The Cambria Hotel and Residence Inn on Hancock Street in Portland last fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

The Portland City Council passed a proposal to charge city hotel guests a fee to help fund tourism marketing at a Monday night meeting that was interrupted by an onslaught of hate speech from Zoom callers.

During public comment, business owners, hoteliers and college professors who were at the meeting spoke overwhelmingly in support of the proposal sponsored by Councilor Pious Ali.

But when the council turned to Zoom comments, Mayor Kate Snyder struggled to stymie hate speech, largely from unidentified callers, attacking people of color. Richard Ward, who has a history of promoting white nationalism in Portland, called in twice and identified himself. Others voicing similar views remained anonymous or used what appeared to be fake names.

Snyder, who monitors 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 field more hate speech on Zoom. Councilor Anna Trevorrow made a motion to enter executive session, which was unanimously supported.

This is not a new issue for the council, which has grappled for months with trolls calling in to state white nationalist views. 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 downtown in which 23 hotels – all with 40 or more rooms – would add a fee to guests’ bills, the revenue going 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 fee, saying it could help 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 of the connection between increased tourism and quality of life in the city.


“Everything you enjoy here in Portland (is) because of the visitor dollars,” she said.

Steve DiMillo, who owns DiMillo’s on the Water, said the boost in marketing 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 of more marketing. “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.”

After the council returned from an executive session that lasted more than 30 minutes, Councilor Mark Dion made a motion to waive council rules and halt further public comment. The motion won unanimous support.

“We are trying to navigate meaningful 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, brushed off the Zoom comments. “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,” she said of the hate speech.

As for the marketing campaign, she said, “Maine should be marketed to everyone,” and that tourism could help foster diversity in Portland.

George Rheault was the only commenter who spoke against the tourism 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 because he doesn’t think the city should be involved in tourism or that tourism is 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 said the 10% investment in bringing people of color to the city isn’t going to cut it when many people of color in the city struggle to find housing and to feel safe.

“If someone asked me if Portland is a safe space for Black people,” she said, “I actually can’t say yes.”

Councilor Regina Phillips voted yes, but said she was undecided until moments before the vote. In response to 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.” But she said voting no on this proposal would not help fix equity issues in the city.

The proposal eventually passed 5-4, with councilors Ali, Dion, Phillips, Snyder and Andrew Zarro in favor, and April Fournier, Pelletier, Rodriguez and Trevorrow against.

Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, also updated the council on Monday, saying that  the Encampment Crisis Response Team has begun work on a plan to dismantle the homeless encampment at the Marginal Way park and ride lot – an action she said was at least a month away.

Dow said the team’s efforts are focused on offering services to those living in the encampment. She said bathrooms and a sharps container have been installed there. She also said that a representative from the state has joined the team to ensure the state and city are on the same page when it comes to dismantling the encampment.

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