To save Congress Square, throw all the bums out

Last month, the Portland City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 to enter into closed-door negotiations with the hotel development company vying to buy Congress Square Park. Since then, developments in Istanbul and Old Orchard Beach have shown Portlanders two ways to address this travesty should the full council be foolish enough to approve the sale of our park in the coming months.

In Turkey, a peaceful protest against a plan to turn a public park into a shopping mall has morphed into mass demonstrations that now threaten to topple the government. In Old Orchard, citizens of the town effectively toppled their government this week by voting to replace six of the seven members of the town council following a dispute sparked by the council’s decision to fire the town manager last March.

A protest occupation of Congress Square Park would be warranted, and so would the removal of any councilors who vote this summer to sell it. That said, the credible threat of a successful recall vote could be enough to convince councilors on the wrong side of this issue to preserve and improve Congress Square instead, making divisive protest and recall efforts unnecessary.

I do not suggest a recall vote lightly. In fact, I cannot recall ever supporting a local recall effort before. The Portland City Council has made plenty of decisions over the past 15 years that I’ve disagreed with, but the sale of Congress Square would be an exceptionally egregious betrayal of the public’s trust.

What makes this different than, say, a vote to approve a crummy budget or pass a boneheaded ordinance?

The city budget is rewritten and approved every year, so short-sighted funding decisions can usually be revisited and remedied before any real, permanent damage is done to our public infrastructure and quality of life.

An obnoxious ordinance can be repealed through a “people’s veto” process. If a petition to repeal the law is signed by at least 1,500 registered voters and meets various other administrative standards, the council must either take the law off the books or put the matter before Portland voters in a citywide referendum.

The sale of Congress Square is not a budgetary decision and would not, in any practical sense, be reversible. If the hotel developers are allowed to purchase most of the park and build an event center upon it for their exclusive use, the space will effectively be lost to the public for generations.

The sale would not involve an ordinance, either. The park’s supporters could try to introduce a measure protecting this public space, but if a majority of the council supports the sale, the same majority would simply block the measure.

The biggest difference is this: One of the fundamental responsibilities of the city council is to maintain and protect our public property. If a councilor allows one of our parks to deteriorate, fails to act upon a plan to improve it (a plan created by a task force the council itself formed and funded), and then — in the face of clear evidence that a majority of those concerned favor the park’s preservation — sells our park to a private developer, that councilor is not fit to represent the people of Portland.

I explained my arguments against selling the square in a column published last month, so I won’t repeat them here. Now it’s time to name names.

The councilors who voted to begin negotiations for a sale are Nick Mavodones, Ed Suslovic and John Coyne. Councilor Kevin Donoghue was the only committee member to vote in opposition.

As Donoghue rightly pointed out, the question is not whether the developer’s proposal is superior to the park as it exists today — a space made inhospitable by years of neglect by the city itself and by disruptive renovation work at the adjacent hotel undertaken by the developer who wants to buy the park. It’s whether the proposal is better than what the park could be if the city did its job and followed through on the improvement plan it initiated years ago but subsequently ignored.

The city charter stipulates that a councilor with less than a year left in his or her term cannot be recalled, so Suslovic’s comeuppance may have to wait until November, assuming he votes in favor of the sale and runs again. Mavodones and Coyne, however, could have their public-service careers end early and in disgrace if they abdicate their responsibility and sell our park.

It may soon be time to throw all the bums out — the ones causing problems in Congress Square and the ones in City Hall whose neglect of this park exacerbated these problems in the first place.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.