I helped write the grant application that secured federal funds for expansion of the Portland Museum of Art and the creation of Congress Square Park. So I have closely followed the public debate over selling the majority of the park to create an event center. I attended all public hearings and listened carefully to all comments, both for the sale and against it. I did not take a position. Until now.

I now support the citizens’ initiative to protect Portland’s parks and open spaces because I am concerned by the misleading representations made by city officials and opponents of the June 10 referendum question.

“Trust us,” the city and opponents say, because our major parks are “perpetually protected” by deeds, state law and the National Register of Historic Places. But history demonstrates that this is not the case.

n In the 1970s, land at the northern edge of Deering Oaks was taken to create Interstate 295, despite a deed restriction by the Deering family that the property conveyed “shall be forever held by said City of Portland as a public park, otherwise shall revert to said grantors or their heirs.”

Apparently, the City Council declared a public purpose in accommodating traffic, and that trumped the deed restriction. Without more protection, it is possible that this could happen again, despite assurances by the city and opponents of the referendum.

In 1974, after part of the Eastern Promenade was converted into a sewage treatment facility (completed in 1969), a group of citizens collected 3,000 signatures, challenging as inadequate protection the city’s effort to dedicate the Eastern Prom as parkland after the fact. They sought and secured a special state law, passed in 1975, that, according to the city, “protects the Eastern and Western Proms, Deering Oaks, and Lincoln Park.”

But, in fact, the law only “authorizes and empowers” the city to take action to protect these four places in perpetuity. Apparently, some kind of dedication was passed, but the city has not produced the language of the protections and, whatever they are, they can be changed at any time by vote of the council.

Furthermore, the city asserts that these four parks are also protected because they are on the National Register. This designation was secured in 1989 after nomination by a Portland resident and Earle Shettleworth (the state historic preservation officer). It protects the parks from negative changes arising from projects using federal funds. The designation does not preclude sale in whole or in part.

So what kind of protections do our parks and open spaces deserve? That is the fundamental question before voters, prompted by the council’s 6-3 vote to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Park. As in the past, citizens have again come forward to defend their public spaces. The city’s response has been to characterize them as anti-development obstructionists.

In April, the majority of the council rushed to pass a new ordinance, in record time and with public comment allowed only on the night of the vote. The stated objective was to put in place the city’s version of protections before the vote June 10.

We need to see this for what it is: an end run around the citizen-initiated referendum. In this recent action, the council reserves to itself the right to sell parks and open spaces with a vote of 7-2, a margin that the city attorney admits the council can change at any time by amending the ordinance.

Finally, the city says that Congress Square is a failed space and has been a public space only for 30 years. Apparently, it’s now expendable, as a better use has come along, in the council’s judgment. But what about Post Office Park, for example? It’s been a park only for about 20 years. What if a new business proposed to buy the parcel and put its headquarters on this prime site? After all, there is already another park across the street … .

The fundamental question comes down to this: Should parks and public open spaces be sold or sections chopped off by vote of the council only, or should citizens be allowed to vote, unless the council vote is almost unanimous?

In the case of Congress Square Park, the final citizen vote may very well be to sell the park – but citizens should have the final say.

Please join me in voting “yes” on June 10.

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