A lawyer for Portlanders for Safer Shelters, which is behind the smaller shelters citizen referendum, sent a letter to the mayor and members of the City Council on Thursday threatening a lawsuit if city staff say the outcome of the vote could not change city plans to build a 208-bed homeless services center in Riverton.

City attorneys have said in the past that plans for the center would be safeguarded by law if they were approved at least 45 days before the upcoming election. The group against the center argues that the law requires a written decision be issued for the project to get final approval – and that didn’t come until 41 days before Nov. 2.

Attorney Kristin Collins requested that city officials correct the public record and refrain from repeating “inaccurate statements.”

“These false statements are perhaps intended to and will have the effect of depressing voter turnout and engagement,” Collins wrote. “If such comments continue, we will immediately request a declaratory judgment and injunction to declare that the amendments, if passed, will attach to the proposed Riverton shelter.”

A city attorney Thursday objected to Collins’ characterization of the city’s stand and suggested that the matter likely “will be ably resolved by a court of law in due course.”

“It is unfortunate this Attorney Collins and her client have opted to accuse the city of “voter suppression” and attempted to bait the City into litigating what is fundamentally a legal question in the court of public opinion, rather than in a court of law,” Danielle West, Portland’s Corporation Counsel and soon-to-be interim city manager, said in a statement. “Because the City greatly respects Portland voters and in no way wishes to unfairly influence the election results, much less suppress voter turnout or participation, it will not offer a legal opinion one way or the other about the applicability of the initiative on any land use approval.”

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Portland officials have spent years coming up with a plan to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which services single adults in Bayside. That space is a three-story apartment building and garage that was retrofitted into a shelter. It can accommodate 154 people, who must sleep on thin floor mats in close proximity to one another. And there is no room for additional services such as a soup kitchen or counseling.

The smaller shelter referendum, Question A on the city ballot, would limit the size of most new homeless shelters to 50 beds and remove requirements, including that facilities be located near public transit and have day space. The measure is retroactive to April 20 and was designed to block the city’s plans to build the proposed new center on Riverside Street, which would offer homeless people raised beds, wraparound services, a medical clinic, soup kitchen and a place to come inside during the day.

City attorneys have stated publicly that state law prohibits retroactivity clauses from derailing any project that has received its final approval at least 45 days before such a clause would go into effect, which in this case would be Election Day.

Attorneys have said the Planning Board’s vote to approve the shelter constituted final approval, but Collins said the city’s land use code states that decisions are considered final “as of the date the written decision is issued.”

It’s a technical point that could have a big impact.

The Planning Board approved the shelter project on Sept. 14, which is 49 days before the election. However, Collins said a city staffer indicated that the written decision was not signed until sometime after Sept. 20 and not issued until Sept. 22, which was 41 days before the election.

“If passed, the citizen-initiated amendments must be applied to the proposed shelter, requiring its capacity to be reduced to 50 beds,” Collins asserted.

In her letter, Collins characterized the group she is representing as “a coalition of Riverton and other local residents and property owners who circulated and signed petitions for the ballot initiative to limit the size of homeless shelters.”

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