The city of Portland is continuing to plan for a 200-bed emergency shelter on city-owned property on Riverside Street, regardless of a possible November referendum that would limit new emergency shelters to 50 beds. (Courtesy city of Portland)
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Backers of a referendum effort to block a new emergency shelter in Portland have secured more than enough signatures to place the question on the November ballot. 

State officials, meanwhile, said they have no jurisdiction over efforts by the city to circumvent the referendum by accelerating approval of the shelter.

The citizen initiative, which would limit homeless shelters in the city to 50 beds, is an attempt to derail plans to build a 200-bed shelter and service center on Riverside Street.

Former Portland City Councilor Kimberly Cook is one of the leaders of Smaller Shelters for Portland, the coalition behind a referendum that would limit the size of new homeless shelters in the city.

Kimberly Cook, a member of Smaller Shelters for Portland and former city councilor, last week said the group has collected more than 2,300 signatures – well over the 1,500 needed to qualify for the November ballot. It had 1,300 going into Election Day, and volunteers at eight of the 11 city polling places on June 8 were able to collect more than 1,000 additional signatures.

“This shows the strength of the initiative and the interest in the community,” Cook said. “This has been a long-running discussion in the city.”

City officials have recently affirmed their strategy for moving the Riverside Street shelter quickly through the approval process, which they believe could render the referendum process moot.

During a committee meeting in May, officials described a strategic, aggressive timeline of actions that would insulate the Riverside shelter from a referendum, even if one passes in November.

Anne Torregrossa, Portland’s associate corporation counsel, reiterated the city’s position to the City Council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee on June 8.  She said the referendum, which if passed would be retroactive to April, does have the potential to impact the Riverside project. But she said there is a state statute that prohibits a referendum from undoing a permit if it is issued 45 days or more before that referendum takes place.

“The referendum would not be able to undo that conditional use approval,” Torregrossa said. “I think it remains to be seen how this all plays out.”

City officials, including councilors on the HHS committee and Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow, have said the referendum could be more harmful than helpful.

Councilor Tae Chong, the chair of the committee, and committee member Councilor Belinda Ray said the referendum would result in the need for several more shelters around the city.

Based on Dow’s data on the individuals and families the city either had in shelter space or hotels, plus individuals at Preble Street who are also in hotels, there were more than 500 people being served. Ray said if the referendum passes, at least an additional 10 shelters at least would be necessary, and since many shelters already only offer 20 or 25 beds, the number may be closer to 20 additional shelters.

If the necessary number of shelters aren’t open, Dow said, the city would continue to honor its obligation to those seeking services as it did during the coronavirus pandemic, by placing people in hotels. The problem with that, she said, is the hotels provide no emergency social services beyond shelter.

Cook, whose former City Council district includes the proposed Riverside shelter, said both Torregrossa and former Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell have admitted the city’s plan requires an aggressive timeline to succeed. To successfully get around the referendum, if it passes, she said, the Riverside shelter would need Planning Board approval no later than September.

“So that seems like a very aggressive schedule,” Cook said. “I certainly would hope that the council and the mayor wouldn’t try to pursue an aggressive schedule in order to beat the will of the people.”

There is no evidence, however, that the city’s strategy runs afoul of any state laws.

Emily Cook, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said regulations for local referenda are different from the statewide citizen’s initiative process that her office oversees.

Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, a statewide nonprofit that provides advocacy and professional services to municipalities, said his organization “really doesn’t get involved” in highly local issues like this one. He said such issues could involve aspects of Portland’s municipal charter, and the MMA has no idea what the specifics of the charter are or how it’s been interpreted in the past.

“We offer analysis on state statutes … but not local issues and local charters,” Conrad said.

Andrew Roache, a reference librarian in the Law and Legislative Reference Library, said there are only three state laws that regulate local referendums, and they govern petitioning for a warrant article, secret ballots, and circulation of petitions for local initiatives.

A representative of the attorney general’s office declined to comment.