Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Bollard

February 27, 2007

City Councilors Kevin Donoghue (left) and Dave Marshall, the latest local pols to push for a directly elected mayor. (photos/courtesy Donoghue, Marshall)

Council Greens push for elected mayor Seek an "attitudinal change" at the top"
By Chris Busby

The Portland City Council's two newest members are reviving the effort to have voters directly elect a mayor who'd serve for more than one year at a time. Councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue plan to introduce an order in March that would give Portlanders a vote on the question this November.

Under their proposal, the mayor would be the sole City Council member elected at-large, by a citywide vote. There are currently four councilors elected at-large and one for each of the city's five electoral districts. This proposal would require those five districts to be redrawn into eight smaller districts, each with its own councilor.

The mayor would serve a three-year term, and could run for re-election, but he or she would have no more power than Portland's mayors have now – no veto authority, no direct say over decisions to hire or fire department heads, and no separate budget-making role, for example.

This is essentially the same proposal the Portland Taxpayers Association presented to the Council in the fall of 2004. At the time, no councilor was interested in promoting the idea, and it went nowhere.

Now two councilors are backing the same plan, and if their colleagues don't agree to let the voters approve or reject it, Donoghue and Marshall say they're ready to collect the signatures needed to force a citywide vote. (The tax activists made the same threat, but did not follow through.)

"We need long-term leadership in the city of Portland and a sustainable vision," said Marshall, who represents the West End, Parkside and adjacent neighborhoods.

"It's an attitudinal change – to believe Portland is worthy of leadership," said Donoghue, whose district includes the East End, downtown, Bayside and islands.

Trouble is, "attitude" is one of the things opponents of this idea fear it will bring to city politics.

Under the current system, councilors appoint one of their fellow members to run the meetings and cut ribbons for a year. This choice is usually unanimous, based on seniority and polite turn-taking.

Critics say a citywide mayoral campaign would inject partisan politics into Portland's officially non-partisan city races, though party affiliation has long been a consideration in these contests, and has become an increasingly recognizable factor in campaigns for municipal office. Still, the public has shown a distaste for party politicking in city government, as evidenced by the negative reaction to recent partisan squabbles on the Portland School Committee, where registered Greens have gained seats in the past couple years.

Donoghue and Marshall are the first Green Independent Party members elected to the Council, which, like the school board, has long been dominated by registered Democrats. Shortly after their election last fall, the city got a taste of what a contentious mayoral competition looks like. Previous mayor Jim Cohen was vying for a second consecutive year in the post, and at-large Councilor Nick Mavodones, who was mayor seven years ago, wanted a second turn holding the gavel. Donoghue and Marshall were the swing votes that gave it to him [see "Greens make Mavodones mayor"].

Donoghue and Marshall say they aren't advocating to make city races partisan, though they believe a popularly elected mayor will have more political clout among fellow lawmakers at the state and national level. And they cite the reason Cohen gave for seeking a two-year term last fall: a mayor needs more than one year to make real progress on the goals he or she sets for the city.

Variations on the "elected mayor" idea have surfaced with some regularity since the early 1920s, when Portlanders switched to a form of government that gives the city manager, rather than the mayor, direct responsibility for operations at City Hall.

These days, those opposed to switching back often cite the vote in 1997, when Portlanders decisively rejected a similar effort to make the mayor directly elected for a three-year term. "I think people spoke very clearly [against it] last time it came up," Mavodones told The Bollard last fall. "I don't know if it's ever the right time to revisit the issue."

However, there are some key differences between the proposal voters considered ten years ago and the one they may consider this year.

Most notably, the previous plan would have given the mayor veto power over Council decisions. Opponents raised the specter of Portland being dominated by the type of tyrannical, corrupt executive found more often in big-city politics – opposition posters featured the image of a sleazy, cigar-chomping character – and that fear played a big role in the outcome, current and past councilors say.

Furthermore, because this veto authority would have fundamentally changed the balance of power on the Council, it would have been necessary to first elect and convene a special charter commission to examine the structure of city government as a whole. The commission would be under no obligation to recommend specific changes, like direct election of the mayor, but could bring forward any number of other options, like term limits.

This added a degree of confusion and uncertainty to the debate that helped convince 62 percent of voters to reject the call for change.

The current proposal keeps the balance of power largely unchanged, so no such commission would be necessary. And unlike last time, when a majority of councilors voted against putting the question on the ballot, proponents may not need to gather thousands of signatures to force a citywide vote.

