PORTLAND – What started out as a simple proposal to start a weekly crafts market in Monument Square turned into something bigger Tuesday night.

About 100 people showed up at a public hearing at Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall to vent their frustrations with how they say the city treats artists.

More than two dozen people spoke. Some said city officials wanted to rid Portland of street artists. Others said the city wants to gouge artists by charging a $70 permit fee to set up at the proposed crafts market.

They also said police had tried to remove certain artists from the farmers markets in Monument Square and Deering Oaks, and from the Old Port, where artists sell their work when cruise ships come in.

But Mary Costigan, the city’s lawyer, said city law doesn’t and never has allowed street vendors. When people set up street-vending operations, she said, the city has enforced those laws.

But she also said the courts have ruled that certain “street artists” are protected under the First Amendment, and can set up anywhere in the city and sell their works.

“Street art” includes paintings, sculptures, prints and photography, Costigan said, citing case law. Other art can count as “street art” as long as it is “predominantly expressive,” she said.

Most of the people who spoke Tuesday said the city should leave all artists alone. “I resent very much being told by lawyers and police officers what art is,” one man said.

Bruce Meader of Saco said artists in the Old Port create “good will” in the community and serve as city ambassadors for cruise ship passengers.

“I feel more like a tour guide sometimes,” Meader said.

Said artist Diana Ellis: “I take the money I make at the farmers market (from selling art) and spend it at the farmers market.”

City Councilor Dory Waxman, chairwoman of the Health and Recreation Committee, which hosted the meeting, said the city will set up a task force in January to discuss both whether to establish a crafts market, and more generally, the city’s street-vendor regulations.

In January, the newly elected mayor will appoint new people to the Health and Recreation Committee, Waxman said, and those members will decide how to structure that task force and who will be on it.

Larry Bruns, manager of the Wednesday and Saturday farmers markets in Monument Square and Deering Oaks, said artists have been a problem at the markets at times.

Sometimes there are more artists than farmers, he said, and they take up valuable parking space that potential customers would use. He said he supported the idea of a crafts market because “artists are allowed to set up anywhere in the city they want. Crafts can’t.”

The idea of the crafts market arose this summer when a group of craftspeople approached the Health and Recreation Committee. They wanted a regularly scheduled day each week to set up shop in Monument Square, much like the farmers market, they said.

But for many residents, the proposed ordinance brought to light that the city currently restricts street vendors other than those “street artists” protected by the First Amendment.

That, coupled with recent enforcement of the street-vendor law, led to the outrage expressed at the meeting. Some artists said they didn’t understand the ordinance, and wanted to know if performance art was included.

Resident Peter Hayward said Costigan was “knowingly” interpreting the law incorrectly.

Waxman said the committee would compile everyone’s comments and pass them along to the task force, when it’s created. She said the topic would likely be settled sometime this winter.

“This is just the beginning of a very public process,” she said.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]