PORTLAND – Officials in Maine’s largest and most liberal city have long embraced the ideals of tolerance. While other cities around the nation have employed tear gas and pepper spray to remove Occupy Wall Street protesters from their encampments in recent weeks, Portland has offered dialogue.

But citing concerns about public safety, Portland officials appear to be losing patience.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted 3-0 Thursday night to recommend that the council reject Occupy Maine’s request for a permit that would allow it to continue its encampment in Lincoln Park.

The vote came after a five-hour meeting that included more than two hours of public testimony in the packed City Council chambers.

The council will vote on the permit at a special meeting Wednesday.

Occupy Maine will submit an amended permit application to the City Council, said John Branson, an attorney for the protesters. He said the group’s encampment is an expression of political speech, so it is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“I am disappointed,” he said after the vote. “I assured my clients that we weren’t being set up for a predetermined outcome.”

City attorney Gary Wood told the Public Safety Committee that a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Clark v. Community for Non Violence, said the National Park Service could prohibit camping by homeless protesters at Lafayette Park and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., without violating their First Amendment rights.

Councilors Ed Suslovic, John Coyne and David Marshall, who make up the Public Safety Committee, voted to deny the permit for Occupy Maine.

Coyne said the movement has moved away from its original political mission and turned the city’s oldest park into an eyesore.

“The city manager was able to let you guys occupy for a while, but it has gotten too much,” he told members of the movement who attended the meeting.

Suslovic said the city would never allow a landlord to maintain a dangerous building. Likewise, it should not allow Occupy Maine to continue its overnight encampment.

“What I see in front of us is a public safety disaster,” he said.

Marshall appeared to have mixed feelings. He said he could not support the permit proposal as written but would like the protesters and the city’s staff to continue working on it.

City staffers described Occupy Maine as having an unregulated, unsanitary campground that attracts a high number of police calls and poses a threat to health and safety.

Participants in the Occupy Maine movement say their encampment has evolved into a self-governing community, with a library and a spiritual center, and that the movement has become an “unmistakable First Amendment protest.”

They want a written permit from the city that recognizes them as caretakers of a portion of the park for six months. Such a permit would allow them to enforce their zero-tolerance rules on alcohol, drugs and violence and give them more control over who stays overnight.

“We are seeking to create a permanent free-speech zone in Lincoln Park that Occupy Maine would be the first steward of,” Branson said. “This isn’t just about Occupy Maine. This is about reclaiming public space for citizenship activity.”

Heather Curtis, who has been living in Lincoln Park for three weeks, said she will be proud of the city if it gives Occupy Maine permission to stay in the park.

“We are acting with diplomacy and are rising to the occasion to treat the city of Portland with respect, and we hope the city will do the same,” she said, adding a warning: “Just because the permit is denied does not mean we will leave. I prefer not to go down that road.”

Acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck said there were 16 arrests and 112 calls for service in Lincoln Park from Oct. 1 to Nov. 29. During that same period in 2009 and 2010, there were no arrests and 12 calls for service in the park, he said.

One alarming incident, he said, was that two 14-year-old runaway girls from Buxton stayed at the park for two nights with two men who identified themselves as members of the Occupy Maine safety team, then fled the park on the third day because of police presence.

He said police are seeking to arrest a 22-year-old man who was involved with the girls.

Representatives of the Portland Community Chamber and the Portland Downtown District urged the committee to deny Occupy Maine a permit.

The city should move quickly to vacate the park, said Chris O’Neil, a lobbyist for the chamber. “As communities around the country have put an end of the Occupy movement in public spaces, Portland becomes more of an outlier the more we wait,” he said.

Occupy Maine started its demonstration in Monument Square in early October, and at the city’s request moved to Lincoln Park. As the weeks wore on, the encampment grew to encompass most of the park between Congress, Pearl, Federal and Franklin streets.

A series of arrests and incidents of violence prompted city officials to do a walk-through inspection of the park on Nov. 17. Several code violations were cited, prompting a meeting at which protesters told city officials they would seek members’ approval to apply for a waiver from the city.

On Tuesday, the protesters filed a petition seeking the city’s permission for the occupation to continue and including a list of actions they would take to address city officials’ concerns, such as limiting their occupation to a portion of the park, removing flammable materials, limiting the number of overnight occupants and requiring that tents be at least 10 feet apart.

The protest is violating several city ordinances, such as prohibitions against sleeping overnight in public parks and loitering in parks after they are closed. Lincoln Park is closed from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. daily.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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Twitter: @TomBellPortland