"I don't think there's a majority on the Council that's hoping for change," said at-large Councilor and former mayor Jim Cloutier, who's open to the idea. "But I think there's more sentiment on the Council that it's OK to have a vote on something you don't happen to favor."

At-large Councilor Ed Suslovic didn't like the idea ten years ago, but "times change, situations change," he said. "I think we ought to take a look at it."

"I basically think Portlanders ought to be able to decide," said former mayor and current at-large Councilor Jill Duson. Duson likes the current set-up, but said, "if the people of Portland decided they want a different system, that would be fine…. I might even entertain running for such a position."

District 4 Councilor Cheryl Leeman is as adamantly opposed to the idea as she was last decade, when she actively worked to defeat it. Neither Mavodones nor Cohen could be reached for comment yesterday, but both have recently gone on record against revisiting the matter.

District 3 Councilor Donna Carr said she's "willing to think about" the proposal, and expressed some interest in making the mayorship a two-year term. But Carr shares a view common among opponents of the change then and now: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

The public's level of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, with the current workings of city government will likely be the determining factor this time around. And there are signs the electorate is warming to the idea.

For example, ten years ago, the business community largely opposed the "elected mayor" proposal. The Chamber of Commerce was among the groups aligned against it. Nowadays, "there's pretty substantial interest in exploring [the idea] from a business point of view," said Portland Regional Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood. "I certainly think it's the kind of thing that should go to the voters.

"The Chamber hasn't taken a formal position on this latest plan, and Wood said he sees some benefits to the current system, but added, "if you were to have an elected mayor, there'd be a lot more accountability and opportunity for vision and planning."

The League of Young Voters (formerly the League of Pissed Off Voters) is rumored to be willing to put its growing political muscle behind the idea (local League organizer Justin Alfond did not return a call seeking comment). And city Democrats may also get behind the two Greens' proposal. Local Democratic Party activist and organizer Dory Waxman got ears ringing in City Hall when she recently inquired about the charter commission process. (Waxman did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, either).

Former councilor and mayor Tom Kane spearheaded the movement for change ten years ago. Having lost that battle, he was hesitant to predict the outcome of this round, but said the "biggest obstacle" proponents faced last time was the need to form a charter commission – a step the new proposal would not require.

"It's like a lot of political stuff and political movements," said Kane. "It's all timing."

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard. He can be reached at editor@thebollard.com.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Press Herald

City Council repeals ban on chains


By JOSIE HUANG, Staff Writer © Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. :ap -->
Thursday, February 22, 2007 -->

Chain stores that are interested in coming to downtown Portland can breathe easier -- at least for a while.

The Portland City Council voted 7-0 on Wednesday to overturn a three-month-old ordinance restricting chain stores and restaurants, in favor of forming a group to look at the issue with fresh eyes.

The repeal followed protests from business and community members who felt that the law, which controls the number and location of formula businesses, was ill-conceived and sent a message that Portland is anti-business.

The public's concerns about the ordinance came to dominate the councilors' time after they passed the law in November.

"It's become painfully clear to me that the only way to go forward on this is to take a step back first," said David Marshall, who helped lead the campaign for a repeal along with fellow freshman Councilor Kevin Donoghue. Both took office after the ordinance was passed.

The ordinance will expire 30 days from Wednesday's vote. It will be replaced by a task force assigned to achieve a proper balance between locally owned businesses and national chains, and maintaining the character of downtown Portland.

The so-called Business Diversity Task Force will study policies used by other communities, such as store size limits and design standards, and make recommendations to the City Council and Planning Board. The panel does not have a deadline but will be required to make quarterly reports.

Fifteen people will serve on the task force, including two city councilors, residents from each of the city's five districts and representatives from business groups.

Some of the future task force members were among the most vocal about repealing the ordinance. Roxane Cole, president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, said the law was created too hastily, without proper research or support.

"We felt the sensible planning was not at the table in the way we would like to see," Cole said.
Councilor James Cohen criticized the ordinance -- which defined formula businesses as having at least 10 identical stores or businesses -- for having the potential to hurt successful local and regional chains.

"My fear is that in our zeal to keep out a few businesses that perhaps some people didn't want, the effect has been to keep out many businesses that we do want," Cohen said.

The ordinance was conceived after a community group learned that a Congress Street property owner wanted to open a Hooters restaurant, the national chain known for skimpily dressed waitresses.

