Judge Orders the Release of “Friends” Petitions Today

"Friends" with Petitions at City Hall This Afternoon.

“Friends” with Petitions at City Hall This Afternoon. Frank Turek, Joan Grant, Rob Levin, (front) John Eder, (back) Ian Jacobs and Patricia O’Donnell.

By Carol McCracken  (Post # 1,554)

Justice Joyce Wheeler, Judge of the Superior Court, reaffirmed her order from last week this morning. She ordered the City Clerk’s Office to release petitions to the Friends of Congress Square Park by 1:30 pm today. (Last week she ordered the release of the petitions on Friday afternoon, but that was put off until today because the City filed a Motion to Stay.) This release will enable volunteers to begin gathering the required 1,500 signatures within an 80 day time limit; requiring they be returned to the city by January 22, 2014. The qualifying petitions will permit an Citizens’ Initiative change to the Land Bank law to go to referendum – in June of 2014.

The Citizens’ Initiative makes it significantly harder for the city council to sell public parks to private industry; a goal of the Friends of Congress Square Park, the driving force behind the Initiative.  The initiative would add 35 additional properties to the list of protected properties and require either a super majority of the city council to approve such a sale or have the matter go to referendum. The non-profit is opposed to the sale of 2/3 of a downtown park to RockBridge Capital, developer of the new Westin Hotel and the former Eastland Hotel, for the construction of an events center on the park. The Westin is expected to open in early December.

At a hearing in Superior Court this morning at 8:30  before Justice Wheeler, she rebuffed the argument from Jennifer Thompson, city attorney, that since there was no urgency to getting the petition signed because the earliest the matter could appear on the ballot was next spring, why not wait for the Maine Supreme Court to rule on the petitions as well as whether or not it is the city’s responsibility to administer such transactions?  If the Court rules in favor of the city on this matter, it could  confuse the public when petitions are pulled and deemed invalid argued Thompson for the City.   Sarah McDaniel, one of two attorneys for the Friends of Congress Square Park argued this morning before Justice Wheeler as well  that the city’s Motion to Stay had caused irreparable damage by not allowing city voters to express their First Amendment rights; the “city has squelched my clients’ right to free speech.”   Justice Wheeler concurred with McDaniel.

At a press conference held this afternoon on the steps of city hall following the pick up of the prepared 200 petitions, Frank Turek, president of the Friends said:  “The city has pushed us back to today by about a month.  Dozens of people have contacted me wondering when they can sign the petition.  We still need volunteers to circulate the petitions.”

“We understand the decision last week and we asked the Judge to delay the circulation of the petitions while we are appealing her decision to the Law Court (the Maine Supreme Court). Assuming the Law Court agrees with us, the circulation of petitions becomes a moot issue.  There is no urgency for the petitions at this point,” said Mayor Michael Brennan following Justice Wheeler’s decision today.