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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Adams, Leonard Chide an Absent Dan Saltzman Over Portland Playhouse's Code Fight

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 3:44 PM

old_church.jpg
As Alison mentioned last week, the Portland City Council is completely in love with the idea of allowing the Portland Playhouse to continue staging its well-regarded plays at the old church it's spent years fixing up on NE Prescott.

The council made that decision official this morning, voting unanimously to override the city's code enforcement office and a hearings officer, both of which labeled the playhouse a "commercial" enterprise instead of the "community use" that the council (and neighbors) clearly believe it is.

The vote came with an apology, but also with some tart words for Dan Saltzman, the city commissioner who oversees the code enforcement bureau and, by chance, happened to be absent from today's meeting. It was a delightfully rare public break with the civility that usually marks city council meetings.

"I'm a little alarmed that this wasn't caught at the commissioner's office," or by managers in the Bureau of Development Services, said Randy Leonard, who ran BDS up until last March, a month before Portland Playhouse's code enforcement troubles sprang up.

Leonard said he was "disappointed" in Saltzman's reluctance to intervene in the name of common-sense. (Leonard—who ran for office in 2002 on a platform of stripping the code enforcement bureau of its old reputation as a terrible place to do business—also was feeling a bit protective of his old turf.)

Then came Mayor Sam Adams, the last person to speak before the vote: "Thank you for your perseverance," he told the Portland Playhouse representatives at the meeting. "I would underscore what [Leonard is] saying.... I'm not going to tolerate the progress we've made in terms of helping good things happen."

Saltzman's office still hasn't returned a request for comment. But Saltzman got some support from Amanda Fritz, whose smile got increasingly tight while Leonard and Adams spoke. After the meeting, she said Leonard was being too hard on code enforcement staff and maybe wasn't giving the proper respect to due process.

"To berate staff for not doing something they don't have the authority to do seems, what's the word, illogical," she told me.

Leonard said afterward that he wasn't trying to berate anyone, just "shake them up a little." He said code enforcement staffers had the right—or duty, even—to use a looser interpretation of city code so long as it still fits the "facts on the table."

"I don't mean to imply they have the discretion to overlook facts, but this was a failure," he said. "If the council has the authority to interpret code, then the staff has the authority."

He said, under his watch, this kind of dispute would have been solved with "a conversation"—not that someone appealing a code finding would always get their way. He said he only wanted to remind BDS staffers, and Saltzman's staff, that they're "more thoughtful than this."

"C'mon, guys," he said. "Loosen up."

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