Portland residents vote overwhelmingly to reexamine city government

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Although election night was dominated by Democrat Sara Gideon easily winning the right to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in the fall, Portland decided several other local issues.

The most important measure to pass in Portland was a lopsided vote to establish a new Charter Commission to consider revamping city government. Unofficial results from the city showed support for the charter commission proposal received more than 70 percent of the votes cast, 13,220 to 4,998.

The measure was on the ballot because Fair Elections Portland had sought to put a charter amendment on the city ballot to install taxpayer funding for elections. The group sued the city last September after councilors rejected the proposal.

Several councilors, including Mayor Kate Snyder, said the request did not warrant the creation of a new commission, which could have far-reaching impact – theoretically including a total revamp of the city’s structure of government, particularly the roles of the city manager and elected mayor.

Some Black Lives Matter protesters in June called for Jennings’ resignation, blaming him for city policies that allegedly disadvantage people of color. Snyder and other councilors quickly came to Jennings’ defense. 

Following the election, Snyder said she and most councilors didn’t support the need for a new commission, but don’t feel disappointed by the vote.

“I’m honestly open-minded,” she said. “I feel there are always things that can be improved.”

Snyder said she wouldn’t have chosen this time to open up the charter, since the city is facing a pandemic, must develop a budget very late in the game, and is facing racial tensions.

“I had my reservations, but I feel like, OK, let’s do this the best we can,” she said.

Some councilors, however, did support creation of a Charter Commission. Councilor Pious Ali, for example, urged voters to support the measure, saying on Facebook prior to the election that the roles of the mayor and city manager are gray areas.

Following the election, Ali said he was glad the measure passed as easily as it did. “It justified my belief that the structure could be better,” he said. “I’m glad I’m not the only one seeing that. Other people in the city also agree with me that this is not working. … We need a new charter so the people of Portland are given the type of government they deserve.”

Snyder said she assumed an election to fill the nine elected seats on the commission would be held in November, which means people interested in serving must obtain nomination papers, collect enough signatures, and then return them to the city clerk’s office in a fairly short period of time.

Snyder said while she can’t imagine there won’t be enough interested people who want to run for the commission, given the level of public support it had on Election Day, she hopes this doesn’t reduce the level of interest and support in candidates for City Council or School Board seats.

According to the city clerk’s office, there are three council and three School Board seats available in November: an at-large seat and seats in Districts 4 and 5. At-large Councilor Jill Duson is not seeking re-election.

“I hope we have a good showing of people running for those seats as well as the charter commission,” Snyder said.

Besides the nine elected members, state law requires the City Council to appoint three commission members within 30 days after the election. Snyder also said the city is working to make sure the fiscal year 2021 budget has the necessary appropriations for legal research and reporting the commission needs.

Once that budget is built and the commission is set, Snyder said the group will meet for about 12 months, with an interim report to the council after nine months and a final report after a year.

Anna Keller, a representative of Fair Elections Portland, said the organization was glad voters “recognized that our government needs structural change.”

“We are looking forward to an inclusive conversation about how Portland should be governed, and a process that centers the (Black, Indigenous, people of color), immigrant, and low-income Portland residents who have not been represented in past commissions,” Keller said. “And of course, we’ll be asking the commission to make it easier for everyday people to run for and serve in local office.”

The last Charter Commission was established in 2008. That panel most notably changed the governmental structure of the council and its change from a mayor appointed by the City Council to a popularly elected, full-time mayor.

That commission also recommended the mayoral position be decided by ranked-choice voting, where a candidate must receive a majority of the popular vote to win and voters rank candidates in order of preference.

School budget, primaries

Voters on July 14 also approved the $119.9 million School Department budget, with more than 86 percent of voters in favor. Unofficial results showed the measure passed 16,241 to 2,555.

Voter turnout on the school budget, usually held in June, typically is very low, often drawing fewer than 1,000 ballots in a city with more than 60,000 registered voters.

The larger participation this year may be attributed to primary races on the ballot, increased use of absentee ballots, and public reaction to the city’s proposal to consolidate polling places.

The city initially proposed consolidating 11 polling places to three, then five, before giving in to opposition from residents and political groups. The city received enough responses from individuals willing to work at the polling stations to keep all 11 open.

Several Democratic legislative primaries were contested.

In House District 37, Grayson Lookner defeated James Cloutier, 949-867. Lookner, a community organizer, defeated the former city councilor and one-term appointed mayor by receiving more than 52 percent of the vote.

In House District 38, Barbara Wood won the primary seeking to replace Rep. Matt Moonen with more than 53 percent of the vote. Wood received 1,302 votes versus Charles Skold’s 880 and Michael Flaherty’s 244.

In House District 41, political newcomer Sam Zager defeated former School Board member Laurie Davis and former Democratic Party Chair Benjamin Grant with just under 50 percent of the vote. Zager received 1,246 votes, Grant had 908 and Davis 365.

In House District 43, incumbent Rep. Ed Crockett fended off a challenge from Bob Mentzinger, 822-435.

District 43 also includes part of Falmouth, where Crockett received 342 votes to Mentzinger’s 271.

In the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, Gideon received more than 66 percent of the vote in Portland, 10,444 to Betsy Sweet’s 4,029, and Bre Kidman’s 1,234.