Portland council likely to reconsider new shelter rules

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Following a 7-1 vote last week for new shelter licensing requirements, it appears the Portland City Council will have to reconsider the decision after three new councilors are inaugurated next month.

Councilor Pious Ali, who voted in the majority on Nov. 15, has asked for reconsideration. He and two other councilors initially tried to have the vote postponed to allow a workshop, but that effort failed 5-3.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali.

Council rules allow reconsideration only if requested by a councilor who voted with the prevailing side, and Ali said that was why he voted with the majority on the subsequent licensing decision.

“It’s a tool elected officials rarely use, but I didn’t have a choice,” Ali said last week. “It was the only choice I had if I wanted that workshop to have our questions answered. That is the only way out.”

The only councilor to vote against the licensing requirement was Andrew Zarro, who said there are too many questions about how the changes could affect existing shelters or domestic violence shelters that seek waivers.

Councilor April Fournier, who voted in support of the measure, also questioned the impacts the new requirements might have. Fournier voted with Ali and Zarro on the failed workshop request.

Ali said the reconsideration will allow that workshop, which he believes is necessary because councilors didn’t have enough time to ask questions and get answers during the Nov. 15 meeting.

During regular proceedings, each councilor is generally limited to five minutes of discussion on issues. But in a workshop, Ali said, there is unlimited time to ask questions of other councilors and city staff – especially those who were not part of the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which drafted the new regulations.

“This is a huge undertaking,” he said. “We are literally going to change the way service is provided to our unhoused neighbors.”

Passage of a motion to reconsider requires a simple majority of the nine-member council – five affirmative votes.

When the council reconvenes after the Dec. 6 inauguration it will have a more progressive makeup. Two councilors-elect, Roberto Rodriguez and Anna Trevorrow, replace councilors who voted in favor of the new shelter license requirements. The third, Victoria Pelletier, will fill a vacant seat.

If all three join Ali, Fournier, and Zarro, they will have more than the five-vote threshold needed for reconsideration.

Rodriguez, who won his at-large seat in a recount after a historic ranked-choice voting tie, said he would refrain from weighing in on where he stands on the shelter licensing requirements in general until after he is sworn in. However, he said he supports reconsideration to allow for a workshop.

“I was interested in Councilor Fournier’s recommendations to have a workshop and have the process that normally takes place before it comes to the council for action,” Rodriguez said. “I’m looking forward to it coming back to the new council and seeing where we stand at that point.”

Pelletier also said she is in favor of reconsideration and hopes there will be time for questions in December.

“I think there are a lot of unanswered questions and the helpful move in this instance would be to hold a council workshop on the proposal for informal questions, prior to adopting the licensing,” she said.

Trevorrow didn’t want to take a position on reconsideration.

“I am keeping a completely open mind and I will plan to do some homework on the issue prior to any vote we may take,” she said.

The reconsideration vote is expected to take place in the Dec. 6 meeting.

The last vote the council brought back for reconsideration was on the controversial Munjoy Hill Historic District. In that case, the council ultimately reversed its previous decision and approved the long-planned district.

The licensing requirements approved by the council require shelters to apply and receive licenses within 90 days after the order becomes effective, which, if it stands, is 30 days after the Nov. 15 vote.

The licensing amendment to the city code includes a two-tier fee structure for small and large emergency shelters, a density cap of 300 beds within a one-mile radius, a 1,000-foot buffer zone between shelters, and a requirement to provide day space.

There would be exemptions for existing shelters, and something like a domestic violence shelter could apply for waivers for various requirements.

It will also require regular meetings between shelter operators and neighborhood residents.

While the changes would apply to any new shelter built in the city, the launching point for this was the ongoing situation in the city’s Bayside neighborhood, home to several shelters and the majority of the city’s available shelter beds.

One of those shelters, the Oxford Street Shelter, will eventually be replaced by a 208-bed homeless services center at 654 Riverside Street.