Divided by Congress Square, Lyons and Hinck face off for Portland council

Portland voters may or may not have an opportunity to block the sale of Congress Square Park at the ballot box — that’s for a judge to decide in the coming weeks — but they definitely will have the chance to kick two supporters of the sale, Jill Duson and Ed Suslovic, off the City Council, and prevent a third from becoming a councilor on Nov. 5.

That third supporter is Jon Hinck, a 59-year-old attorney and former state representative who ran and lost, badly, in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate last year. Having failed to get a chance to be one of the most politically powerful people in the country, Hinck’s set his sights on a considerably less prestigious post: the at-large council seat held by John Anton, an opponent of the park sale who’s not seeking another three-year term this year.

Hinck’s challenger is Wells Lyons, a 31-year-old attorney and entrepreneur who would have voted against the park’s sale had he been a councilor last month. And he almost was. Lyons ran against longtime councilor and former mayor Nick Mavodones (a sale supporter) last year and made a strong showing, especially for a first-time candidate. He picked up about 13,000 votes in that citywide race — more than twice what Hinck got from fellow Dems in the statewide primary — and was about six percentage points short of victory.

Lyons initially supported the privatization of the public park but changed his mind after seeing the groundswell of grassroots opposition to the sale and taking a closer look at the deal. Not only is the sale price (about half a million bucks) too low, Lyons said in an interview this week, but the hotel developer preparing to buy the park is only required to operate an event center there for 10 years. After that, the facility can be converted to another use — more hotel rooms, for example — and “if this were a proposal to sell Congress Square so we can have more hotel rooms,” said Lyons, “90 percent [of Portlanders] would have been opposed.”

Hinck said he would have voted for the deal as-is but added that he thinks the city could have gotten more from the purchaser, Ohio-based private-equity firm Rockbridge Capital. In particular, he suggested the city could have required Rockbridge to buy the nearby parking lot on Free Street, next to the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, and convert that to public space.

Some people think Friends of Congress Square Park are a bunch of moonbats with unrealistic expectations about what the city can and cannot do, but this suggestion puts Hinck to the left of them. That parking lot is owned by MaineHealth, the gigantic hospital conglomerate. The city assesses its value for tax purposes at well over $700,000, and in the highly unlikely event MaineHealth would be willing, or could somehow be compelled, to sell it, you can bet the asking price would be far higher than that.

Beyond the issue of the park, there’s not a whole lot of daylight between the two candidates’ positions. Both support the citizen-initiated ordinance to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults in Portland. Both think the city’s been too generous handing out property-tax breaks to developers and want clearer guidelines for the practice going forward. And neither believes the city will be able to reduce property taxes anytime soon, given the cuts to the revenue-sharing arrangement between the state and municipalities and other factors beyond the council’s control.

The key difference between the contenders is their relationship to the establishment in City Hall. Hinck is the candidate of the Democratic Party cabal that’s run Portland for decades. He’s a good pal of Mayor Mike Brennan and is officially supported in this race by former councilor and mayor Jim Cohen and school board member Kate Snyder — people who’ve done much to make Portland the city it is today, for better or worse.

Lyons is the preferred candidate of the Green Independent Party insurgents who’ve tried, with some success, to push the old-guard Dems in a more progressive direction. He’s been endorsed by Councilors Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall, who won their seats representing the East and West Ends, respectively, in 2006 — the same year Hinck unseated Green State Rep. John Eder (now a leader in the effort to save Congress Square) to represent the West End in the Legislature.

More importantly, Lyons has the endorsement of Anton, the Green candidate who proved in two consecutive elections that a pol affiliated with that party can win a citywide (at-large) race. In this off-year election, when local Dems won’t be rallying around other party candidates for state or federal office, the smart money’s on the young Lyons.

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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.