November 4, 2013

Our View: Referendum wrong way to settle Congress Square issue

The city of Portland may be on shaky legal ground, but on the issue of good government, it is correct.

The Friends of Congress Square had a victory in court last week when a Superior Court justice overruled Portland officials, who had said the decision to sell part of the public space was an inappropriate subject for a referendum.

click image to enlarge

The best way to express displeasure with the City Council’s decision to sell part of Congress Square Plaza, above, would be to go to the polls Tuesday and vote out the two incumbents who supported the sale.

2013 File Photo/Gabe Souza

Unless that ruling is overturned by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, activists will soon be circulating petitions looking to get the matter before the voters in a future election.

We are not so sure about the city’s legal argument – its lawyer said that selling city property is an administrative act like spending money, and not a legislative one that would be subject to a referendum vote. That line of reasoning may end up winning the day, but it sounds like a stretch.

But we do agree with the city that the park’s sale is not an appropriate subject for a referendum – not for technical legal reasons, but for political ones. We lose the benefits of a representative democracy when it’s too easy to stop the government in its tracks every time a majority does something unpopular. When the referendum process is overused, we end up with a slow, cautious city government that is not capable of making the kind of decisions that need to be made.

Congress Square Plaza has been the focus of a planning conversation for five years, starting with a sleepy, underfunded task force created in 2008. The intensity picked up over the last two years since Rockbridge Capital developed its plans for a one-story event center that uses much of the existing park adjacent to its newly renovated Eastland Park Hotel. This proposal led to an evenly divided vote by the task force, a 3-1 vote in favor of the project by the Housing and Community Development Committee and a 6-3 vote by the City Council after a long and emotional public hearing.

Justice Joyce Wheeler said she supported the “discussion aspect” of a referendum campaign, but there has been no shortage of discussion around this issue. In the end, a divided council of the city’s elected officials made a tough decision.

It’s understandable that the people who support the park in its current configuration are disappointed, but the best way to express that is not in court or in some future election, but in the election that takes place Tuesday.

Three council seats, including two held by incumbents who voted for the sale, are up for grabs this week. People who are unhappy with the result of the Congress Square decision have a chance to vote those councilors out and replace them with people more in tune with their values.

Any elected body is going to be forced to deal with controversial issues. Its members will face strong arguments from both sides, and they will have to make a choice. You can bet that the advocates from one side or the other are going to walk away unhappy.

But representative democracy should not just be for the easy issues. A good council process is one that allows everyone to have a say, but recognizes that the talking has to stop sometime and not everyone is going to like the results.

This week’s council election is the right time to react to the Congress Square decision. A future referendum is not.

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