Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Will the Portland City Council work with #OccupyMaine, or refuse all dialogue?

Published at thePhoenix.com/AboutTown

There is one question that must be answered at tomorrow night's Portland City Council meeting: Will the councilors treat the Occupiers the same way the councilors treat for-profit corporations?
We'd hope so, of course - we'd hope that the council would behave equably toward all petitioners, from all quarters. We'll have to see whether Portland's councilors are up to that challenge, which is made sharper by the anti-corporate nature of the Occupy movement's message. Attend the meeting at City Hall at 7 pm - public comments are welcome - and see for yourself what happens.
It is normal practice for companies seeking permission from the council to do whatever they want - a new building, rezoning, stage an event in a public space - to be met with a collaborative spirit from councilors and council committees. Applications are treated as suggestions, with councilors often suggesting revisions and engaging in back-and-forth about what the goals are for the request, and finding ways to assuage any councilors' concerns while still allowing the the project to go forward.
Most of the time, when dealing with developers and other businesses, the Portland council - like most I've seen in action around the state - takes a "how can we make this happen" approach, often negotiating around the details but rarely rejecting an idea out of hand.
Enter OccupyMaine. Its reception before the council's Public Safety Committee was frosty, at best (see my post from last week), and certainly didn't signal that those three councilors were willing to really work with the Occupiers.
Even Dave Marshall, who might have led the discussion into collaborative territory, declined to truly engage with the Occupiers, instead imagining himself voting the Occupy petition "up or down" - despite the fact that almost nothing that comes before the council gets a simple yes/no vote with no discussion or negotiation. Sure enough, his less tolerant committee cohorts, Ed Suslovic and John Coyne, jumped on that bandwagon and charged to a unanimous recommendation that the council reject the petition outright.
Disappointed by undaunted, the Occupy group took what feedback the committee members gave into consideration and revised their petition to specifically address several areas of public-safety concern that came up repeatedly during the meeting.
Despite the lack of willingness for dialogue on the committee's part, the Occupiers assumed that at least some councilors are operating in good faith, and moved to continue the conversation.
In the revised petition, the Occupiers made this move extremely clear: "OccupyMaine is willing to consider additional substantive changes as necessary to address any other concerns that may be voiced by the City Council or City Officials."
Swallowing their pride, the Occupiers are accepting that they have been spurned once, and are still extending their hands to the city, hoping to engage in a dance.
It is important to take a moment to remember that this is a process intended from its outset to begin solving the public-safety problems that have arisen at and alongside the Occupation. If the City Council does not engage in a discussion, it will be clear that the councilors don't actually care about the public-safety problems, but simply want the Occupiers gone.
Removing them might not be so simple. Along with a federal judge's expected ruling tomorrow in Bangor, and with judges around the country taking up Occupy-related cases, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has now entered the fray, saying it supports the Occupy group's right to stay in the park around the clock in protest, and expressly talking about potential court action.
But the ACLU of Maine also touches a point that OccupyMaine attorney John Branson hit in the committee meeting: the city should not allow this protest to continue because it is protected by the First Amendment, or because a court ruling requires the city to grin and bear it.
Rather, the city should welcome with open arms this new groundswell of public engagement in civic processes, and allow it to continue because it is a good idea. Just the way the city handles requests from private businesses.