With exception of minimum wage hike, Portland initiatives to take effect soon

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After a third closed-door City Council discussion Monday night, Portland officials on Tuesday announced they will enact all but one of five recently approved ballot questions in early December.

A controversial citizen initiative requiring a minimum wage hike, however, will not go into effect until 2022.

City staff also announced implementation guidance for the five initiatives will be released next week, along with an FAQ document. While the city is still planning to hold off a minimum wage hike until 2022, the remaining slate of initiatives that passed will go into effect Dec. 6.

Members of the public who streamed the Portland City Council’s remote meeting on Monday, Nov. 23, were greeted by this notice that councilors were again meeting privately to discuss how to enact several ballot measures voters approved on Nov. 3. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

In a press release Tuesday morning, Mayor Kate Snyder stressed the public will have more information next week. City Manager Jon Jennings also said staff have worked quickly to process these measures, and to ensure they are enacted in a timely manner.

“We understand the public has a lot of questions regarding what these new ordinances mean and how they affect them as residents and businesses, and so we look forward to publishing easy to understand guidance and FAQ documents next week,” Jennings said.

Whether proponents of the wage hike will challenge the city’s decision to delay its implementation remains to be seen.

Em Burnett, a representative of People First Portland, which campaigned for five of the six ballot questions, on Tuesday said their organization didn’t see anything particularly newsworthy in the city’s announcement and is “anxiously awaiting” next week’s additional guidance.

“I think we’re hopeful that we can work with the city to make sure there’s full implementation,” Burnett said. “We’re still disappointed the council is meeting in private about this. They’re making quotes about how this is hard to do and voters need information, but meeting in executive session is also kind of frustrating.”

Burnett said it’s important to provide as much clarity as possible, particularly about new renter protections and rent control, so renters and landlords know what is expected.

“Renters have a lot more rights than they did before this passed,” Burnett said.

Councilors decided to delay implementation of the minimum wage hike until 2022, despite demands from People First Portland that the emergency wage rate of $18 per hour must go into effect 30 days after the Nov. 3 referendum vote.

The minimum wage initiative, Question A, raises the hourly wage floor in the city to at least $15 over three years and increases the minimum for tipped workers. During a declared state of emergency such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, the ordinance requires businesses to pay employees 1.5 times the minimum wage. That would bring the rate up to $18 an hour, based on the state’s current minimum wage of $12 per hour.

The city’s interpretation is that the hazard pay section will not go into effect until 2022, because there is no minimum wage clearly defined in the city’s existing ordinances. The city says the minimum wage will be raised to $13 per hour in January 2022, when the hazard pay provision can also be applied.

The council’s series of executive sessions also invoked calls for the city to hold these discussions in public. Councilors held 90-minute sessions on Nov. 10, 16, and 23; they issued preliminary guidance on the minimum wage initiative and Question F, which eliminates a cap on marijuana business licenses, after the Nov. 10 meeting. 

Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta advised the council against open meetings on the grounds that the discussions constituted legal guidance between an attorney and client, and as such were allowed to be held in private.

Snyder did allow public comment before the council moved into executive session Monday, but no one spoke.

Five of the six citizen initiatives were promoted by People First Portland, a political committee formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America; four out of the questions passed easily on Election Day. The only measure that was defeated was an attempt to place additional restrictions on short-term rentals.

The successful measures will raise the minimum wage in the city, create a Green New Deal for construction, enforce a city ban on facial recognition technology, and establish new protections for renters.

The initiative that eliminates the cap on marijuana business licenses was not part of the People First Portland slate, but was approved by voters.

City Council conducts overdue reviews of city clerk, city attorney

For the first time in three years, the Portland City Council has reviewed the performance of the city manager, city clerk, and the city’s top lawyer.

Councilors completed the work in an executive session on Nov. 19, when they reviewed City Clerk Katherine Jones and Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta. The council had previously conducted a review of City Manager Jon Jennings over the course of two executive sessions, resulting in the city extending Jennings’ contract for an additional year.

Jennings, whose tenure will end in July 2022, came under fire this summer following protests over racial violence and police brutality around the country. There were demands for his resignation or a reallocation of job responsibilities between the manager and the mayor.

These three City Hall positions are the only ones the council is obligated to review; none had occurred since November 2017. Mayor Kate Snyder has said the council was already in the process of beginning these reviews when the response to the coronavirus pandemic delayed the process.

Snyder had also said the reviews were not in response to any specific issues. They did, however, follow a period where campaign finance reporting mechanisms were questioned because filings were not reported to the public in a timely manner.

Snyder last week said the reviews of Jones and West-Chuhta were conducted as planned, and unlike with Jennings, she did not anticipate needing a second review for either the clerk or corporation counsel. She said she will try to ensure reviews are performed more frequently in the future.

According to the city, Jones is paid more than $98,300 per year, and West-Chuhta earns more than $138,300 annually. Unlike Jennings, the clerk and corporation counsel do not have employment contracts.

— Colin Ellis

Recount confirms defeat of short-term rental initiative

A recount of the only defeated referendum question on Portland’s Nov. 3 municipal ballot failed to overturn the election result.

Question E would have restricted mainland short-term rentals to only those that are owner-occupied. It would have eliminated about 400 properties from the available inventory, would have increased an annual short-term rental fee from $100 to $1,000, and would have increased the island fee to $400 a year.

The recount revealed the question failed by 273 votes, 19,772 to 19,499. The original tally had it losing by 222 votes.

Question E attracted significant outside interest, including a $125,000 opposition donation from Airbnb, the San Francisco-based vacation rental company.

It was one of five initiatives promoted by People First Portland, a political committee established by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. All the others passed: a minimum wage hike, a Green New Deal for construction projects, enforcement provisions for the city’s ban on the use of facial recognition, and tenant protections including rent control.

A sixth question on the ballot overturned a cap on the number of marijuana businesses in the city and reduced the required distance between marijuana retailers from 250 feet to 100 feet.

— Colin Ellis