Portland City Council passed a proposal to charge city hotel guests a fee to help fund a tourism marketing campaign at a meeting Monday night that was interrupted by an onslaught of hate speech from Zoom callers during the public comment portion.
After hearing the proposal sponsored by Councilor Pious Ali, the council opened the floor to public comment. Business owners, hoteliers and college professors at the meeting spoke overwhelmingly in support of the proposal.
But when the council turned to Zoom comments, Mayor Kate Snyder struggled to stymie an onslaught of hate speech attacking people of color, largely from unidentified callers. Richard Ward, who has a history of promoting white nationalism in Portland, called in twice and identified himself. Others espousing similar views remained anonymous or used what appeared to be fake names.
Snyder, who is tasked with monitoring Zoom comments, broke down in tears midway through one hateful rant and announced that the council would take a break.
After a brief pause, the council returned, only to be met with more hate speech on Zoom. Councilor Anna Trevorrow made a motion to enter executive session, which was unanimously supported by the other councilors.
This is not a new issue for the council, which has grappled with trolls calling in to espouse white nationalist views for months. Snyder said the council would have to review its remote meeting policy.
“We can’t cherry-pick what we like about the policy; if councilors get to join remotely, so does the public,” Snyder said. She said the policy would be reconsidered soon after councilors review it.
Before the meeting was derailed, at least 15 people spoke in favor of creating a tourism development district that would have 23 hotels in downtown – all with 40 or more rooms – add a small fee to guests’ bills, which would go to Visit Portland, the destination marketing organization for Greater Portland.
The program would more than double the agency’s current annual budget, Executive Director Lynn Tillotson has said previously.
Ian Bannon, executive director of Mayo Street Arts, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying it could bring new arts and theater to the city.
“We don’t have a substantial enough audience base here in Portland to support the creation of new theater,” he said, “but imagine what could happen if more people came to visit.”
Forest Ma, an assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at the University of Southern Maine, spoke to the connection between increased tourism and quality of life in the city.
She argued that tourist dollars support the local economy. “Everything you enjoy here in Portland (is) because of the visitor dollars,” she said.
Steve DiMillo, who owns DiMillo’s on the Water restaurant, said the proposal would help his business be sustainable throughout the year.
“As I think of the upcoming slow season, for us, it’s really a concern that we’ll be able to make payroll throughout those winter months, and this proposal would do nothing but help us keep people employed,” he said.
Donato Giovine, owner of Gorgeous Gelato, also spoke in favor the district. “We all together should greet every single tourist with a thank-you for coming here in Maine,” he said. “We love you whatever is your race, gender and ideology.”
Councilor Mark Dion made a motion to waive council rules and halt further public comment once members returned from executive session after more than 30 minutes. The motion was unanimously supported by other councilors.
“We are trying to navigate meaningfully (and) meeting challenges that undermine the work and assault people,” Snyder said.
While waiting for the council to resume the public meeting, Lisa Jones, CEO of Black Travel Maine, said that “Maine should be marketed to everyone.”
“It’s sad that we still have people who are so ignorant, but as a Black person, I’m numb to that. It’s sad, but it doesn’t faze me,” Jones said of the hate speech. Jones also spoke about the opportunity the proposal would offer to foster diversity in Portland through tourism.
George Rheault was the only commenter who spoke against the proposal, arguing that Portland doesn’t yet have the capacity to support the increased tourism that the development district could bring.
Ali amended the proposal to include a stipulation that 10% of the new budget for Visit Portland would go toward drawing more people of color to Portland.
Councilor Roberto Rodriguez said he would not support the proposal, arguing that he doesn’t think the city should be involved in tourism and that tourism is not a viable solution to many of the issues the city is facing.
“If we’re thinking of relocation to Portland, Maine, by way of tourism, we’re handpicking the social and economic class who we’re allowing to relocate,” he said.
Councilor Victoria Pelletier also said she would not support the proposal. She argued that the 10% investment in bringing people of color to the city isn’t going to cut it when many people of color struggle to find housing and to feel safe in the city.
“If someone asked me if Portland is a safe space for Black people,” she said, “I actually can’t say yes.”
Councilor Regina Phillips was undecided up until moments before the vote, she said. But ultimately, she landed on voting yes. In response to her colleagues who brought up concerns about diversity in the city, Phillips said, “We have to look at our policies within our police department and within our city.” She said voting no on this proposal would not help fix equity issues in the city.
The proposal eventually passed by a 5-4 vote, with Ali, Dion, Phillips, Snyder and Councilor Andrew Zarro in favor, and Councilor April Fournier, Pelletier, Rodriguez and Trevorrow against. This means that the tourism development district will be established in Portland.
Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow also said at the meeting that the Encampment Crisis Response Team had begun work on a plan to dismantle the homeless encampment at the Marginal Way park and ride lot.
Dow said the team’s efforts are focused on offering services to residents of the encampment. She said bathrooms and a sharps container have been installed, and that a representative from the state has joined the response team to ensure the state and city are on the same page when it comes to dismantling the encampment, which Dow said is at least a month away.