Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Maine State Pier: Sinking Under Its Own Weight

It's been a while since I've written about the Maine State Pier (map), that sinking piece of waterfront real estate that's attracted hundred-million-dollar proposals from local developers.

The "request for proposals" competition for the Pier has devolved into a full-blown circus, complete with profanity in City Hall, a "public" "process" that's being invented on the fly, and name-calling among City Councilors. It's pretty much turns my stomach to think about it, which is why I haven't been giving it much attention here.

But just to recap: last year, this fellow, Bob Baldacci, brother of our Democratic governor, began meeting privately with his buddies in City leadership positions to talk about putting hotels on our Maine State Pier, a vital piece of infrastructure on our working waterfront. After some public outcry, the gang hatched a plan for a "request for proposals," which would have the appearance of a public, competitive process, although the short timeframe and previous negotiations made only one submission likely - Baldacci's.

In February, then, Baldacci and his "Ocean Properties" team turned in a half-assed "proposal" that had more typos and grammatical errors than a chimpanzee's transcription of Hamlet. Presumably they expected it would be good enough for a rubber stamp - quality hardly matters in a monopoly - except for one hitch: the Olympia Companies, a local developer, had submitted a competing proposal. And it was clearly superior in almost every respect.

Since then, Ocean Properties has revised its proposal past deadline several times, swear words have echoed through council chambers, and truckloads of Baldacci-friendly union bosses have been bussed in from out of town to lend City Hall a distinctly Tammany flavor. Through it all, a process that was supposed to have been gin-clear and open has been muddled, contested, and out-and-out botched by the Community Development Committee's chairman, Jim Cloutier.

First, Cloutier allowed Ocean Properties to change its proposal well past the deadline. On the surface, this seemed well and good: Ocean Properties came out with better plans and the city got a better selection to choose from. But the last revision from Ocean Properties came just a little more than a month ago, leaving planning staff and the general public only one meeting in which they could air their concerns (of which there are many).

The rest of the lurid details are best outlined in this lengthy feature article currently in the Bollard. Chris Busby stops short of putting the obvious conclusion in print, so why don't I put it down in writing right here: The Ocean Properties developers used massive out-of-town political influence to corrupt Councilors Jim Cloutier and Jill Duson into subverting public involvement and voting for a proposal that was not in the best interests of the City of Portland and its citizens.

Even if you disagree with the "corrupt" label, there can't be any doubt about how little they have done to avoid the appearance of corruption. At the very least, they're guilty of lousy public service.

Through all of this, Jim Cloutier has been petulantly dismissive of criticism: anyone who questions his authority to make up rules as he goes along is labeled "inexperienced" or naive. In the Bollard's article, Khan Cloutier defends his disregard for public process and opinion by telling Busby, "At a certain point, you have representative government and you live with that."

Well, he's partly right: we're supposed to have a representative government. When the question of Cloutier's reelection comes up in November, I suspect we'll come a bit closer to that ideal.

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