(TNS) — After months of delay, Portland, Maine, councilors voted unanimously Monday night to ban the use of facial recognition technology by city officials.
The vote on City Councilor Pious Ali’s proposal, which was first offered to the council in November and faced repeated delays, came late into the council’s meeting and with little fanfare or explanation about why the council was finally ready to move the item. The ordinance will take effect in 30 days.
The use of facial recognition technology has alarmed civil liberty advocates, who worry about expansive police surveillance. The technology has been shown to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at much higher rates than whites.
Banning facial recognition was one of the demands issued by Black Lives Matter Portland in response to nationwide protests against police brutality in the wake of the May killing of George Floyd, who died after a white police office knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
That proposed ban is one of six referendum questions that will be put to voters in November.
Councilors amended the proposal before approving it. Ali had amended his proposal, which was drafted with the ACLU, to align it with the proposal that will be on the November ballot. But councilors, citing collective bargaining concerns, removed an enforcement provision against city employees who violate the ordinance.
Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, said that if the proposal by People First Portland is approved by voters in November, it will take the place of Ali’s ordinance and could not be touched for five years. However, West-Chuhta said the city would likely ask a court to clarify certain provisions of the ordinance, as well as provisions of the ordinances proposed by the group.
“There may be some additional legal analysis that needs to occur if it passes at the polls,” West-Chuhta said.
Police have said they have no intention of using facial recognition technology, but staff overseeing the Portland Jetport and the ocean port have said such technology could be useful – if not required by federal authorities – for international travel.
Debate over the proposal was delayed by a two-hour discussion about the homeless encampment at City Hall. No decisions were made about how long the encampment would be allowed to stay or under what conditions.
Councilors did get a preview of budget deliberations that are scheduled to begin this week.
Aggressive actions to close local businesses and order people to stay at home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus has led to an unprecedented loss of revenue for the Portland, according to the city’s top administrator.
City Manager Jon Jennings informed councilors Monday that the coronavirus has cost the city roughly $12 million in revenues, setting up some very difficult budget decisions for councilors, who will begin working on a new budget this week. He said hiring and spending freezes, including furloughs for executive officials and other city workers, helped prevent the city from overspending on its current budget.
Jennings said his original budget – drafted before the pandemic hit – would have increased taxes by 1.8 percent. He has not yet presented an amended spending plan for the fiscal year that began on July 1. But he told councilors that his budget will reduce the mil rate by one cent per $1,000 of valuation and will eliminate “60-plus” positions, though may of them were vacant.
“It has been a very difficult process,” said Jennings, who also alluded to a reduction of services. “These are all the details we can get into with the finance committee.”
Local and state leaders are looking to the federal government to provide funding to help close significant budget holes caused by the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic.
The city has received $2 million to $3 million in state COVID-19 aid, but it’s not nearly enough.
Normally, the city would have already approved a budget for fiscal 2021. But an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills gave cities and towns additional time to draft their budgets, given the sudden change in economic conditions.
The council’s Finance Committee will begin reviewing the budget on Wednesday with final action coming in September.
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