November 7, 2013

Portland public spaces petition gets 3,000 signers

Election Day proves to be a boon to the group opposing the sale of Congress Square Plaza.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Friends of Congress Square Park group received an overwhelming response to a petition drive aimed at making it more difficult for the city to sell certain publicly owned open spaces, according to members of the group.

click image to enlarge

The future of Congress Square Plaza became cloudier when 3,000 residents signed petitions.

Staff File Photo

If successful, the effort could undo the sale of Congress Square Plaza, which is under contract with a private developer

The group wants to put the plaza and 34 other city-owned open spaces into a protected land bank that would have strict rules governing attempts to sell them. The group had 80 days to get the 1,500 signatures needed to put the proposal to voters.

Frank Turek, president of the group, said it took only one day to get the needed signatures. He estimated that volunteers collected more than 3,000 signatures at the polls Tuesday.

“It was overwhelming,” Turek said Wednesday morning. “All the attention the lawsuit brought really brought people out.”

While voters were quick to sign the group’s petition, they were not inclined to hold the sale of the plaza against City Council candidates who supported it.

Incumbent Jill Duson earned 47 percent of the vote in a three-way race for her at-large seat, while Edward Suslovic received 69 percent of the vote in a two-person race to keep the District 3 seat.

Former state representative Jon Hinck, who also supported the plaza sale, was elected to an at-large seat, winning 58 percent of the vote over Wellington “Wells” Lyons, who opposed the sale.

The city is trying to stop the proposed ordinance from going to voters. It argues that management of public lands is an administrative function and an appropriation of a resource, and therefore not subject to a citizen referendum.

A Cumberland County Superior Court judge last week ruled against the city and ordered the release of the petitions to the Friends group. The city is appealing the decision.

The new ordinance would require at least eight of the nine city councilors to vote in favor of selling protected open spaces outright.

If only six or seven councilors supported a sale, the question would be put to voters in a citywide referendum.

The sale of Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital could be nullified if the new ordinance is enacted, because the request for petition forms was filed before the council’s vote.

Last month, the City Council voted 6-3 to sell about two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge for $523,640. The Ohio-based company is redeveloping the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel, with plans to reopen it in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel and to build an event center on the land it would buy from the city.

Turek said the group was to meet Wednesday night to discuss whether to keep collecting signatures, or return their signed petitions to City Hall.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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