Portland city councilors voted 5-3 Monday night to place two referendums on the November ballot that could have an impact on future proposals to build emergency shelters, including the city’s plan to build a 200-bed homeless services center in Riverton.

One measure – a citizen initiative – is aimed at blocking the city project on Riverside Street, primarily by limiting the size of new emergency shelters to 50 beds.

The other measure, drafted by City Councilors Belinda Ray and Mark Dion, seeks to outmaneuver the citizen initiative by preserving the city’s ability to move the project forward, while limiting the number of shelters allowed in a given neighborhood.

As a result of the council’s action, voters will see three options on the November ballot – they can choose the citizen initiative, the council’s initiative or none of the above. A city attorney said the question that gets the most votes would win.

It’s the first time in recent memory that the council has offered a counterproposal to a citizen initiative.

“Part of the democratic process is rolling this out and giving people options, which is what we’re doing tonight,” Mayor Kate Snyder said ahead of the vote approving the competing measure. 

The council’s referendum, among other things, would limit the overall capacity of new emergency shelters to 150 beds in an individual facility, and 300 beds in all, within a one-mile radius, unless the council declares a shelter capacity emergency. If the council can demonstrate a shortage of shelter beds, including among privately operated shelters, then the capacity could increase.

That provision was put forward by Dion, who represents District 5, where the city’s new shelter is planned. It replaced a previous proposal by Ray, who sought to set a limit of 300 beds within a one-mile radius. Domestic violence shelters and Preble Street’s teen shelter would be exempt from these restrictions.

The discussion came after 75 minutes of public comment that broke down along familiar lines.

Supporters of the city’s shelter proposal urged the council to put forward the Ray-Dion proposal, while opponents urged the council to put forward the citizen proposal for an up-or-down vote.

While some critics accused councilors of undermining the democratic process, Snyder said that councilors were acting in the best interest of the city, highlighting the difficulties of tackling a complex issue like homelessness. She noted that such discussions span a range of views and emotions – providing shelter to everyone versus looking to state and regional partners; prioritizing housing before emergency shelters; and capping the number of shelter beds or not capping them.

“Every time we start talking about this issue it snowballs into this big difficult tangle of about a dozen different lenses,” Snyder said. “As Councilor Dion said, we have an opportunity tonight to make some progress.”

Alba Street resident Kate Sykes, an organizer with the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, accused the council of making a tactical decision by offering a competing question. Sykes, who helped get four citizen referendums approved last fall, said the council seems to have learned from its unsuccessful effort to defeat those proposals last year.

“This is strategic – it’s a tactic to silence the citizens,” she said.

There was confusion on the council and among the public about the vote threshold needed for an initiative to prevail.

The city code says the question that receives a majority of votes would win, which some, including Sykes, read as needing more than 50 percent of the vote – a threshold that would be difficult to reach with three questions.

However, Corporation Counsel Danielle West said the intent of the ordinance, adopted in the 1950s or 1960s, is likely that the question that gets the most votes would win.

City Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier and Andrew Zarro opposed the competing measure, primarily because of process. They noted that Dion’s cap of 150 beds was only revealed Monday, which didn’t give the public much time to process it.

Ali noted that several councilors last fall criticized the referendums placed on the ballot by the DSA as being rushed and not receiving public input or deliberation.

“This time around we as the council may be doing the same thing,” Ali said.

The city still may be able to move forward with its shelter plan, regardless of how the November vote falls.

Even though the citizen referendum is retroactive to April, attorneys for the city argue that Portland officials could still replace the Oxford Street shelter with a new shelter in Riverton, provided that the project receives Planning Board approval at least 45 days before the election.

The board scheduled an additional workshop for Tuesday night to review the city’s shelter plan, a move that could line up approvals next month, allowing the project to move forward.

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