Petition drive launches to block Portland plaza sale

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PORTLAND — Opponents of the pending sale of Congress Square Plaza were at the city’s election polls Tuesday morning, gathering voter signatures for a petition that could ultimately result in new protections for the plaza and 34 other public spaces.

The petition drive began after nearly being blocked by the city, and less than 24 hours after the city was legally forced to turn over necessary paperwork to the drive’s organizers, The Friends of Congress Square Park.

The petition is the first step in a citizens’ initiative to add the public spaces to those preserved under the city’s Land Bank Ordinance.

In September, the city refused to provide the petition forms, claiming the initiative attempt was invalid because it conflicted with state and city laws that give the City Council exclusive decision-making power in fiscal and administrative functions.

The Friends sued the city in response, setting up a courtroom battle late last week and on Monday, in which both sides landed blows.

On Oct. 31, Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled that the city erred by refusing to recognize the petition, and ordered the paperwork to be turned over.

In response, the city asked for a stay pending its appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court. A temporary stay was granted by another judge when Wheeler was unavailable Friday to hear arguments on that motion.

But after hearing them Monday, Wheeler rejected the motion, and ordered the city to provide the petition forms by 4 p.m.

“The city’s asking for the stay seemed really heavy-handed to me,” Pat O’Donnell, the Friends’ vice president, said in a news release. “I’m glad the court called them on it. This bullying is not going to get me to back down.”

The initiative was sparked by the city’s decision to sell about two-thirds of the plaza, at Congress and High streets, to RockBridge Capital LLC for $524,000. RockBridge, the developer of the former Eastland Park Hotel, is hoping to use the space to build an adjacent event facility.

The sale, approved by the City Council Sept. 16, is contingent on approval of the facility design by the Planning Board and by the Historic Preservation Board. The sale could also be affected by the initiative’s proposed ordinance changes; if approved by voters, the changes would be retroactive to September.

The Friends must collect 1,500 signatures from registered Portland voters by Jan. 23, 2014, to create a June 2014 referendum on the ordinance. By tapping voter traffic at the polls on Election Day, the Friends hoped to get off to a good start.

“This is the perfect spot to do it,” Friends member Elizabeth Streeter said, as she collected signatures from people casting ballots at East End Community School on Tuesday morning. “You can hear the responses. People are coming over and are eager to sign.”

Although early turnout on an Election Day without state or national races was predictably light, most voters at the school appeared to be signing the petition.

In less than an hour after the polls had opened, Streeter collected more than 40 signatures. She said she and other volunteers will continue the petition drive as long as necessary.

“We have a lot of enthusiastic people who are ready to hit the streets,” she said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.