At least two Portland city councilors said Monday that they would be open to submitting to voters this fall a referendum question to compete with a citizen initiative designed to limit the size of new emergency shelters – and derail the city’s plans to build a 200-bed homeless services center in Riverton.

No decisions were made at Monday’s workshop, where councilors questioned Corporation Counsel Danielle West about their options in response to the referendum being placed on the ballot by the group, Smaller Shelters for Portland. Among other things, the referendum would limit most new shelters to 50 beds.

Although the citizen referendum would be retroactive to April, city attorneys argue that because of state law the city’s plans to build a 200-bed homeless services center to replace the outdated Oxford Street Shelter in Bayside could still move forward if it receives planning board approval at least 45-days before the election.

The council already has agreed to pay the Developers Collaborative $250,000 to continue working on the proposal. And the planning board is scheduled to hold a workshop on the proposal Tuesday, a time frame that could allow a final vote by mid-September.

The council has three options when presented with a citizen referendum. It can simply place the proposed referendum on the ballot; place the proposed referendum on the ballot along with a competing measure drafted by councilors; or it can simply adopt the citizen ordinance without sending it to voters.

West said councilors could not change or amend any ordinance enacted by voters for at least five years, but would be able to amend it immediately if they were to adopt it on their own.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said that the citizen referendum would be “so detrimental” that she would consider advocating for the council to adopt it outright, so they can turn around an amend it, even though the council could be accused of subverting the will of residents. But Ray, who is not seeking re-election this fall, said she’s “more seriously looking at” a competing measure that would include licensing rules currently being discussed by the council’s Public Safety and Health & Human Services Committee.

“I have been very clear – I think this is horrible policy,” Ray said. “We already know all the changes we would like to make to make this conform to our licensing (proposal).”

After the meeting, Ray said that the council would not be able to enact shelter licensing rules being discussed by the committee if the referendum passes as written. She said those regulations seek, among other things, to limit the number of shelter beds within a 1-mile radius to 300 and require a 1,000-foot minimum buffer between facilities.

Because the citizen referendum is retroactive to April 20, any licensing proposal approved before the election could be rendered moot, she said.

Most of the city’s homeless services are concentrated in Bayside, where councilors have enacted a 180-day moratorium on new shelters so the council can finish drafting licensing rules. A council resolution in support of the moratorium stated that there are currently more than 500 shelter beds in Bayside.

City Councilor Mark Dion, who represents Riverton, where the city is planning to build a 200-bed homeless services center, framed his interest in presenting a competing proposal for the November ballot as a hypothetical, asking whether West if her office would review a competing measure, if he had one.

After the meeting, Dion said he has been listening to and speaking with his constituents about a potential compromise that he could present to the council for consideration. So far, those conversations have not produced a tangible proposal, though he hopes they will before the council meets next month. And Dion said he plans to speak with Ray about her plans.

“I personally don’t believe the best way to manage a city is by referendum,” Dion said. “If we can develop a proposal that makes sense to my colleagues on the council and addresses some of the concerns raised to me over the weeks, then maybe we can get a solution. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re too far apart. I don’t know. But I’m not one to walk away from the table if there’s an opportunity for agreement.”

Smaller Shelters for Portland, the group behind the referendum effort, collected more than 1,500 signatures from registered voters in Portland to place their proposal on the ballot.

The referendum would limit the size of most new emergency shelters to 50 beds, while making other changes to standards new shelters must meet. Shelters serving families or domestic violence victims would be excluded from the new limit. And existing shelters would not be affected.

In addition to capping the size of new shelters, the referendum would remove requirements that shelters provide enough space to conduct security screenings, have clear sight lines to sleeping areas for administrative offices and that new shelters be located within a quarter mile of a public bus route. It would add a requirement that new shelters be open 24 hours a day and provide services either in person or through video conferencing.

Earlier this month, the council postponed a vote to place the referendum on the November ballot so it could discuss its options in a workshop.

The council is expected to vote on the Smaller Shelters for Portland referendum, as well as any potential competing measure, at its next business meeting, scheduled for Aug. 23.

The new homeless services center proposed for 654 Riverside St. would offer services and amenities not available on Oxford Street, but it would be located near the Westbrook line, far from services downtown.

The new shelter would offer about 200 beds, whereas Oxford Street can only accommodate 154 people on thin floor mats. The new shelter also would have an onsite health clinic, rooms for community service providers to meet with and provide services to clients, a soup kitchen, indoor lockers and restrooms, services that are not available at the current location. And the new design would allow for social distancing, which was needed during the pandemic.


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