell nearly 9,500 square feet of the plaza for nearly $524,000 to Ohio-based private developers RockBridge Capital LLC. RockBridge helped finance the nearly $50 million renovation of the historic former Eastland Park Hotel nearby and hopes to use the additional Congress Square space for an event center.
If the petitioners’ ordinance change is ultimately approved at the polls, it would trigger a second citywide vote to retroactively vet the council’s September decision to sell most of Congress Square Park. If a public poll taken two weeks before the council’s vote was any indication, the sale would be in jeopardy of being overturned in that scenario.
Proponents of the sale, including the Portland Community Chamber, have argued that Congress Square is dangerously close to being a vacant space, and that with the sale, it will go from an underutilized section of pavement to a more vibrant commercial spot.
But opponents have said it’s the city’s responsibility to fix up the park, not just give up ownership.