Mayor hopes to streamline Portland campaign finance reporting

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Following a revelation that some campaign finance reports weren’t made public in a timely fashion, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said she expects the city will have overhauled its system and be putting reports online immediately by the next election.

The announcement came after the city’s belatedly published campaign finance reports ahead of the Nov. 3 election, including the disclosure that Airbnb, the San Francisco-based online vacation rental marketplace, provided $125,000 to a political group that opposed Question E on the ballot about short-term rentals.

Snyder said while “all eyes are on the election” and making sure the City Clerk’s office had all the resources it needed to handle voter turnout, she has had “back and forth” with City Clerk Kathy Jones about streamlining the process and putting the reports online.  

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder: “I think we have an opportunity to have a discussion on how the reports are received and then shared with the public.”

Portland requires candidates to file reports in person, an outdated method when compared to the state at large.

“I think we have an opportunity to have a discussion on how the reports are received and then shared with the public,” Snyder said. “… We want to have that conversation and have it thoughtfully, and we can build a plan and make some improvements.”

In the past, she noted, members of the public could walk into the clerk’s office and request copies of the reports, and either take pictures of the documents or pay for copies. But the coronavirus pandemic changed that when regular business hours were discontinued at City Hall.

She said the pandemic has shown there are ways to do things more easily and less expensively, such as putting the reports online instead of requiring someone to come to City Hall to pay for copies.

“Right now we are focusing on the election, and then we will have that thorough conversation,” Snyder said.

She said the most recent reports are now available online because the clerk’s office put them up immediately when the mistake was realized.

“The clerk has been tremendously busy this year, and her staff as well,” Snyder said. “I’m not looking to cast aspersions. We can learn from where we are.”

The city clerk is one of three city employees whose role is subject to review by the City Council; the others are the city manager and corporation counsel.

Snyder said the council is planning to review Jones and Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta this month, but emphasized that is not in response to these events. She said the council has not conducted these reviews since November 2017.

Snyder said she began to review the performances of all three employees last January, but the work was put on hold when the pandemic hit in March.

The council only recently conducted a review for City Manager Jon Jennings, which resulted in his contract being extended for one year.

“In no way is the timing associated with the clerk’s review reactionary,” Snyder said.

Snyder said she hopes to see the changes in how reports are made public in place in time for the next regularly scheduled election in June 2021, when voters will elect members to the upcoming Charter Commission.

The $125,000 donation to the Portland Homeowners and Tenants Association from Airbnb should have been made public in early October. There was also a $10,000 donation from the Arlington, Virginia-based Travel Technology Association.

People First Portland, the political group that campaigned for five citizen-initiated ballot questions, indicated they were outspent 30-1 by corporate spenders in these races. The group reported raising just under $24,000, compared to the approximately $622,500 from various opposition groups. All told, opponents of the five referendum questions raised more than $640,000 in this campaign.

People First Portland also claimed donations from a single developer, Tom Watson, accounted for more than $50,000 for the opposition efforts.

Following a report by the Portland Press Herald that the city was more than a month late making the reports available, all the campaign finance reports were online as of last week.

A political action committee called We Can’t Do $22, which opposed a question to raise the minimum wage, listed Steve DiMillo, of DiMillo’s on the Waterfront, as treasurer. The group raised nearly $44,000, including a $15,000 contribution from MaineHealth, one of the city’s largest employers.

A group called Building a Better Portland also raised more than $175,000. This PAC opposed Questions C, D, and E on the ballot, which promoted a Green New Deal for Portland, rent control, and limits on short-term rentals.

Progressive Portland reported raising just over $20,000 in support of Questions A-E.