Fire Task Force Raises Questions from Noyes Street Fire

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian Makes a Point at Meeting.

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian Makes a Point at Meeting.

Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming, of Boston. (Behind him is a MPR reporter.)

Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming, of Boston. (Behind him is a MPR reporter with a BBC Accent!)

By Carol McCracken  (Post # 2,255)

Unsnarling a snarled-up mess at city hall will be no easy task. That was clear at the conclusion of the first meeting of the fire task force this afternoon . The ad hoc group was initiated in the wake of a fire that killed six tenants last month on Noyes Street.  It’s expected that the final report on that fire will be issued within the next two-weeks.  The task force work needs to be wrapped-up by early February 2015 because budget planning will be approaching and Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian wants to make recommendations to the city council. Time matters.

No tenant has been seated at the  task force to date and will not be. Although the issue is controversial Christian acknowledged in her opening remarks, she continues to exclude any renter/tenant from serving on the task force. This is dismissive since more than half of the city of Portland is composed of tenants.  Landlords will be included in the next task force meeting on Wednesday, December 10th.  Why not tenants?

Christian stated at the outset that the purpose of the meeting was not to rehash what happened on Noyes Street last month, but rather to determine what could be done better. Several  times she tried to limit the discussion focus, but  it got off track again and again.  Her goal was to develop some short-term  recommendations in the upcoming budget, rather than focusing on long-term goals. A guest member of the task force was Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Fleming of the Boston Fire Department.  His ideas were mostly based on his experiences in Boston – a city with many more resources than Portland possesses.  However, Fleming did say that the city “needs a  hammer that landlords are afraid of, otherwise it won’t work.”  That statement died in mid-air.  The emphasis was on educating tenants and not holding landlords responsible for their inaction – when it happens.

The inspections office at city hall has a long, long history of inefficiency and disorganization that no one, until the Noyes Street tragedy, has taken seriously.  Several reports have been commissioned in the past, but those recommendations have not been implemented. The most recent report from last year recommended that the fire department perform more inspections.

“Enforcement will be part of the discussion,” said Christian in an email to following the meeting, since no questions were taken at the meeting.  The terse response came in response to a question as to whether or not financial penalties for non-complying landlords would be part of the task force recommendations to the city council. Despite the thirteen (13) complaints filed against the Noyes Street property, there is no record of penalties against Noyes Street property owner Greg Nisbet, for the repeated offenses. (People who accumulate more than three (3) outstanding parking violations are automatically eligible to get the “boot!” – don’t offending landlords deserve at least a boot?

Finally, Julie Sullivan, city staff member, stepped-up and agreed to meet with each of the several departments represented at the table to elicit information from them on their priorities. Complicating the issue is the fact that the city’s inspections division has its own complaint-based inspections program whereas the fire department has its own inspection program for apartment buildings with three or more units therein.

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for Wednesday, December 10th and one for the following week Wednesday, December 17th.  Then there are a series of meetings scheduled for January – February 2015. They are open to the public.

editor’s note:  Responding to an editorial in the Friday, December 5th “Portland Press Herald” and other places, the formation of a tenants union is an excellent idea.  However, as a former tenant organizer myself in Alexandria, Va., years ago, they can take a long time to get organized and become effective.  The fire task force still has plenty of time to seat a tenant (not necessarily low-income) since the meetings run well into January according to the proposed schedule set up by Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian.