I’ve received a few requests to explain my original vote on this issue—a yes vote, approving the festival license—so here's an account of my reasoning leading up to that vote along with an explanation of my current thinking on this issue.
Now, for the vote.
I wrestled with this vote in the days before the February 5th meeting and spent a lot of time contemplating how the domestic violence charge against Alex Gray, the owner of Waterfront Concerts, should factor into my decision. Two constituents had written to suggest the city should cut its ties with Gray’s company, and I considered their words carefully.
Ultimately, I chose to approve the license for multiple reasons:
- While Alex Gray is the owner of Waterfront Concerts, the company consists of more than twenty full-time, year-round employees with full benefits as well as hundreds of seasonal employees who work security, food and beverage, and other event staff positions. I knew that any decision we made would impact not just Gray, but the whole organization and all of its workers.
- When the issue of the domestic violence guilty plea was raised by Councilor Batson at the February 5th meeting and followed-up on by Councilor Cook, who questioned the ownership structure of the company, the local representative for Waterfront Concerts—who lives and works right here in Portland—emphasized that not only is the company much larger than Alex Gray, but that Gray was not involved in the day to day operations in Portland.
- Gray has been through a court proceeding and his case has been adjudicated. He pled guilty and was given a sentence with twenty-two conditions he had to agree to, including having no contact with the plaintiff in the case, Erica Cole, keeping the DA apprised of his address, submitting to random drug tests and searches of his residence and vehicle, and participating in rehab programs as directed by the Cumberland County DA's office. If Gray satisfies all of the conditions of his sentence consistently, the domestic violence assault charge will be dropped from his record in October of 2018.
This one's tough, because I know there are people who don't think Gray’s sentence was tough enough, but as I thought this over in February, I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that it was the Council’s job to make that judgment. Philosophically, I couldn’t get to a place where I believed it was our role to revisit litigation, determine if a punishment was sufficient, and if not, extract our own pound of flesh. If every institution and private entity were to mete out its own justice in this manner after a court had already weighed in, I don't see how an individual could ever be expected to achieve rehabilitation or re-entry to society as a productive member of a community.
I also struggled to reconcile the pursuit of further punishment of Gray following his court proceeding with the national movement to "ban the box," which I think is a worthwhile cause. Ban the Box is a campaign dedicated to making sure people with past convictions are given a fair chance in employment and housing by prohibiting employers or prospective landlords from asking about a person's past convictions on applications. To my mind, this philosophy should apply to all people regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, or socioeconomic status.
- If we, as a council, wanted to adopt a city policy that would prohibit us from doing business with people—or companies with people in ownership positions or positions of fiduciary benefit—who had been convicted of certain crimes, we’d have a lot of parameters to figure out.
- What crimes or convictions? Domestic violence and sexual assault are two obvious ones to include, but there could be others.
- Would there be a statute of limitations in our policy? For instance, if someone had a domestic violence conviction ten years ago and a clean record since, could we work with them? What about twenty years ago? How about five? What about, as in Alex Gray's case, if they'd had a deferred judgment which resulted in them not having a conviction at all at the end of their sentence?
- What if there had been a punishment handed down by a court? If someone had already served time, completed a sentence, been through a restorative justice process, or made restitution in some manner, would we still seek to cut off any working relationship with them? Would it depend on whether we thought the sentence was adequate? If so, who would make that decision? And would it really be appropriate? I didn’t think so.
On April 2, 2018, Erica Cole, the plaintiff in the domestic violence case against Gray, wrote an open letter to City Manager Jon Jennings which she posted on her website. She then contacted Jennings and provided him with a link to the letter so he could read it. In the letter, Cole called on the City of Portland to stop doing business with Gray and his company Waterfront Concerts because of the domestic violence charge against Gray. Jennings immediately scheduled a meeting with Cole to discuss the situation, and the mayor and members of the council called for the Council to rescind the festival license that was granted to Waterfront Concerts back in February.
Knowing that this was all going to come before us again, and having heard from a few folks that they thought we got it wrong the first time, I’ve been revisiting my initial reasons for supporting the festival license.
To really give my brain a workout on this one, I called one of my sons who I sensed might have a different take. When I told him I had a council issue I wanted to run past him, he said, “I bet I know what you’re calling about, and I don’t think you should renew that guy’s contract.” He’s not even in Maine, but word travels fast these days.
Before getting into the issue, my son and I talked over the background to make sure we were both working with the same facts:
- Alex Gray had pled guilty to domestic violence assault in October 2017 and was presented with a set of twenty-two conditions he needed to meet. If he met all of the conditions over the next year, the charge would be dropped from his record.
- The Council was aware Gray had been charged with domestic violence assault when we took up the festival license in February. Two councilors raised concerns about it and it was discussed briefly before the Council unanimously approved the festival license.
- Despite the claim in Cole’s letter, the Council had never suspended Waterfront Concert’s contract with the city. They have a year to year contract, and it wasn’t under consideration for 2018 until the festival license came before us on February 5th.
- Based on the festival license that was approved in February and the Council’s permission to the city manager to enter into contract negotiations with Waterfront Concerts, the company had begun booking acts and entering into agreements with other parties for its 2018 concert series.
- Now, two months later, the Council was getting ready to reconsider the license as a result of Erica Cole’s letter.
- Waterfront Concerts is bigger than Alex Gray, and the Council’s decision would impact hundreds of employees.
- Alex Gray doesn’t manage the day to day details in Portland and thus wouldn’t be on site often, if at all. The work on Portland concerts is done by the local representative for Waterfront Concerts who lives and works here.
- We have a court system that is meant to hand down justice, and this case went through that process. It’s not within the City of Portland’s purview to determine whether or not a sentence is adequate or to mete out justice on its own.
- If Portland were to pursue a policy of not working with people with certain convictions, we’d need to work out all of the parameters for that policy and enforce it across the board, which again, I wasn’t sure was feasible, legal, or ethical.
My son conceded these were all good points, but he had some good points of his own. While he agreed that it isn’t the city’s job to mete out justice, he said that it is our job to ensure the safety of our residents as well as their perceptions of safety. If the city chooses to do business with people who have been convicted of violent crimes, we could be compromising both of these.
He also made the point that our court system is not set up well to handle domestic violence and sexual assault, possibly because at the time our justice system was founded, those two categories of crime didn’t exist. The crimes were perpetrated, no doubt, but they weren’t necessarily recognized as crimes, which is a frightening and sobering thought. (And all the more reason for us to look closely at the UK's recently passed coercive control law.)
Finally he said that societal change has to start somewhere. He’s a smart kid. There’s a reason I called him.
All this said, he confessed he wasn’t sure what the right decision was with regard to the festival license and that he didn’t envy my position. We both agreed that this was a complex issue and a tough decision, and we wondered if perhaps there was some middle ground. We wondered if there a way forward that would:
- respect our court process and acknowledge its weaknesses;
- ensure the safety of our residents;
- make it clear that we do not condone domestic violence; and
- honor the license the council granted over two months ago that gave Waterfront Concerts the green light to begin planning and booking their season—a task that is well underway at this point.
We didn’t come up with any perfect solutions—or even any that we were sure were feasible or legal—but in the next week and a half, and at our next council meeting on April 18th, it is my hope that the Council and the City Manager can have a productive dialogue that will help us to find the best way forward.
If you want to make your voice heard on this issue, feel free to email me and the rest of the Council to let us know what you think.