Portland councilors eye alternate shelter ballot question

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Portland city councilors may try to draft their own ballot question in an effort to defeat a citizen initiative aimed at blocking a proposed 200-bed emergency shelter on Riverside Street.

During a council workshop Monday that lasted only about half an hour, councilors were presented with their options regarding the referendum as it heads to voters in the fall.

Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, told councilors they could send the proposal to voters as written; send the question with a competing referendum to give voters an either-or choice, or they could simply adopt the citizen initiative as an ordinance.

If approved by voters, the citizen initiative could not be altered or amended by the City Council for five years. But the measure can be amended immediately if the council adopts it as an ordinance.

The citizen initiative came from a group called Portlanders for Smaller Shelters. If enacted, it would limit homeless shelters in the city to a maximum of 50 beds.

A public hearing on setting the Nov. 2 referendum date will be held during the council’s only meeting scheduled next month, on Aug. 23. The council on July 19 approved spending $250,000 on designs for the Riverside shelter, part of an agreement the city has with Developers Collaborative.

Even if successful, West-Chuhta said, the referendum would still likely not impact the Riverside shelter, an opinion the city has maintained since the citizen initiative appeared. While the initiative would be retroactive to April, officials have said if the shelter is approved by the Planning Board at least 45 days before the November vote it would not be bound by the initiative.

Councilor Belinda Ray, who is not seeking reelection, said she would support adopting and amending the citizen initiative rather than sending it to voters because its proposed restrictions are “so detrimental.”

“I can see how people would think it’s a subversion of the citizen initiative process,” Ray added.

Ray and Councilor Mark Dion also indicated they may propose competing measures. Language of such measures must be ready for the council to approve in the Aug. 23 meeting.