Group behind referendum restricting cruise ships is no longer supporting it

Oct. 3—The group behind a November referendum restricting cruise ships in Portland is no longer supporting the measure and is presenting an alternate proposal instead.

Question E would require cruise ships to get permits in order to disembark passengers, and no more than 1,000 people would be allowed to get off ships each day. If approved, the new rules would take effect in 2025.

"We're not canvassing for it. We're not promoting it," said Wes Pelletier, chair of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America's Livable Portland campaign, which gathered enough signatures from voters to put the measure and three others on the ballot.

Instead, Pelletier said the DSA is supporting a compromise with the International Longshoreman's Association, a union representing maritime workers, and the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council.

But Question E remains on the Nov. 8 ballot and some critics are pointing to it as an example of the problems that can arise when policy is created through citizen initiatives.

"The DSA's cruise ship initiative serves as a cautionary tale," Mayor Kate Snyder said in an email Friday. "The question voters will see on their November 8th ballot has already been rejected by its authors. To be clear, if approved by voters, not even the authors will be happy about its passage.

"While I believe citizen initiatives are an important element of a democratic society, I also believe the tool should be used thoughtfully, carefully and sparingly. This is especially true in Portland, where current code prevents the City Council from amending an ordinance approved by voters for five years."

WILL THE CITY COUNCIL TAKE UP THE PROPOSAL?

Rather than limiting the number of passengers who can disembark, the new compromise would require the city to install shoreside electrical power stations for all cruise ships by 2028, and all cruise ships would have to use them by 2029 in an effort to reduce emissions.

It also would impose a $2.50 per passenger charge on cruise ships to help defray the cost of the power stations and implement a shoreline power study called for in the city's One Climate Future plan. And it would create a task force to make recommendations to the City Council on waterfront labor and shoreside power, and study the economic impacts of the cruise ship industry.

But the new plan hasn't been presented to the council yet.

Asked Friday when that could happen, Snyder said the council's sustainability and transportation committee has already been working on the cruise ship issue.

"Any materials from any constituents or stakeholder groups are welcome as committees do their work — and as the council does its work," Snyder said.

Councilor Andrew Zarro, who chairs the sustainability and transportation committee, said work on cruise ships will continue in the coming weeks. The committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 12, according to the city's website. An agenda has not yet been posted.

"This issue is a huge policy matter that won't be solved in one council committee meeting with a handful of recommendations; it will require time, energy and resources from Portland and our friends in Augusta," Zarro said in a text message Friday.

He said the committee scheduled discussion on a Central Maine Power feasibility study this fall, which is one step in identifying the costs, timeline and requirements for "electrifying and de-carbonizing the waterfront."

Zarro said he welcomes everyone to join committee meetings and provide feedback. "That is what public engagement is about, and that is what keeps our democracy moving," he said.

ORIGINS OF QUESTION E

But Pelletier, the DSA chairman, said it's not always easy for people to participate or feel like they're contributing in a meaningful way, which is part of the reason his group put out the referendum.

"We could tell people to line up, listen to a three-hour long meeting and wait for your chance to give three minutes of public comment that won't be acknowledged... and I don't think it would change the final product," he said. "We're proud to be a catalyst that's going to hopefully drive the change we're looking for and that the people of Portland are looking for."

Question E was originally inspired by local students concerned about the amount of emissions cruise ships produce in the city, Pelletier said. "That's a huge issue for young people who are trying to do something about climate change locally and it's something we're concerned about too," he said.

The DSA also noticed that other cities, including Bar Harbor, are looking at regulating cruise ships. The Bar Harbor Town Council approved more restrictive passenger caps in August, limiting the daily capacity of ships to 3,800 passengers in May, June, September and October and 3,500 in July and August.

The overall monthly caps are 30,000 passengers in May and June, 40,000 in July and August and 65,000 in September and October, according to Town Council Vice Chair Matthew Hochman.

Like Portland, Bar Harbor is also considering a citizen's initiative in November that restricts disembarkments to 1,000 people per day, Hochman said.

After DSA gathered the 1,500 signatures needed to get a referendum on the ballot in Portland, Pelletier said they started to get feedback, including from the longshoreman's union.

Asked if DSA had reached out to the longshoreman's union before collecting the signatures, Pelletier said he didn't want to discuss the timeline but said that his group takes organized labor seriously and admits there should have been better communication.

Jack Humeniuk, the New England district representative for the union, told the City Council at an August meeting that the union sees Question E as "an existential threat to our 25 jobs we have employed in the cruise industry (in Portland)."

"We're not the only ones," Humeniuk said. "There are city workers there. There are workers in other industries like bussing. It has a lot of impact that people don't realize and the referendum process to me is developed by a smaller group in which we had no input."

WHAT HAPPENS IF E PASSES?

Humeniuk asked the council to enact the referendum in August and then amend it, which the council had the option of doing instead of sending it to voters. Zarro proposed just that — he asked his fellow councilors to adopt the language and send it to the sustainability committee for revisions. But it failed.

The DSA and longshoreman's union met to discuss their priorities and, along with the Maine Building and Construction Trades Council, ended up coming up with the compromise announced Sept. 1.

City code prevents the council from amending an ordinance approved by a voter referendum for five years, though changes could be made sooner through another referendum.

Cruise ship activity in Portland generates revenue through headcount taxes and infrastructure fees paid by each ship that docks and disembarks. If the question does pass, city officials have warned that it could result in a significant loss of cruise ship revenues — about $3 million annually.

"Beyond that direct loss, the required cancellation of port visits by cruise ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers is likely to have a significant impact on the Portland economy: many businesses and individuals, including artists, vendors, stores, and the working waterfront rely on cruise ships for support," staff wrote in a memo to Snyder and the council this month.

For the longshoremen, Humeniuk estimated there would be a 30 percent loss in wages and benefits.

"I would urge the public to vote against Question E because the alternative being proposed by us and the DSA is a much better alternative," Humeniuk said in an interview Friday. "It's one where we could have the investment and the good paying jobs preserved, get better environmental conditions and mitigate congestion... We can accomplish that and I think that's much more positive than just saying, 'Don't come here.'"