The group hoping to put limits on the sale of parks can collect signatures while the city appeals.

Following a judge’s ruling on Monday, the group opposing the sale of Congress Square Plaza plans to be at the polls in force Tuesday to collect signatures for a citizen petition that could undo the deal even as the city of Portland continues to fight the effort in court.

The Friends of Congress Square Park won a court ruling last week that found the city was wrong to reject the group’s effort to start a petition drive for a new land protection ordinance. The ordinance would make it more difficult for the City Council to sell public spaces, including the small downtown plaza at High and Congress streets.

The city intends to appeal, however, and asked the court on Friday to delay any petition effort until that appeal is decided.

On Monday morning, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Joyce A. Wheeler ordered the city to release the petition forms that same day.

Wheeler said the soonest Portland voters would be asked to vote on the issue is June 2014, and that gives the state’s highest court enough time to decide on the appeal.

“The City is wasting their time and the people’s money fighting us on this,” David LaCasse, the group’s treasurer and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a prepared statement. “The City should stop trying to impede us every step of the way.”

Portland’s corporation counsel, Danielle West-Chuhta, said the city’s appeal is not designed to protect the council’s vote to sell the plaza, but rather is aimed at the precedent the petition might set.

“(The) plaintiffs and the bulk of the media coverage of this case to date have made it sound like this matter is exclusively about Congress Square,” West-Chuhta said in an email. “Although it is possible that the outcome of this case could have an impact on that sale, from the city’s perspective, this case is about so much more.”

The city has argued that the sale and protection of city-owned land is an administrative appropriation, which is not subject to citizen referendums.

“The city’s motivation in this case is simply to get a definitive and final ruling from Maine’s highest court as to whether the plaintiffs’ proposed ordinance is or is not a question that the voters have the power to decide or whether, instead, such matters are exclusively within the province of their City Council,” West-Chuhta said.

Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, said the group received petitions from the city clerk’s office at 1:30 p.m. Monday. The goal is to have three shifts of petition gatherers at each of the city’s 11 polling locations on Tuesday, Turek said.

“We’ve got 20-some-odd people right now,” Turek said. “We’ve had a lot of people request to be signature gatherers.”

The group has until Jan. 22, 2014, to gather the 1,500 signatures needed to place the petition on next June’s ballot, Turek said.

The City Council voted 6-3 in September to sell most of the half-acre Congress Square Plaza to the company redeveloping the old Eastland Hotel. Rockbridge Capital agreed to pay $524,000 for two-thirds of the plaza, leaving 4,800 square feet for a new, smaller public space. The company plans to use its portion of the plaza for an art gallery and events center connected to the hotel.

The City Council’s decision came after more than a year of negotiations and hours of passionate – and at time raucous – public testimony to save the park. Two council meetings leading up to the sale were interrupted by protesters and one person was arrested.

The Friends of Congress Square Park filed initial paperwork for a citizens initiative on Sept. 7, well before the council’s Sept. 16 vote to sell the plaza. The group’s petition calls for increased protections for 35 open spaces, including voter referendums in cases without at least eight of the nine councilors voting in favor of a sale.

The city rejected the petition application, saying voters cannot overrule council decisions on land sales. That led to the lawsuit by the Friends group.

Because the group’s paperwork was filed before the council’s vote to sell the plaza, the sale could potentially be affected if the petition moves forward and voters ultimately approve the changes being sought.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the former Eastland Hotel when it reopens next month as the Westin Portland Harborview, said he is focusing on getting the hotel up and running.

“At this point, (the petition is) a city matter and it’s something the city has to deal with,” Wennerstrom said.

The purchase and sale agreement has been signed by Rockbridge and the city, but the closing date is not until the spring, Wennerstrom said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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