PORTLAND, Maine — An unexpected game of brinksmanship broke out Monday night between Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and stakeholders seeking to build a new home for state labor and human services offices in South Portland.
The decision last fall by the state Bureau of General Services to move its local offices for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services from a pair of buildings in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood to a South Portland lot off Jetport Drive was met with vocal protest by Brennan and other Portland area officials.
But Brennan in a fiery speech couldn’t convince the majority of the City Council to pull out one of its last chances to obstruct the move Monday night. The mayor urged the council to postpone a vote on a series of easements — which may under other circumstances have been a routine vote — until the panel’s March 17 meeting.
The easements would allow the extension of a driveway, gas lines, sewer, cable and other utilities across Portland city property to a lot currently owned by Brooklawn Memorial Park in South Portland.
By postponing the Portland easement approvals by two weeks, the city would push developer Eric Cianchette past a March 15 deadline on some of his state permits for the South Portland project.
However, despite Brennan’s efforts, the council was swayed by the developers’ representatives and the city’s own legal department, which pointed to a 1997 agreement with Brooklawn granting the cemetery — or any of its successors — access to the lot if a development opportunity arose.
“We’re obviously aware that some people aren’t happy with what the state offices decided to do,” said David Perkins, an attorney representing the development group. “But we would like to narrow this issue down to this contract. These easements are required to meet the terms of the 1997 agreement. We’re here tonight to ask that the agreement be complied with.”
Cianchette’s ELC Management was awarded a 30-year deal from the state bureau to house local offices for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services in a new 75,000-square-foot building near the Portland International Jetport just over the border in South Portland.
Echoing protests against the move made when the state announced it last fall, Brennan and several members of the public on Monday night used the easements discussion as a fresh opportunity to blast the office move, which they said would put the facilities out of convenient range of many homeless people living in Portland’s downtown.
“Moving the DHHS offices to South Portland would have devastating impacts on the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Jim Devine, an advocate with the group Homeless Voices for Justice. “When I talk with other people who need help getting back on their feet, I can walk with them down to the DHHS office in Bayside. … What takes just more than an hour today would take more than three hours at the new place, as well as $3 in bus fares.”
Thomas Ptacek, an outreach coordinator with the homeless service organization Preble Street, told the council, “We cannot afford to create more barriers to those who are struggling just to survive.
“A less accessible DHHS will mean less people able to transition to stable lives, and more people turning to our shelters and soup kitchens,” he added.
State Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, who opposed the move, said that, “While it sounds nasty, I would hope that you would do everything you possibly can to obstruct the development of this project.”
But while the developers’ representatives said they sympathized with the concerns expressed by Brennan and other homeless advocates, they said the issue boiled down to one of a legally binding 1997 agreement.
“We have clear right to access the property, and to deny it would be a chilling message to the development community,” said Joe Malone, a real estate broker working with Cianchette. “I understand being upset about the DHHS moving, but to act in this manner is arbitrary at best. … The idea that you’d stall the vote to kill the deal is really a chilling thing for the business community to hear.”
Said Ken Cianchette, the developer’s brother and head of the subsidiary Jetport State Building LLC: “A delay would only bring a lawsuit against the city of Portland, which we don’t want to do.”
Members of the City Council who spoke on the issue said they opposed the office move, but said they couldn’t justify breaking a legal agreement in a clear move to block it.
The council voted 8-1, with Brennan dissenting, on each of six easements granting access to the lots.
“I’m going to vote for the easements, but I don’t think this is the best location and I don’t think it was the best process that got us here,” said councilor David Marshall.
The decision to move to South Portland has been challenged in a lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court by Tom Toye, the owner of the Bayside buildings where the offices are currently located, and which came in fourth in the most recent state bidding process to keep the leases moving forward.
In his complaint, Toye called the state’s bid scoring “arbitrary and capricious.”
When the move was announced last November, Maine Bureau of General Services spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said the consolidation would better serve Cumberland County and allow DHHS clients better access to job training and other resources at the Department of Labor.
In November, it was estimated the Portland DHHS office served almost 61,000 clients, with 36 percent of them Portland residents. The Jetport site is currently served by one Portland Metro bus line and none from South Portland.
Without backing from the council to delay votes on the easements, Brennan pledged to ask Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to reconsider the move, and urged the developers in attendance to withdraw their project from consideration.
The Forecaster’s David Harry contributed to this report.