The Portland City Council voted Monday night to set a higher threshold for selling public parks, but in the process only further infuriated members of a group fighting to preserve Congress Square Plaza.

The City Council’s 7-2 vote came roughly six weeks before Portland residents will vote on a referendum that, in addition to expanding the list of protected parks in the city, would effectively block the council’s sale of part of Congress Square Plaza to a developer.

Located at the intersection of Congress and High streets, Congress Square Plaza is only a half-acre in size but has sparked a broader fight over the city’s ability to sell park land.

Both the changes approved by the council Monday and the June referendum would require a supermajority vote from the council to sell additional parks and “public grounds” in the future. But unlike the referendum pioneered by a citizens group, the council version would allow the $523,000 sale of two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to proceed.

The majority of the council members rejected a proposal to postpone a vote on the council-drafted changes until after the June referendum. The city has also turned to the courts to challenge whether the Friends of Congress Square Park even have a legal right to hold the referendum.

Members of Friends of Congress Square Park as well as one of the dissenting council members accused the city Monday of trying an “end run” around the efforts to protect the plaza.

“I’ve never really seen the city of Portland maneuver this way to essentially beat the citizens of Portland to the finish line,” Councilor David Marshall said before the vote. He was joined by Councilor Kevin Donoghue in pushing to postpone Monday’s vote.

Mayor Michael Brennan, however, said the approved ordinance will provide straightforward direction for handling the potential sale of public property in the future.

“I think this has been a very transparent process,” Brennan said.

Congress Square Plaza has been the focus of a feisty dispute between city officials and a group of local residents since last fall, when the council voted 6-3 to sell two-thirds of the plaza to the developer renovating the former Eastland Park Hotel.

Rockbridge Capital, the Ohio-based developer that bought and renovated the Eastland into the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, plans to build an event center at the site.

In response to the sale decision, Friends of Congress Square Park collected more than 4,000 signatures to put a proposed ordinance on the June ballot that would add Congress Square Plaza to the list of protected parks and require at least seven votes on the nine-member council to sell such properties.

City attorneys have fought the referendum from the beginning, however, and this month argued their case questioning the legality of the referendum before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The court has not yet made a decision in the case.

Frank Turek, one of the leaders of Friends of Congress Square Park, complimented the council on crafting a proposal to strengthen protections of other parks in the future but suggested the real intent was to disrupt the citizens initiative process.

“Either this is the epitome of hypocrisy or you are up to something you are not telling the public,” Turek said.

But Councilor Ed Suslovic defended the process of crafting the proposal, pointing out that improvements were made based on feedback from the public. He also said the planned sale of Congress Square Plaza is an anomaly and that, contrary to suggestions, the city has steadily expanded the amount of park and recreation land in recent decades.

A city attorney said Monday night that if the court sides with the Friends group and the referendum passes in June, the city will have to reconcile the differences between the two ordinances with amendments submitted to the council.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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