2016-08-05 / Front Page

South Portland councilors deny parking petition

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When the final chapter of South Portland history is written, the city council meeting on Monday, Aug. 1, will probably not go down as the easiest session ever experienced by a city clerk.

In a 5-2 decision, with Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen opposed, the council voted to reject a petition that sought to allow angled parking throughout the city, and return that particular configuration to a block of Ocean Street, between Legion Square and D Street.

Parking on that block has been a divisive issue since 2011, when a $3.6 million sewer system upgrade resulted in a plan to replace angled parking spots – in place since the new Casco Bay Bridge opened in the mid-1990s – with parallel parking. However, business owners complained they had not been consulted on the change, leading to a compromise measure that retained the angled spots, but switched them to face the opposite way, while converting the block to one-way traffic.

City staffers said that was necessary because the newly reconfigured streetscape, with wider sidewalks and crossing bump-outs, coupled with state and federal recommendations for wider and more steeply angled parking spots, did not leave enough room on Ocean Street for both angled parking and two lanes of traffic.

Residents said the one-way flow fed traffic onto the side streets, disrupting the calm of their neighborhoods. Tipping the scales in their favor after more than three years of debate was the discovery of an ordinance restriction, in effect since 1966, which actually bans angled parking on streets citywide in deference to the parallel configuration.

And so, in March, the city council reversed its earlier rulings, ordering a restoration of two-way traffic and conversion of the angled spots to parallel parking only.

That change took place over the Memorial Day weekend, and was followed July 18 by a citizens’ petition.

However, the effort came up short of the 944 names needed to force council action. Of the 944 signatures submitted by local real estate agent April Cohen, 90 were from people not registered to vote in South Portland, 15 were duplicates of names already signed, and 39 appeared on a petition paper not signed by the person who circulated it.

City Clerk Emily Carrington initially set Friday, July 15 as a deadline for the petition. However, she later noted that this date was “arbitrary” given that it was not actually set in the city ordinance, or any ordinance or state statute. It was merely calculated as a date by which she could certify the signatures, giving the city council time to act before absentee ballots for the November general election are available for voters.

So, when advised by the petitioners they were awaiting one form from a circulator who was out of town, Car- rington gave them until the following Monday morning. However, after discovering the apparent clerical error on one petition, she initially elected, with advice from city attorney Sally Daggett, to give the petitioners a chance to rectify the error

The only problem, she said – because the charter states petitions must be submitted “as a single instrument” – is the effort would have to start from the beginning.

“The law of Maine is that the people’s power of initiative is used liberally, and I think that’s what the city clerk is going to do,” Daggett told the council Monday.

However, councilors, and many audience members, disagreed, sometimes harshly, in debate that went on for nearly an hour.

“I know you’re green at this, and we love you in your job,” said Councilor Claude Morgan, noting that Carrington had been hired in October to her first municipal job. “But as I see it, your job and duty is to certify whether (a petition) is complete and valid, or whether it’s defective. You, on your own initiative, called up and asked for a legal opinion. As such, you are directing policy here that directly belongs to our legislators.”

Deake Street resident Natalie West, an attorney who caught the 1966 oversight, agreed Carrington overstepped her authority.

“Once the clerk has submitted that certification, the process is over, and no one has the authority to reopen that process and start circulating over again,” she said. “This is not a matter for discretion. It is a ministerial act, and that act is over.”

West and Morgan criticized the petition, as, in Morgan’s words, “The shoddiest petition that I’m aware of – that I’ve ever seen.”

Others, including former city councilor and one-time mayor Rosemarie de Angelis, said Carrington’s real error was that she did not immediately report the errant petition page to the secretary of state’s office.

Although missing a circulator’s signature, the page was signed by a notary public, claiming to have personally observed the circulator sign the form.

That, Morgan said made petition “defective” and “deceptive.”

“We as citizens put a petition together, we tried our hardest, you made your decision and that’s the way it is,” April Cohen said.

“We are not saying to the petitioners that you lose this right,” Blake said, “we’re just asking you to do this right.”

Still, Cohen’s greatest concern seemed reserved for Carrington’s feelings.

“It’s embarrassing, as a city resident in South Portland, to listen to the way people have been talking about her,” she said. “(Carrington and Daggett) were appointed by the council. You don’t have to agree with their opinion, but you ought to respect it.”

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