Portland Rent Board declines landlord’s request for reconsideration of fines

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A request for reconsideration of fines levied against Portland landlord Geoffrey Rice was declined by the Rent Board, although questions about a lack of clarity still remain.

The Rent Board in February recommended Rice be fined more than $15,000 for several violations claimed by tenants in his Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St. The Trelawny Tenants’ Union’s complaints included rent increases and tax rate adjustments that allegedly violated the city’s Rent Control Ordinance.

Rice’s attorney, Paul Bulger, submitted a request that the board reconsider its decisions.

Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St.
The Portland Rent Board declined to reconsider fines it imposed on landlord Geoffrey Rice of the Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

In addition to asking that all of Rice’s rent adjustments be approved, the request asked the board to rescind all the violations and fines, and that it issue a public apology “to mitigate reputational harm.”

Board members declined the request on Aug. 24 after deciding they don’t have jurisdiction to reconsider decisions. As established by the ordinance, appeals of decisions made by the board are in the hands of the Superior Court, board Chair Elliot Simpson said.

Bulger has also submitted an appeal to the Superior Court, which has not scheduled a hearing because the record was incomplete – which is why Bulger said he submitted the request to the board.

Records from the first meeting are in the process of being transcribed for the court, he added.

There has been some confusion surrounding the Rent Control Ordinance since it was  approved by citizen referendum in 2020, although officials have said they are happy with how the board has been able to tackle its role despite complaints about a lack of clarity and vagueness of the ordinance.

Bulger said he has concerns about the board’s ability to effectively implement its rules, and wrote in an email that city staff is aware of the law’s defects.

“The lack of definitions and rules has created an administrative nightmare,” he said, because the city rushed into rent control when the referendum was approved.

“The central issue is that the ordinance is vague and nonspecific in its definitions and procedures, allowing for inconsistent determinations,” he wrote.

Simpson said despite the challenges of having a citizen-run board, he is happy with the work the board has been able to accomplish, particularly ironing out issues on official rent forms. He did say, however, that implementing the process could have been done differently.

“I think the fact that there’s already an attempt to revise the ordinance with another referendum shows that there’s some frustration with the original implementation,” Simpson said. “I think there’s a lot of factors that have shown that the ordinance was maybe not equipped for the specifics of Portland.”

The board does not have a staff and is operating with reduced membership because some members have resigned. Two more members’ terms end in early 2023, which prompted the board to seek the city’s help in expediting the replacement process.

Simpson said he hasn’t heard anything from the city on that front, but acknowledged again that the board has been “running close to the edge” when it comes to not having sufficient membership, particularly when one of the five members may miss a monthly meeting.

The board had planned to review and move forward with its first annual report to the City Council at its last meeting, but members decided to delay that action to their meeting on Sept. 28.