Portland city councilors on Feb. 19 debate proposed rules that would have changed the procedure for hearing public comment. Councilors ultimately tabled the revisions. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Although he spoke only a handful of times during a four-hour meeting Feb. 19, Portland City Councilor Pious Ali summed up the will of the council during a vote that was hotly contested by the public.

“For the first time, I am agreeing with the status quo,” Ali said.

His comments foreshadowed a council vote that tabled proposed rule changes that would have limited opportunities for public comment.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the Rules Committee had unanimously supported trying to find a way to have public comment “at a time when it is most important for the Council to hear it,” while also allowing the council to efficiently conduct its business.

The new rules proposed that public comment on items that did not have a hearing would occur at the first reading before the council. And if a member of the public wished to discuss something not on the agenda, they could only do so after discussion of agenda items, and only once a month. 

The rule proposals also would have moved public comment on non-agenda items from the beginning to the end of meetings. Council meetings presently begin at 5:30 p.m., and frequently run past 10 p.m. In the past, meetings began at 7 p.m. 

Snyder said it was important that the council hear public comment, including on non-agenda items, but the committee wanted to look at when to take public comment at appropriate times.

The council, however, unanimously supported keeping the rules that former Mayor Ethan Strimling put in place, creating a forum that has frequently been used by members of the public to raise concerns over issues facing the city. Councilors did voice concern about the delays caused by this policy.

“None of these (proposals) were intended to create an environment where civic engagement was devalued in any way,” Snyder said.

More than two dozen members of the public spoke at the meeting. A heated back-and-forth between Snyder and city resident George Rheault nearly devolved into a screaming match after Rheault directed his public comments towards Councilor Justin Costa. Members of the public must address the mayor, and not individual councilors.

“It’s evident how badly this civic engagement is working by how we’re fighting for this toe hold,” Rheault, who frequently speaks at council meetings to criticize city operations, said. “Most people don’t have time to figure out what you’re up to, let alone complain about it.”

When Rheualt began to accuse Costa of holding up meetings with “long-winded speeches,” Snyder began to speak over Rheault.

“We’re all here trying to do a good job for the city,” Snyder said.

Rheault accused Snyder of not actually being available to the public, even though the mayor’s position is a full-time job. He said members of the public would have to spend $25 to actually speak with her at an upcoming function. When Snyder said she is always available, Rheault countered, asking if her earliest availability was in July or August.

“Nope,” Snyder said, as Rheault had already returned to his seat.

Although no other comments were as dramatic, other residents also spoke against the rule changes, to say their opportunities to express concerns would be reduced.

“The council should be eliminating barriers, not creating another hard rule,” said resident and Southern Maine Workers Center employee Arlo Hennessey. “The solution is to create more avenues for public expression, not make people wait hours to speak.”

Many echoed Hennessey’s observations that public meetings are difficult to access for residents with children who can’t find coverage. Many also said the meetings are already difficult for people who have to work and can’t leave early, older residents who may not be able to stay late, and for the city’s homeless population, who would have to choose between being in a shelter and coming to a meeting to speak.

“Don’t make people in a shelter choose between a bed and their voice,” Hennessey said.

Karen Sykes called the public commentary “a farce,” and said while the status quo itself isn’t good, the proposed changes were worse.

“You’re not listening to us,” Sykes said. “The reason you have difficulty getting through the agenda is your agenda doesn’t match our agenda.”

Other residents said public comment is far more important than emailing or calling Snyder or their representative councilors. Martin Steingesser, for example, said you can never know for sure if councilors are even reading letters or emails.

“This isn’t only a fundamental exercise, this is the only way I know I’m being heard,” he said.

Heather Foran, of Brackett Street, said people already have barriers to accessing the council and its meetings. She said she could appreciate the council wanting to prioritize items on its agenda, but that public comment is a “structure to make sure the public’s agenda is in front of the council.”

“You’re supposed to go above and beyond to make this process accessible to everyone,” Foran said. “This proposal doesn’t do that, but takes a giant step backward.”

Foran pointed out that many of the city’s most marginalized, such as the elderly and homeless, don’t have access to email, may be afraid to speak in public, may have a curfew and can’t leave, or even may not speak English and have access to an interpreter.

Another citizen commented earlier that larger cities offer translators or interpreters at council meetings, while Portland does not.

The council ultimately voted 8-0 to send the proposal back to the committee, which is chaired by Councilor Nick Mavadones, who was not at the meeting. The council also rejected three amendments to the changes propopsed by Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and Councilor Kimberly Cook.

Snyder said the council’s action is proof that public comment is being heard and does work. She said there is no “perfect prescription,” but the council is working its way through the challenges.

“For me this is democracy, it’s working, we’re engaging with the community,” Snyder said.

City to join energy consortium

City councilors agreed to expedite a process for Portland to join a consortium that could reduce the city’s annual energy spending by up to half a million dollars.

The council’s Feb. 19 unanimous decision means the city will be able to purchase “net energy billing” credits, which would allow it to develop solar projects and receive credit on energy bills. The power-purchasing agreement requires a commitment of 20 million kwh, which is equal to two-thirds of the city’s total energy consumption, including the School Department.

Councilors agreed to waive a second reading of the measure so the city would be able to join the consortium and not keep other participants waiting.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who chairs the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said the committee wanted “to strike while the iron’s hot.”

Troy Moon, the city’s sustainability coordinator, said the measure resulted from a bill Gov. Janet Mills signed into law to reform the state’s energy billing policies.

“The success of that legislation opened the door for projects like this where the city could develop large-scale solar in a much more economical way,” Moon said.

Aga Dixon, a lawyer with Drummond Woodsum and outside counsel for the city, said the state legislation allows cities, schools, businesses and other organizations to take advantage of these credits. This agreement puts the city in a position to purchase a percentage of output of renewable energies. So, the agreement wouldn’t directly lower the city’s electric bill, but would instead provide credits to apply to the costs.

Dixon said this is a 20-year agreement and as with most marketplace deals, there is plenty of risk involved, since the market is speculative. However, councilors agreed the potential benefits of this consortium are greater than the risks.

“The risk is there but the reward is there as well,” Thibodeau said. “I think we’re going in clear-eyed about what the risks are. This is an important step to getting us to our goal (of the city being 100 percent reliant on renewable energy).”

Councilor Justin Costa said the risks of the marketplace are unavoidable. But he said if the city is serious about becoming more sustainable and green, this is the path forward.

“There is no other way,” Costa said, adding that large-scale solar arrays needed to power all the city operations can’t fit within the city limits.

Councilor Belinda Ray said while there is certainly risk involved, there is a greater risk in sticking with the current reliance on fossil fuels. She said the price of oil could “skyrocket” in coming years.

“Staying the course is probably a greater risk even than doing what we are planning to do,” she said. “I think this has been really well thought out.” 

Moon said the city would have flexibility with the credits, meaning the council could decide on an annual basis whether to retain or retire the credits.

The agreement could create a savings of up to $500,000 a year, which would begin when projects are completed and deployed.

The consortium request for proposals also included L.L. Bean, the University of Southern Maine, Nestle Waters and others. It requested more than 200 megawatt-hours; the city would contract for 10 percent.

— Colin Ellis