The last two elections have sent the Portland City Council in a more progressive direction, opening the door for policies and priorities that may have faced resistance in the past.

So what could a more progressive council pursue with a new six-seat majority on the nine-member body, which is losing three fiscal moderates?

The new council won’t be inaugurated until Dec. 6. Mayor Kate Snyder said the council will set its collective goals in mid-December.

“In the last couple years I have done that work with the council, we have pretty much repeated goals: housing, homelessness, responsible budgeting, impact to the taxpayer and that kind of thing,” Snyder said. “It will be interesting to see what the priorities are that are shared and where the majority council coalesces on the top three or four (things) that we want to focus our work on.”

The lack of housing, especially housing that’s affordable to low- and middle-income residents, has been – and likely will continue to be – a major focus for the council. That work, as well as other goals formally established in the coming weeks, will inform and drive budget deliberations, which will consume much of the spring.

With the coronavirus surging once again, it’s likely that an indoor mask-wearing mandate, which was narrowly defeated this fall, could return to the docket.

Progressive Portland said in a written statement that it will wait to see what issues emerge as the council’s priorities – through goal-setting, the mayor’s State of the City address and the interim city manager’s budget proposal – before surveying its 5,000 Portland-based email subscribers about whether the group should support, oppose or remain neutral in any policy debates. The group also described how it defines the word “progressive.”

“Generally speaking, we think progressive means a stronger social safety net, stronger protections for workers and the environment, support for immigration, strong public schools, greater transparency in government, etc. etc.,” the group said. “We do our best to stick to a commonly understood definition of ‘progressive’ so that everyone, regardless of their political views, can use it as a resource to see which councilors are best representing their views.”

Nicholas Mavodones, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau all decided to not seek re-election this year. They will be replaced by candidates supported by progressive groups, such as Progressive Portland and Equity in Portland Schools: Roberto Rodriguez (at large), Anna Trevorrow (District 1) and Victoria Pelletier (District 2.) They will join councilors Pious Ali, Andrew Zarro and April Fournier, who have emerged as a more progressive voting bloc over the last year.

Former City Manager Jon Jennings, who has been accused of blocking progressive policies, left earlier this month to take a new job in Clearwater, Florida. And the new council will be tasked with finding a replacement as a charter commission continues to work on a series of recommendations to restructure the basic form of government in Maine’s largest city.

Rodriguez and Trevorrow both said they were not available for interviews on Friday.

Based on pre-election interviews and questionnaires answered by the incoming councilors, some of the more progressive priorities could include the implementation of recommendations of the Racial Equity Committee, which are being reviewed by the council; participatory budgeting, in which neighborhoods are allocated a pool of money to decide for themselves how to spend it; a study or pilot program for a universal basic income; and increased pay for councilors and possibly school board members.

Pelletier’s campaign focused on addressing the housing shortage, affordability issues and racial equity. She said she’s looking forward to finding ways to provide more resources to traditionally under-resourced groups, like people experiencing homelessness and low-income families. That’s why she supports conversations about universal basic income and implementing the recommendations of the Racial Equity Steering Committee, especially one calling for a community-based alternative response model for people in crisis, rather than relying on police.

She’d also like to see city meetings translated into different languages in real time and for the city to offer shuttle services and child care to residents when it returns to in-person meetings at City Hall. She supports a livable salary for councilors and school board members so residents with lower incomes can afford to serve.

Pelletier said she’s mindful that the city has limited resources and new initiatives could be expensive. But she’s looking forward to looking for ways to shift budget priorities, and she’s open to larger budget increases than have been accepted by past councils.

“I know I’m not always going to get what I want immediately, but I am going to work hard to bring it to the table and fight for it,” she said. “We have a chance to do things we have not done before and that includes funding equity.”

Zarro said he hopes the new council will devote more resources to combating climate change. He’d like to provide more funding to the city’s sustainability office, roll out a citywide curbside composting program and shift transportation planning away from cars and toward more bike and pedestrian upgrades.

