Portland City Council sends competing shelter question to voters

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Portland city councilors Monday night placed a competing measure on the November referendum ballot that they hope will thwart a citizen initiative to limit the size of emergency shelters.

Several supporters of the initiative backed by a coalition called Smaller Shelters for Portland spoke during the public hearing, deriding the council’s move as an effort to mislead and confuse voters, and an attempt to circumvent the democratic process.

The citizen initiative would limit the size of new shelters in the city to no more than 50 beds and be retroactive to April. It would effectively block a proposed 200-bed emergency shelter planned by the city on Riverside Street.

Portland is negotiating with Developers Collaborative for construction of a 200-bed shelter off Riverside Street while a referendum that would restrict new shelters heads to a November vote. (Courtesy city of Portland)

The city, however, believes that if the Riverside project is approved soon it will not be affected if the Smaller Shelters referendum passes.

The initial action Monday came from Councilor Belinda Ray, who proposed a referendum that would limit the number of shelter beds to 300 within any one-mile radius. Councilor Mark Dion offered a successful amendment to instead limit the size of any single shelter to 150 beds while allowing the City Council to increase the number of beds in emergency situations.

The amended measure passed 5-3, with Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier, and Andrew Zarro opposed. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was absent from the meeting.

Ali said the council was being hypocritical after some councilors accused the citizen effort of avoiding public scrutiny.

“We as a council may be doing the same things,” he said. “Some of the amendments came at the 11th hour. It should have been earlier, but I know it is our right to do that.”

The competing measure will result in three questions appearing on the Nov. 2 ballot, Corporation Counsel Danielle West explained: Question A will ask if voters support the citizen initiative, Question B will ask if they support the council’s competing measure, and Question C will be none of the above.

The winning question will be the one with the most affirmative votes, West said, even if it fails to receive a majority.

Several members of the public said the three-question ballot would confuse voters, and former Councilor Kim Cook, who is a member of Smaller Shelters for Portland, urged councilors to honor the tradition of allowing a citizen initiative without a competing measure.

“The three make it much more difficult to hear the will of the people,” she said.

In addition to the Dion amendment, councilors unanimously approved an amendment by Ray to clear up language in the citizen initiative summary.

The Riverside shelter proposal, meanwhile, was scheduled for a Planning Board workshop on Aug. 24, after the Phoenix deadline. It needs the board’s approval 45 days before the election to escape any potential impact if the citizen initiative passes.

City seeks to reclaim Bayside property it sold to developer

The City Council will hold a public hearing Sept. 8 on a plan to retake vacant land on Somerset Street in the Bayside neighborhood.

The council approved the first in a series of steps Monday night by providing notice of the city’s intent to take the parcel back from Federated Cos. by eminent domain.

Russell Pierce, an attorney representing the city, said Portland first acquired the property in 1996. It sold the land in 2016 to Federated as part of an agreement with the Florida-based developer to build a revenue-producing parking garage. Pierce said site plan approval for the project expired in March 2018, and a valid building permit was never issued.

The only public speaker on the topic was Bayside resident and frequent council critic George Rheault. He said the city is not being transparent about a lawsuit between Portland and the developer, and claimed the city is trying to save face.

“The city did a deal with an entity they never should have done a deal with,” Rheault said. “You made a deal with Federated and it blew up in your face. You are desperately trying to fix it.”

Federated Cos. sued City Manager Jon Jennings and the city in 2019. The company claimed Portland failed to uphold its end of the agreement for the $85 million mixed-use development that was supposed to include 450 housing units, an 800-vehicle parking garage, and nearly 100,000 square feet of retail space.

The lawsuit is pending.

— Colin Ellis

Anne McGuire will be Portland’s next assistant city manager. (Courtesy city of Portland)

McGuire hired as assistant city manager

A lawyer with extensive experience in Democratic political circles will be Portland’s new assistant city manager.

City Manager Jon Jennings last week announced he has hired Anne McGuire for the job. He made an official announcement to the City Council on Monday.

McGuire, who now lives on Chebeague Island, was an aide to retired U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, and also worked in the administration of President Bill Clinton and as counsel to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

She most recently was a senior adviser at Berger Hirschberg Strategies, a fundraising firm in New York City. She also worked for Washington, D.C., crisis management firm Witt O’Brien’s; San Francisco-based investment strategists Equilibrium Capital Group; the Rock Creek Group investment management firm in Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles-based law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, and the now-defunct Quinn Gillespie & Associates lobbying firm.

“I’m excited to bring my experience to Portland and become part of this great community,” McGuire said in a prepared statement.

In his press release, Jennings said McGuire’s responsibilities in Portland will be a good match for her experience.

“She’s an effective communicator, critical thinker and problem solver, and is skilled at interdepartmental matters,” Jennings said. “I know her drive, knowledge, and experience will help us achieve our goals.” 

The previous assistant city manager, Heather Brown, stepped down on March 31 for medical reasons. Brown had been on medical leave since June 2020, was not able to return to work full time, and decided to resign to focus on her recovery.

McGuire, whose annual salary will be $140,980, will begin work on Aug. 30.

Jennings, meanwhile, is scheduled to leave his job next July and is a finalist for the city manager position in Clearwater, Florida. The City Council is scheduled to hold a workshop on the hiring process for a new city manager on the same day McGuire is scheduled to start work – which could put her in line to become acting city manager. 

Jennings is expected to interview with Clearwater city officials in early September.

— Colin Ellis

City to make campaign finance reports available online

Portland will begin streamlining campaign finance forms in an online system, ending an outdated process of having to go to City Hall to retrieve and deliver forms.

City Clerk Katherine Jones made the announcement during the City Council’s Aug. 23 meeting. She said forms will be available by the Sept. 21 deadline for the upcoming fall elections for City Council and School Board.

Jones said there will be a portal on the city website for candidates to complete the forms online, and the information will immediately be available for the public to view.

This move comes after the revelation that last fall some campaign finance reports were not made public in a timely fashion, including a disclosure that Airbnb, the San Francisco-based online vacation rental marketplace, had provided $125,000 to a political group opposing a citizen ballot initiative to regulate short-term rentals.

That led Mayor Kate Snyder at the time to say she expected the city to overhaul the reporting system.

In addition, people traditionally obtained these reports by going to City Hall. But the building has been closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

— Colin Ellis