Other than Hooters, it is not clear to city officials what businesses the ordinance has discouraged, because it may have prevented potential business owners from submitting applications.

Councilor James Cloutier tried to block the repeal, saying that allowing the ordinance to stand would not preclude creating a task force.

"I don't believe that the repeal of this ordinance is either wise or necessary in order for the work of the task force to go ahead," Cloutier said.

But Cloutier's proposal failed 5-2, with only Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. lending support.

Councilors Jill Duson and Donna Carr were not at Wednesday's meeting, but had they voted against the repeal, as they had said they would, there still would not have been enough votes to defeat it, according to city attorney Gary Wood.

Following the repeal, the council killed a proposed sunset provision for the ordinance from Councilor Ed Suslovic, concluding that it was moot.

In other business, the City Council decided to postpone discussion about moving the Portland Public Library to the former public market building to March 5.

The topic of finding alternatives to a tax on bars and restaurants that pays for extra police patrols in the Old Port was moved to March 19.

Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:
jhuang@pressherald.com

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Press Herald

City considers 'seat tax' alternatives
By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Portland city councilors are considering three alternatives to the so-called seat tax to pay for additional police patrols when the Old Port gets rowdy.

The city spends $61,000 for extra police coverage in the Old Port from May to September. The money comes from the controversial seat tax, which is applied to 24 bars and clubs in the Old Port that make most of their money from alcohol sales.

The annual tax is based on the number of seats per bar. The City Council raised the tax last year from $4.50 to $15 per seat.

The alternatives would have Portland taxpayers or the owners of bars outside the Old Port help to pay for police patrols.

The City Council is moving to abolish the seat tax as recommended in December by the Old Port Nightlife Task Force, which included downtown bar and business owners.

Many Old Port bar owners have said that others should share the cost of police coverage because the entire downtown district attracts people to Maine's largest city. Liquor-license holders and taxpayers outside the Old Port have said that they shouldn't have to pay for problems they don't create.

The task force recommended doing away with the Old Port seat-tax boundaries and increasing liquor license fees for all bars in the area roughly bounded by State Street, Cumberland Avenue, Franklin Arterial and the waterfront.

The council's public safety committee took up the recommendation of the task force, but was divided on how the money should be raised if the seat tax is abolished.

"All the options are on the table," said Councilor David Marshall, chairman of the three-member committee.

The committee has forwarded three alternatives to be voted on by the council Feb. 21:
  • Spread the cost among all property taxpayers. It would add less than a penny to the tax rate and cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $2 per year, city officials said.
  • Increase liquor license fees in downtown business zones, which include the Old Port, the Arts District and part of Bayside, and in the central waterfront zoning district.
  • Under that proposal, the cost of a Class A liquor license would increase from $1,950 to $2,795 per year, city officials said.
  • Increase liquor license fees citywide, including on stores that sell carry-out beer, wine and liquor. Under that proposal, the cost of a take-out beer-and-wine license would increase from $155 to $190 per year, city officials said.
  • Marshall voted to support having all taxpayers or all liquor license holders share the cost of policing the Old Port.

    Marshall said $2 would be a small fee for each taxpayer to contribute toward the overall safety of the city.

    Marshall also said he believes that convenience stores and other businesses that sell alcoholic beverages in Portland contribute to the level of intoxication in the Old Port.

    Councilor Cheryl Leeman, another committee member, voted to support raising liquor license fees in the downtown business and central waterfront districts.

    "It seems to be the fairest way to approach this issue," Leeman said.
    Leeman said she believes that option would stand up in court because it would be tied to zoning districts.

    She said some businesses have threatened to sue the city, claiming that the seat tax is arbitrary and unfair.

    Leeman said she opposes the other two options because she believes that the cost of policing the Old Port should be paid by downtown businesses, and that taxpayers cannot afford to pay more.

    "They say it's less than a penny," she said. "Look at your tax bill. That's a lot of pennies we've added over the years."

    Donna Carr, the other committee member, was absent when the committee voted on the seat-tax alternatives. She said on Tuesday that she opposes the property-tax option but hasn't decided which proposal to increase liquor license fees she would support.

    The Old Port Nightlife Task Force reviewed the seat tax as it considered a variety of safety issues facing the Old Port. The public safety committee will continue reviewing the recommendations of the task force when the committee meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Room 209 of City Hall.

    Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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