Portland parks advocate Frank Turek- “Tuesday’s vote a once in a generation opportunity”

President of the Friends of Congress Square Park, Frank Turek. Photo- Seth Koenig, BDN.

President of the Friends of Congress Square Park, Frank Turek. Photo- Seth Koenig, BDN.

Here’s what president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, Frank Turek, has to say about Tuesday’s vote on the citizen referendum question asking Portlanders if they want to be able to vote on sales of the city’s public parks:

“There’s a fundamental battle taking place in Portland right now and it’s not pretty. It’s fundamental because it strikes at the core of how a city should be run and whether ethics should play a part in that. And it’s gotten a little ugly because in the process, folks who are usually considered reasonable and progressive are showing their true colors as political operators.

I’m talking about the Citizens’ Initiative to amend Portland’s Land Banks ordinance which will add 35 parks and open spaces to the status of Land Bank and require a supermajority city council vote and/or a public vote before parks could be sold.

This might not have been such a big issue had not this initiative contained one park in particular: Congress Square Park. The No campaign is all about the City’s right to sell this park in particular. Why? Because the powers that be have decided it. It’s been a ‘done deal’ for more than two years and if it weren’t for a handful of upstarts who, in speaking for the majority of Portlanders, actually called them out on the deal, this would have just sailed through, business as usual.

For the past two years I’ve been one of those ‘upstarts.’ I’m not by nature political or confrontational, but I was, as the adage goes, in the right place at the right time. Before I dove into the ugly reality of our small town politics I had little interest in City Council. The city seemed to to be a machine that ran itself. Sure, my eyebrows raised once in awhile, as when it seemed like they were making monthly development deals, but aside from what appeared to be harmless monkeying with the system, City Councilors seemed like they couldn’t break the machine no matter the lack of foresight in their decisions. That all changed when they decided to sell a public park. My ethics alarm bells went off.

It wasn’t too far into my involvement that I discovered that there was a array of irregularities going on: A no-bid contract, a fundamentally flawed assessment of the property’s value, and conversations with the developer not made public. This had all the earmarks of what they call a back-room deal. But the clincher for me was that this would be the first time in Portland’s history that we would sell a public park to a private developer. And from what I’ve been able to find out it would be the first time in the State of Maine that a municipality sold it’s central downtown park. We’re talking super-precedence here. I started thinking, if they are going out of their way to maneuver this deal, why is it casually being treating as business as usual?

It’s this game changer of a deal that made me realize that if they got away with this once, they will have primed the pump for it to happen again. This was the genesis of the Citizens’

Initiative— not the eventual vote to sell Congress Square Park, but the actual idea in their heads that it’s ok to consider selling a public open space. If you were to look at what are effectively the only ethical guidelines for what the city should and shouldn’t do with its downtown, the two City documents to read are Downtown Vision and A Plan for the Arts District. Looking at these you will see clearly that there is no ‘vision’ for selling our downtown parks—quite the contrary, there are all kinds of guidelines for how we should be improving them (and not the “improving by selling” bit of Orwellian deceit the No side is touting.)

Over the past two years I’ve pointed this out to City Councilors in public forums, and still six of them went against the wisdom of the City’s own vision statements. This is a serious ethics violation and had we a way to call them out on this, they would have been seriously reprimanded. But there is no ethical oversight for City Council. They are a dog without a leash, and we simply have to live with their mess.

A lot more than parks are at stake on this vote on Tuesday. This is a contest to see who will be the dominant force in Portland for years to come. The people or business-as-usual politicians? City Hall has staked its reputation on this one deal. And so have the local politicos who think first of keeping developers happy and rely on public amnesia so they can do it all again further down the road. Mayor James Baxter’s legacy is that he gave us the Eastern and Western Promenades. Mayor Brennan’s legacy will be that he was the first to sell a park to a private developer.

The opposition is counting on low voter turnout and they will spend a huge amount of money to spread confusion and misinformation (Their campaign donations will likely top $100,000, thanks in part to out-of-town and out-of-state corporate donors.) What that means for regular folk is that we have to be extra vigilant in getting out the vote. Bring a friend and neighbor. This is an issue where your Yes vote can really make a difference.

I’m confident we will win, but we gotta win big. We have to send a message to the those who think they run this town. We are the people of Portland, we have a right to correct the wrong made by our representational government. As a fellow Portlander said to me last night when she was trying to understand the issue, “So, I’m voting for the right to vote?” Yes.

Opportunities like this come once in a generation. Be a part of the people’s history, vote Yes on June 10th.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a lifelong Portlander who works on a lobster boat, advocates for the marginalized and downtrodden, and occasionally ruffles feathers in City Hall and Augusta.