Portland Charter Commission unlikely to be elected before March

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After an impromptu City Council discussion Sept. 14, it’s likely the election of Charter Commission members won’t be held before next March.

The commission, approved by voters in July, would have the authority to recommend remaking city government, with a potential focus on reviewing the roles of the mayor and city manager. Its recommendations would then go to city voters for approval.

Councilors have already appointed three members of the commission. Nine remaining members must be elected through the same process as city councilors and School Board members; one will represent each of the city’s five voting districts, and four will serve at large.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones.

Councilors were holding a workshop on the Nov. 3 election when the conversation shifted towards the Charter Commission.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she had originally assumed Monday night’s session would be about the commission. She asked City Clerk Katherine Jones for an exact timeline of when a special election could be held, and what the council would have to do to set that date. 

Jones said there are several deadlines, depending on when the council schedules the election, including that nomination papers have to be available 127 days before the election (which is also a requirement for council and School Board candidates). She also said her calculations are based on an election being held the first Tuesday of a month, since that is traditionally when elections are held, and changing that tradition could create confusion for voters.

She said for a February special election, nomination papers would have to be available by Sept. 28. For a March election, the papers would have to be available by Oct. 26. For April, the nomination papers would have to be available on Nov. 30. For May, the deadline is Dec. 28. And if the council opts to have the Charter Commission election be held at the already scheduled June election, with the annual school budget validation, nomination papers would have to be available Feb. 1, 2021.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she had assumed councilors were leaning toward a March special election, since she thought it was unlikely the council could schedule and act on an agenda item in enough time to make nomination papers available in October. There was also some confusion as to whether the council would have to have two separate readings of an action item setting the election date.

Ray, meanwhile, advocated for acting as soon as possible. “Can we just get it on the council agenda and have the discussion and have the vote?” she asked.

Snyder attempted to gauge councilors’ interest in having an additional workshop on the Charter Commission timeframe or just move straight to putting it on an agenda. But she didn’t get any thumbs up or down, so she said she would consult with councilors individually on Tuesday.

Some seemed fine with the idea of a workshop. Councilor Nick Mavodones said he would prefer a substantive workshop. Councilor Jill Duson said she was fine with having a workshop, but didn’t want to lose the opportunity to have the election in March.

General election

The Charter Commission talks were only part of the council’s election discussion, which included a receipt of a memo from Jones with additional information about the Nov. 3 election.

She said all 11 of the city’s polling places will be open. She said there are no staffing concerns, as there were for the July election, because all the poll workers have agreed to come back and additional interested workers continue to reach out.

Jones said following an executive order signed by Gov. Janet Mills, several timelines for the election have shifted. She said voter registration can continue up to 15 days before the election, when the cutoff had previously been 21 days. And while the city previously had extended clerk office hours the Thursday prior to the election, the new executive order allows that to happen the Friday before the election.

Jones said the city has had a drop box in the clerk’s office for the past 10 years. She told councilors this method has been good for collecting absentee ballots, as clerks can usually catch ballots that are improperly signed before the voter leaves, and can avoid having to later disqualify the ballot.

Jones’ memo said she has safety concerns about putting a drop box outside City Hall, where used hypodermic needles and other dangerous items could be deposited. She said she looked into hiring a company called Fort Knox Mailbox that provides secure drop boxes, but the company is already overwhelmed by demand from other municipalities. Jones said the city is exploring other options.

A drop box has to be either inside or outside of a municipal office building, and the clerk’s office is responsible for it. When asked about getting several boxes, Jones said typically a municipality only uses one.

Jones said ballots that aren’t mailed in must be delivered to the clerk by the voter or an immediate family member. She said a voter cannot just drop off their absentee ballot at a polling place; those ballots would be rejected.

The information from Jones followed receipt of a letter prior to the workshop from several organizations that called on the council to establish additional measures to ensure safety and accessibility for the election.

The Portland Democratic City Committee, League of Women Voters of the Portland Area, Homeless Voices for Justice, Maine People’s Alliance, Southern Maine Workers’ Center, and People First Portland sent the council a letter, praising the city’s decision to keep all polling locations open in July.

They also suggested several recommendations, including establishing a drop box for absentee ballots, extending weekend and evening hours for absentee voting, providing prepaid postage for return of absentee ballots, acceptance of voter registration materials submitted digitally, and calling for a more robust voter registration program.

Simon Thompson, the Democratic committee chair, said his group is grateful the city is taking voter rights seriously.

“At the same time,” Thompson said, “there are additional common-sense measures that we strongly encourage the city of Portland to take during this unprecedented time to ensure a November election that is safe and secure, with as close to full participation by Portland voters as possible.”

Council nears approval of budget with small tax cut

Although they didn’t have many questions or comments on the matter, Portland city councilors on Sept. 14 held their first full workshop on a proposed $202 million municipal budget for 2021.

The budget proposal from City Manager Jon Jennings was unanimously supported by the council Finance Committee, which had five remote meetings to discuss every departmental budget.

Almost all departments were asked to make cuts, with the city manager’s office taking approximately a 20 percent reduction, and most others taking 5 percent cuts. The only substantial increases were in the Health and Human Services Department and the city clerk’s office.

Councilor Nick Mavodones, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the committee added a handful of amendments to the budget proposal before sending it to the council.

Those included adding $150,000 for legal services for the upcoming Charter Commission and for contractual services for the recently formed racial equity steering committee. The panel also removed $12,000 from the City Council budget, which Mavodones said was mostly for travel expenses and food during meetings.

A third amendment, which unlike the first two was not unanimously approved, increased parking meter rates by 25 cents, which would produce nearly $225,000 in revenue. A final amendment, again not unanimous, created $7,800 worth of stipends for the racial equity steering committee.

Mavodones said the budget still “unfortunately recommends eliminating a number of positions,” and still contains several revenue shortfalls from the disappearance of visiting cruise ships, and the Parks and Recreation Department not being able to generate revenue from events.

He said the budget requires a property tax rate of $23.29 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared with the current rate of $23.31 per $1,000.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said the city had been projecting to bring in $120 million worth of nonproperty tax revenue, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, that income declined to $108 million. However, thanks to cuts around the city and other measures, the proposed budget represents a 0.1 percent tax reduction for property owners.

O’Connell said the council will have to approve the final budget, probably at its Sept. 21 meeting, before property tax bills can be finalized and mailed. He said the council could add $160,000 in total to the budget while still not raising the property tax rate.

Mayor Kate Snyder said although councilors had added around $157,000 to the budget already, they had actually created an overall reduction of $79,000 to the proposal largely through the parking meter increase.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she was planning to propose a handful of other amendments for budget increases, but wanted to do so with the full council instead of in the Finance Committee. These include adding money for a special election for the Charter Commission, which she said would be around $38,000. She also said she wants to add $56,000 to cover portable restroom rentals and maintenance.

The city’s lack of portable restrooms was an area of discussion around the time protesters were camping in front of City Hall to raise awareness about issues facing the homeless. Ray had questioned why the city didn’t have more restrooms available, in light of complaints that people outside City Hall and camping in Deering Oaks Park were openly urinating and defecating.

Ray said this amendment would call for two handicap stalls and six standard stalls, to be cleaned six times a week by the company providing the rental restrooms. The fee would also cover the cost of monitoring the stations.

— Colin Ellis