Portland council to create racial equity committee

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Following several hours of discussion, and after rejecting pleas from some members of the public who urged them not to act, Portland city councilors on Monday approved forming a steering committee aimed at addressing systemic racism.

The City Council spent a large portion of its eight-hour meeting discussing the steering committee proposed by Mayor Kate Snyder on June 29.

Snyder on Monday said it was critical the city engage with members of the community to facilitate a conversation that would “heal and change,” especially in light of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police, and the protests that followed around the country and in Portland.

After several hours of discussion via Zoom on Monday, July 13, Portland city councilors voted to form a committee to address systemic racism. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

“This is not the first step or the last step,” Snyder said. “It’s the next step.”

Councilors considered several amendments, some of which remained and some of which were ultimately withdrawn. The most notable amendment came from Councilor Pious Ali, who has been calling for an independent investigation into a June 1 protest where demonstrators clashed with police, who used pepper spray and arrested more than 20 people. 

“This is not an indictment of police, this is to support us, talk to people, gather information and use it to guide our policies,” Ali said.

There was a lengthy discussion of Ali’s amendment, which he originally planned to bring forward as its own resolution until Snyder proposed the steering committee.

Ali also contemplated rolling his amendment in with one from Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who proposed allowing a third-party area for residents to file complaints about the June 1 protest, assuming residents don’t feel comfortable approaching either the police or councilors about the issue.

“This allows us to take a temperature and see what’s out there,” Thibodeau said.

Ultimately the council settled on two separate amendments.

But some confusion still surrounded Ali’s proposal. Thibodeau said he wanted to know more about the process of who the third-party investigator would be, what authority the investigator would have to access evidence such as police body camera footage, what authority the council had to access the same evidence, and what the council was ultimately supposed to do with the information.

Councilor Nick Mavodones also expressed skepticism. He said he didn’t think an investigation is warranted since there have been no complaints filed against the Police Department regarding its response on June 1. Police have also maintained they acted appropriately in their use of force that night against rogue protesters who incited violence.

Councilor Justin Costa also expressed concern, although he said he was open to Ali’s proposal. He said he didn’t want the community to lose all its energy focusing attention on an event that had elicited no complaints. Costa also noted that the majority of those arrested were white.

“There is not infinite time and energy of every individual of our community to participate in different versions of this conversation,” he said.

Councilor Belinda Ray also proposed an amendment, which narrowed the scope of the committee and shifted the timeline of when the committee would have to have a report for the council. Councilors ultimately agreed to set a deadline for next January.

Amid all the discussion of the resolution, several members of the public urged the city to reject creation of the committee.

Em Burnett, of Park Street, told the council the idea of a neutral third-party investigator wasn’t a real thing, especially when the people recruiting for that position already work in “a racist institution.” Burnett said it was more important to have someone lead the new committee who has the community’s trust.

There was some confusion about staffing the committee. Snyder said there would be a paid support staffer, but that person would not be setting the agenda. They would mostly take care of administrative work, she said, so the committee could focus on the goals it wants to achieve.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said while the resolution came from good intentions, he urged the council to vote it down. He said the appointment structure is problematic since members would be appointed by Snyder. Kebede also said racial equity needs to be Black-led, even if Snyder is required by the City Charter to be in charge of appointments.

“It seeks to do the impossible,” Kebede said of the committee.

One resident, Nyalat Biliew, said she didn’t trust councilors to create the right space for the committee. She said councilors are racist and insinuated Councilor Tae Chong made inappropriate remarks on Facebook to his constituents.

“I’m not sure how someone like me, a Black young person, is supposed to trust you,” she said.

Several councilors discussed postponing the resolution until Aug. 3. Mavodones said while he didn’t necessarily want to put all his trust in a handful of people who told them to strike the measure down, he thought waiting would be appropriate.

However, other councilors wanted to press forward. Chong said he was afraid they would miss the moment if they waited too long and it was important for the community that the council delivers on this.

Ultimately, Mavodones, Snyder, and Thibodeau all voted to postpone, but the postponement was defeated 6-3.

Ray said while the resolution wasn’t perfect, it was something that could accomplish a lot. Snyder also said the resolution was a good compromise. She said while the council wouldn’t get everything perfect, this was an opportunity to move forward and shift as they learn.

The resolution ultimately passed 8-1 with Mavodones opposed.

Portland City Councilor At-Large Jill Duson.

Duson to retire from City Council

Longtime City Councilor Jill Duson will not seek reelection in November.

Duson, who was first elected to the City Council in 2001, mentioned the decision during Monday’s council meeting and later confirmed it on her personal Facebook page.

Duson made her initial comments during a discussion about a prohibition on the use of facial recognition technology. There was a proposal to postpone the vote until December, but Duson said she wouldn’t be on the council in December and would like to be able to participate in the decision.

Duson, who has been elected to five terms on the council and twice served as mayor, has also served on the School Board.

“Having long ago retired from the practice of law, and more recently, retired from state government, I am now retiring from City Council,” Duson said on Facebook.

“After a couple of months of hibernation, I will be open to other avenues to add value by focusing my ‘part-time’ serial volunteer energies. All ideas are welcome!!”

Duson, originally from Pennsylvania, was the city’s first Black mayor, and the state’s first Black female mayor. Duson ran for the full-time elected mayoral position in 2011, but finished sixth in a field of 15 candidates.

She ran for the Democratic nomination in state Senate District 28 in 2016, but was defeated by former state Rep. Mark Dion. Duson sought the state Senate nod again in 2018, but lost to now state Sen. Heather Sanborn.

Nomination papers for Duson’s at-large council seat must be returned to the city clerk’s office between Aug. 10 and Aug. 24. More information on nomination papers is available on the city clerk’s page of the city website.

— Colin Ellis

Another delay for proposed ban on facial recognition technology

Despite the marathon meeting that had preceded it, Portland city councilors after 11 p.m. Monday began a discussion of a proposed ban on the use of facial recognition technology, only to eventually agree to postpone it again until August. 

Per City Council rules, councilors had to vote to take up the item after 10 p.m. They concluded at just about midnight.

Councilor Pious Ali proposed the ban last October. Most recently, he shifted his proposal to match one from People First Portland, a progressive group hoping to place five initiatives on the November ballot, including the ban.

“Their language is broader and more simple,” Ali said.

Ali brought this to the council in June, but postponed to give his colleagues time to study proposed changes. He also wanted to give People First Portland more time to collect signatures, especially when faced with having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, however, he said People First Portland had informed him they had collected all the signatures they needed to put their initiative on the ballot. So Ali said he wanted to postpone until December when the measure could be indefinitely postponed if the referendum passes.

But other councilors said they didn’t understand why they should defer to People First Portland.

Councilors Justin Costa and Belinda Ray both described the postponement proposal as odd, since they believed it would have passed Monday night. Ray said she was frustrated, since the council is routinely accused of not doing its job, and this is an example of something the group wanted to pass.

“I don’t understand why we would want to do this,” she said. “it doesn’t make sense to me to give away our responsibility here, to not follow through with what we can make happen now.”

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau also described the long postponement as odd, saying it didn’t make sense to wait for something to be passed via referendum when they could pass it sooner.

Councilor Tae Chong agreed. “I get more emails about this than the committee we just spent five hours discussing,” he said.

Ultimately councilors voted to postpone the discussion, but only until Aug. 3.

— Colin Ellis

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