The South Portland City Council seemed prepared Monday night to offer swift support for a committee recommendation to turn the armory building into a future City Hall.

Then Councilor Linda Boudreau put the brakes on the endorsement.

Arguing that the council has failed to involve the public, Boudreau said, “City Hall is an important building. It is the one city building most taxpayers visit. This type of decision demands that the public has a voice… Do they want to do this? Do they want to move City Hall across the road?”

At issue is a newly released report that recommends consolidating city offices in the sprawling brick armory building off Broadway. The existing City Hall is located on Ocean Street in Knightville, with satellite offices also located downtown.

A 12-member committee composed of city officials and residents met for a year to study potential uses for the vacant South Portland Armory building, which the council bought in 2006 for $675,000. The 25,000-square-foot building has been vacant since 1996.

“We think a new City Hall is exactly what should go there,” said Councilor Kay Loring, who reported on the committee’s findings.

Mayor Claude Morgan indicated he wanted to craft a resolution directing city staff “to pursue proposed-use recommendations” for the site.

If the council adopted the resolution, preliminary site studies and designs could be done on the 1940s-era building, which lacks a heating system and needs a new roof.

“I’m ready to move forward,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

“There is a time for bringing in the public, when we have the hard numbers,” offered Councilor Jim Soule. “But they’re unknown. It would be a free-for-all now to ask the public’s input without that information.”

But Boudreau persevered, criticizing the council for failing to seek public feedback in 2006, before purchasing the building as a potential site for city offices.

“I’m not ready to move forward until we have real public participation with feedback,” Boudreau said. “We bought this building without true public participation. We own it now. But we still need the public’s involvement.”

Boudreau offered several ideas for involving the public. They included community presentations, forums, tours of the existing City Hall, even a referendum vote.

“It’s irrelevant whether we bond or use existing funds,” Boudreau said. “It’s still the taxpayer’s money.”

Morgan countered that the building purchase did undergo “an exhaustive public process.” He said the exploratory phase of determining costs and devising development plans for rehabbing the Armory building are routinely done for many city projects.

“We do this all the time,” he said. “It is part of our procedures.”

Councilor Jim Hughes then appeared swayed by Boudreau’s reasoning.

“We never had a public vote on spending $675,000 to buy the building,” Hughes said. “It was done in executive sessions. The costs were put forward in a non-public, non-participatory way…

Linda (Boudreau) and I asked for a public vote and it was not done.”

Both Hughes and Boudreau emphasized the need to understand and assess all the city’s spending priorities before moving forward with plans for the armory.

Soule said he still supported exploring the building plans. But he emphasized that he was “not involved in the vote” to purchase the armory building.

“I would not have agreed to it,” he said, because sufficient planning was not done to support it.

Soule and the other councilors finally agreed to accept the committee report, without endorsement, at the next council meeting. Discussions will continue.

“We need to identify and set our priorities first,” Hughes said.

Added Boudreau: “We need to allocate spending for our highest needs.”

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