Commentary

Halsey Frank: Governing in Portland is no picnic in the park

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The trend of people quitting Portland government (councilors Nicholas Mavodones, Jill Duson, Spencer Thibodeau, city manager Jon Jennings, police chief Frank Clark, school board members Sarah Thompson and Jeff Irish) continued last week as the chairperson of the Portland Parks Commission, Michael Mertaugh, resigned. He had served on the commission for eight years.

According to the Press Herald, he did so because the commission voted 4 to 4 and thus did not approve his motion to recommend that the food trucks that have been permitted to line the Eastern Promenade be moved to the parking lot off Cutter Street and down the hill between the Prom and the water, and that their number be limited to seven. Three-hundred and fifty people signed a petition supporting his idea.

It seems the vote was the culmination of simmering differences between the chair’s vision for Portland’s parks and that of some of the other commissioners. Reportedly, the chair viewed the city’s parks more as places of refuge from the more urban landscape of the city. Other commissioners think of the parks as places for activities such as concerts, food service, and eating.

I was a member of the Friends of the Parks from 2005 to 2009. We were a group appointed by the City Council to advise the Director of the City of Portland’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Denise Clavette. She managed and oversaw the department’s divisions of Administration, Parks and Cemeteries, Recreation and Enterprise, Riverside Golf Course and Portland Ice Arena, including three community centers, senior programs, over 1,200 acres of parks and open spaces, and project management. She developed and managed a $6 million budget, and an annual $1 million capital improvements plan. 

We met more-or-less monthly to discuss various issues involving parks in Portland. I don’t remember any that were especially controversial. Our meetings were cordial. Our biggest problem was achieving a quorum. Perhaps that was because we didn’t have much power. (It sounds like that challenge continues if the Commission was only able to muster eight members for the vote on food trucks.) Ultimately, the group was reorganized, but I’m not sure it’s working any better.

Currently, Portland’s charter vests the city council with all the power that state law provides (such as the power to pass ordinances), and that the inhabitants of the city have, except the power to manage and control the schools.

The city’s ordinances require that the city keep its parks like the Eastern Prom predominantly in their natural, scenic and open condition, and consistent with its master plan. They generally prohibit street vendors but specifically authorize food trucks, mobile food service establishments and outdoor dining with a license and a permit. They prohibit throwing garbage and littering in the park, and they require that food trucks provide trash cans and keep the the vicinity of their truck litter-free.

Meanwhile, the local goals in the Recreation and Open Space section of Portland’s most recent Comprehensive Plan include to protect the environment, sustain its parks to enhance the quality of life, provide parks that are accessible to all residents, and preserve the intrinsic value of parks, including their vistas and ecosystems. Portland’s Comprehensive Plan is supposed to be the basic policy guide for land use regulation in Portland.

The ordinances also establish the 13-member Parks Commission to protect the city’s parks. Several members of the commission are designated to represent interest groups like the Friends of the Eastern Prom. A majority of seven are appointed to represent the interests of the public at large.

The Commission’s duties are to solicit donations, make recommendations to the council regarding the sale of parks and disposition of park trust funds, keep an inventory of parks and of open space needs, conduct an annual meeting and submit to the council an annual report, encourage education relating to parks, undertake activities to enhance the parks, and adopt rules for the conduct of Commission meetings, including a rule allowing public comment.

In a historical note that is likely only to exacerbate the food truck controversy, originally, a park was an enclosed piece of ground stocked with game and held by royal prescription or grant, or it was a tract of land attached to a country house used as a game preserve and for recreation. The modern definition includes a piece of ground in or near a city or town that is kept for ornament and recreation.

I find the rules and regulations surrounding the current Portland Parks Commission contradictory and confusing. It’s not even clear that the Commission’s duties include making a recommendation regarding an issue like the location of food trucks in parks. To the extent that I can discern a theme in the rules and regulations regarding parks, it is toward the preservation of parks as places of refuge.

To me, food trucks perpetually lining the Eastern Prom seem incompatible with that theme and the concept of a park. I like a picnic in a park as much as anyone, but the trucks on the Prom obstruct pedestrian and vehicular traffic, use up limited parking space, are noisy, generate garbage and trash, and disrupt the view of Casco Bay. (I concede that there are countervailing provisions and perspectives.)

The appropriate body to resolve those conflicts is the city council. If it wanted advice, it should have more clearly said so. As it is, if Portland is a representative democracy and, as the vote in the Commission seemed to indicate, there is no clear consensus regarding the issue, then at most, the council should compromise until greater agreement emerges.

One compromise position that was floated is to move some of the food trucks off the Prom and to the lot. Like all compromises, it’s less than fully satisfying.

Photo: Bd2media, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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