Critics: Portland council makes 'end run' on park sales

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PORTLAND — City parks and squares gained additional protection Monday when city councilors enacted ordinance revisions governing potential sales, while strengthening the role of the Parks Commission.

But passage came with a possible loss of trust from some residents.

By a 7-2 vote, with Councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall opposed, the council approved revisions to Chapter 18 of the City Code governing parks, recreation and public buildings and grounds. The changes will become effective May 28, about two weeks before a June 10 referendum on a citizen initiative created with the same goals in mind.

The revisions protect more than 50 parcels of public land by requiring a Parks Commission recommendation and affirmative votes from seven councilors – two more than a simple majority – to approve their sale, and by requiring the commission to write annual reports on the conditions of city parks.

“It is too little too late. I think voters will recognize this as an end run around the citizen’s initiative,” said Rob Levine, author of the referendum question.

The citizen initiative would amend the city land bank ordinance by adding 35 properties to the land bank and requiring either eight councilors to approve sales, or a public referendum if at least six councilors approve.

Public lands on the Eastern and Western promenades, Deering Oaks Park and Mayor Baxter Woods are already protected by deeds from sales or development beyond existing definitions.

A key difference in the ordinances, besides which commission would oversee the public lands in question, is the inclusion of all of Congress Square Park in the citizen initiative; the council action protects just the remainder of the square not sold to developers RockBridge Capital for expansion of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Working with Friends of Congress Square Park and its political action arm, Protect Portland Parks, Levine wrote the referendum question the city contested earlier this month in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The high court has not ruled on the city’s appeal of a Cumberland County Superior Court decision that upheld the citizen initiative. City attorneys argued the measure violates the City Charter by identifying specific properties, an administrative process it argues should be left to the City Council.

Levine and Frank Turek of Friends of Congress Square Park praised the intent of the council action, while questioning the council’s motives.

“Either this is the epitome of hypocritical, or you are up to something you are not telling the public,” Turek said. “You can be sure this council is acting on politics, not policy.”

Donoghue and Marshall opposed the parks ordinance revisions because they prefer the referendum vote occur first. Donoghue’s motion to postpone the vote on the council ordinance to June 16 failed 7-2; only Marshall joined him in support.

Turek and Levine were not alone in questioning the councilors motives.

“(The) process has been abysmal,” High Street resident Steven Scharf said, adding that he believes the council’s ordinance changes are unnecessary.

Councilors were also criticized for a lack of public input in drafting the ordinance, because workshops excluded public comment. Levine noted that emails were sent last summer to city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta, seeking her input on crafting the citizen initiative.

The lack of transparency was not a charge Mayor Michael Brennan and Councilors Ed Suslovic and Jill Duson took lightly.

“I find it difficult to sit through strange accusations as to purpose,” Duson said. “I happen to disagree with the position of Friends of Congress Square, but I don’t ascribe any personally nefarious motive to their position.”

Suslovic noted the infrequency of public land sales like the $542,000 sale of most of Congress Square Park to allow construction of a hotel events room. The sale was approved by a 6-3 council vote last September.

If the citizen’s initiative is approved, the Congress Square sale will then be subject to a referendum vote. Passage would also cement the land bank amendments for five years before any changes could be made by councilors.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.