“I want to de-incentivize people from driving in Portland,” he said. “I think there might be more appetite for that this year.”

Ali, who will be the most senior member of the new council and who is currently rated the most progressive sitting councilor by Progressive Portland, said he actually considers himself a moderate. Ali said he knows that the council must make decisions for the common good, not based on political ideology, and represent everyone, including those with divergent viewpoints.

Ali said he would like the council to clamp down on short-term rentals, including prohibiting unhosted units, which are currently capped at 400. That position is shared by Zarro and Pelletier. Trevorrow indicated before the election she supported “disincentives” for short-term rentals.

“I personally want to see unhosted (rentals) gone,” Ali said. “If you want to host an Airbnb, you have to live in it.”

Pelletier said she would like the city first to crack down on people operating illegal short-term rentals, and then to consider prohibiting, or reducing the number of unhosted or nonowner-occupied shorter-term rentals.

Voters, however, turned down a similar proposal to prohibit nonowner-occupied short-term rentals last fall. It was the only one of six citizen referendums not to pass in 2020, losing by 273 votes.

Universal basic income could also emerge as an issue for a more progressive council.

Last year, Ali asked the council to study the possibility of establishing a universal base income program in the city, which would essentially provide regular cash payments to low-income residents.

While that initiative did not move forward, at least two incoming councilors – Rodriguez and Pelletier – said in a pre-election candidate survey for Equity in Portland Schools that they would support such a program for the city.

Rodriguez said he advocated for a similar program on the school board that would have used federal coronavirus funding.

“The proposal aimed to help PPS families experiencing COVID-related impacts including loss of employment, change in hours of employment, increased child care costs and more,” he said. “Unfortunately we were not able to launch the program with such a tight timeline, but today we are finding mounting evidence that stimulus checks have had a profound effect on lifting people out of poverty this past year.”

Rodriguez said he would continue to advocate with “counterparts at the state and federal level to encourage the continuation of large and inclusive economic support for families.”

Pelletier was similarly supportive, saying a universal basic income program would help address both economic and racial disparities laid bare during the pandemic.

“If we implement a universal base income policy, we can do our part to not only support marginalized frontline workers against another pandemic, but can also start working towards lifting low-income families out of poverty and aid them in building wealth,” she wrote.

Trevorrow said she was open to the idea, though she raised the question about how it would be funded, which Zarro also has done.

Another area that seems to have broad support among the new councilors is increasing the salary of councilors and possibly school board members. Councilors currently make about $6,400 a year for what is supposed to be part-time service, though councilors routinely characterize their work as full time.

Councilors have the authority under the city charter to set their own pay, though any adjustments would not take effect until the next fiscal year.

All three incoming councilors have said they support increasing council pay to reflect the time commitment, saying that it would open up elected office to more people, including low-income people and underrepresented communities, who may not have the time or resources to serve at the current rate.

“I know firsthand that these positions require a lot of work for largely volunteer positions,” Trevorrow, a school board member, said in a candidate questionnaire. “A salary would potentially improve representation for constituents as well because representation would become the elected official’s primary job as opposed to something additional.”

The council could also look into participatory budgeting, something Ali has proposed in each of the last two years.

School Board Chairperson Emily Figdor said last week in her State of the Schools address that the school district will use that process to distribute some of the federal funding it received to respond to the pandemic.

Zarro said he would have liked the council to have tested participatory budgeting with the first round of coronavirus relief funds. He would have liked to have allocated a “tangible and manageable” sum of funding to each council district to spend on eligible uses.

“It’s a really interesting tool for democratic practices, where people can show up and get involved,” he said. “I do understand it’s something that may be a little too progressive for folks. It makes people feel a little uncomfortable.”

Zarro said he’s looking forward to working with the new members of the council, which he noted has turned over six seats in the last two years.

“There’s an opportunity for us to try things a little differently and acknowledge the things that work and keep those and let go of the things that don’t,” he said. “I’m feeling really optimistic about this session. It feels like we have a lot in front of us that we can accomplish.”


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