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Portland parks oversight at stake in June 10 referendum

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Portland parks oversight at stake in June 10 referendum

PORTLAND — On June 10, after more than nine months of court fights, petition drives and City Council maneuvering, voters will determine how city parks, squares and open spaces are managed.

Question 1, a citizen's initiative, would add 35 city-owned properties to the land bank established in 1999. Included in the list is the entirety, about 14,000 square feet, of Congress Square Park, the downtown plaza at the corner of Congress and High streets.

The referendum would also require eight councilors to approve any sale of a land bank parcel; approval by six councilors would be sufficient to trigger a referendum vote.

“The fundamental part is that it will give us the ability to vote on whether a park will be sold or not," proponent Frank Turek said.

Turek, a member of the Friends of Congress Square Park, has been at the forefront of opposition to the city sale of 9,500 square feet of the park to the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel for an event center. The $524,000 sale was approved by a 6-3 City Council vote last September.

Protect Portland Parks, the political action committee formed by the Friends, wrote the referendum question and has raised almost $2,500 to support its passage. As of May 19, the committee had spent almost $2,000, according to spending reports filed at City Hall.

The citizen's initiative is retroactive to Sept. 6, 2013. If it passes, the Congress Square Park sale would be put to a popular vote, and the changes it makes cannot be amended by councilors for five years.

Opposition to the citizen's initiative has coalesced into a political action committee called Forward Portland. A news release from group spokesman Ian Grady said members include Mayor Michael Brennan, former Mayor James Cohen, Councilors Ed Suslovic and Jon Hinck, former Councilor Nathan Smith, former City Manager Joseph Gray, State Theatre and Port City Music Hall General Manager Lauren Wayne, and others.

Grady on Tuesday said the committee's spending reports will be filed by Friday.

Forward Portland members cite a study by city-based Planning Decisions showing the hotel event center could generate an additional $11 million in sales for area businesses, create "the equivalent" of 120 full-time jobs with pay and benefits adding up to $3.8 million, and add more than $400,000 in tax and fee revenue for the state and city.

Suslovic and Smith have also argued the citizen initiative is unnecessary because public parks and open spaces are infrequently sold,  even as the city continues to buy land for open spaces. And parks including Deering Oaks and the Eastern and Western promenades are already protected by specific deed restrictions outlining how they are to be used.

“I hope it will still be a rare thing," Turek responded, "but it brings to question why they are fighting it so hard."

City Hall opposition began with an opinion written by Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta that the petition usurped administrative prerogative of the City Council by placing the 35 properties in the land bank.

On Oct. 31, 2013, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled against the city, opening the way for the Friends to collect signatures on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2013. The group gathered more than 4,000 signatures, almost triple the 1,500 needed to put the question on the ballot.

While moving forward to schedule the June 10 referendum, the city appealed Wheeler's decision. The case was argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on April 9. On May 6, the high court ruled unanimously in favor of the Friends.

On April 28, City Councilors approved their own legislation for city parks and squares by amending Chapter 18 of the City Code to protect 50 parcels. The amendments, which take effect Wednesday, May 28, require the city Parks Commission to make a recommendation before a parcel can be sold, and the approval of seven councilors. The new ordinance includes the roughly 4,800 square feet of Congress Square Park unaffected by the sale to the Westin.

Absentee ballots are available at the City Clerk's office weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and can be cast at City Hall until 7 p.m. Thursday, June 5. All absentee ballots must be cast by 8 p.m. June 10.

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