PORTLAND — Mayor Michael Brennan is considering forming a task force to address OccupyMaine’s concerns about homelessness and economic inequality.
The proposal comes on the heels of an 8-1 City Council vote last week to deny the group a permit to continue camping in Lincoln Park – a move that is expected to push the debate into the courts.
Last week, the protesters issued a list of demands to city officials: withdraw and transfer city funds from TD Bank to a locally owned bank or credit union; make City Hall’s State of Maine room available on a weekly basis to OccupyMaine’s decision-making General Assembly; increase support for the homeless, and create a 24-hour free-speech zone in Monument Square.
While the list presents specific action items for the city, the thrust of the group’s two-month long encampment has been to protest corporate influence in politics, as well as the growing income disparity between the top 1 percent of wage earners and the rest of the country.
Brennan said he has informed the group that he is willing to appoint a task force to consider ways the city can address these issues on a local level.
He said it’s too early to say who would be on such a task force or how large it would be, but that members of OccupyMaine would be included.
“I put it out there,” Brennan said Monday. “OccupyMaine hasn’t come back to me.”
OccupyMaine attorney John Branson said the group is encouraged by the offer. He complimented the mayor, as well as city Councilor David Marshall, for their willingness to hear the group’s concerns.
“The mayor and Councilor Marshall have been two elected officials that have not been afraid to speak out about the very issues the Occupy movement is seeking to redress,” he said.
Branson said OccupyMaine has a diplomacy group, which will begin focusing its attention on making progress towards its “redress of grievances.”
But several of the demands laid out by OccupyMaine’s “Petition to Portland City Council for Initial Redress of Grievances” face an uphill battle, especially where the city does its banking.
City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city can have anywhere from $70 million to $150 million at TD Bank at any given time.
Marshall in recent weeks told OccupyMaine that he would be open to the idea of moving the city’s money to a local bank, but City Finance Director Ellen Sanborn said changing banks would be no easy feat.
“I don’t even know how many bank accounts we have,” Sanborn said. “… (Moving is) an effort. It takes time.”
Sanborn said the city has a five-year contract with TD Bank that expires next December. The city will request proposals from banks, including local banks and credit unions, for the next contract.
Sanborn said a local bank or credit union would have to submit a plan that offers more services at a lower cost for staff to recommend a change. If TD Bank is competitive with those offers, though, the city would likely recommend keeping the status quo.
“If everything is equal, why go through that exercise?,” she said.
Sanborn also said municipal banking requires a wide array of services that not every institution can provide.
And then there’s the issue of defining local.
“I don’t know what their definition of local is,” Sanborn said, noting Maine-based banks often get out-of-state financing. “The banking industry is complicated.”
Brennan, meanwhile, said the issue is bigger than simply where the city keeps its money. He said he is interested in reconsidering the city’s “investment policy” to make sure it is in line with the city’s “values and principles.”
Branson said, if the city decides to move its money, it would certainly be an accomplishment. But the group is more concerned about making progress on homelessness, as well as forecloses, evictions, affordable housing and possibly rent control.
Although the city recently appointed a task force to seek long-term solutions to homelessness, Brennan acknowledged that more needs to be done to address the short-term need.
The OccupyMaine task force would focus on securing housing for those who would be displaced if the Lincoln Park encampment is dismantled, Brennan said. But it would also look at homelessness on a city-wide scale.
Branson said the group would like to see more than “Band Aid” solutions to homelessness.
“The shelters are full and bursting at the seams,” he said. “Many of the homeless have mental illness and substance abuse treatment needs.”
Brennan, however, is not ready to hand over the State of Maine Room in City Hall to OccupyMaine’s General Assembly.
The group contends its assembly is a venue for more direct democracy and public engagement. The room would be used for meetings to discuss proposals that could be sent to the City Council.
Clegg said only official city committees and groups can use the room for free. Other business and nonprofit groups can reserve the room at $60 an hour.
Brennan said he believes there are more appropriate venues for the group, including church basements.
Branson said OccupyMaine feels its important to have a room at City Hall to give voice to those who aren’t usually heard by the city.
That’s also the driving force behind the request to create a 24-hour speech zone in Monument Square, which has an anti-loitering ordinance in effect from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
Branson said the city commonly grants waivers to large, for-profit groups. But last week the City Council refused to do so for, what Branson described as, a “rag-tag” group of common people with “little money and little power.”
“That’s the fundamental disparate treatment the group is concerned about,” he said.
While both sides feel a task force is a step in the right direction, neither OccupyMaine nor the city believe it will be enough to avoid a lawsuit, or compel the protesters to leave Lincoln Park peacefully.
Branson said the group rejected a quid pro quo agreement with the city two weeks ago.
And last week, OccupyMaine announced it was forming a police raid support team of bloggers, photographers and videographers to block and document any efforts efforts by police to remove protesters, should it come to that.
“The council as a whole has left the group little choice than to seek judicial intervention, which may not be successful,” Branson said.
A sign decrying major banks on the Pearl Street side of Lincoln Park in Portland, where OccupyMaine has been encamped for more than two months.