Portland still undecided on Charter Commission election date

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ACity Council decision on an election date for a new Charter Commission remained elusive Monday night.

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.

On Monday, City Clerk Kathy Jones said the council would either have to set a special election or hold off on filling the nine remaining commission seats until the regularly scheduled June 2021 election, when the annual school budget referendum would also be on the ballot.

In a memo to the council, Jones said the city could have scheduled the election on Nov. 3 if the vote to establish the commission had been held as usual in June. But because candidate nomination papers must be available for 127 days prior to the election, and the June vote was delayed to July because of the coronavirus pandemic and Maine’s emergency orders, the November election became impossible.

Mayor Kate Snyder, center, with Portland city councilors during their remote meeting on Monday, Aug. 31. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Charter commission rules are generally dictated by state law, which has been interpreted to suggest Portland’s election could be held at the next election, which would be Nov. 3. But the city requires that Charter Commission members must be elected in the same manner as city councilors and School Board members, so the 127-day requirement for nomination papers applies.

In her memo, Jones said having a special election at any point in the year would cost the city approximately $71,500. If the election is held in June the additional cost would be only  $33,000, she said. The extra $33,000 has already been allocated in City Manager Jon Jennings’ fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

Jones said she will provide a list of the earliest possible dates for a special election if councilors choose not to wait until June.

City Councilor Kim Cook said if the council makes nomination papers available immediately, using the week of Sept. 4 as an example, then the election wouldn’t have to wait any longer than necessary.

Jones said the clerk’s office can’t issue nomination papers until the council has already set a date for the election, however, since the election date needs to be printed on the nomination papers.

Councilors Belinda Ray and Jill Duson both asked when the soonest the election could be, with Ray indicating Feb. 3 fits the bill of 127 days out. Duson asked for clarification on whether these had to be calendar days or if only weekdays counted. Jones said she was not positive, but believed the requirement is calendar days.

Duson said she supported a special election as soon as possible, likely in the winter or early spring. She said “this is a matter of urgency” and by not deciding on anything soon, the council is effectively deciding to wait until June.

“It seems to me there’s no way we’ll have them tomorrow, but I think we can ask to have nomination papers post-haste,” Duson said. “I’m inclined for a special election; we can do it in March. I don’t want this process to spread out and continue to push us to June.”

“It’s highly important and I think we should treat it special,” she said.

The Charter Commission will have 12 members. Three have already been appointed by the council: Michael Kebede, Peter Eglinton, and Dory Waxman.

The remaining nine members of the commission will be elected by city voters: one from each of the city’s five districts, and four at-large members.

Several members of the public spoke Monday in favor of having a special election as soon as possible. Scott Vonnegut, for example, told the council it was “unacceptable” to wait until June.

Anna Keller, a spokesperson for Fair Elections Portland, the group that effectively got the initiative to establish a Charter Commission on the ballot in the first place, urged the council to not base the next election on costs. Keller said the council should be careful not to create a perception that its three appointees are getting a head start on what the commission will be discussing.

Keller also said the city should make sure “there is as strong a (voter) turnout as possible, these are the people who will be writing the city’s new constitution.”

The Charter Commission theoretically could suggest major changes to the city’s style of government. The last commission created the role of a popularly elected mayor, defining the mayor’s position as leader of the council while giving day-to-day operational power to the city manager.

Following Black Lives Matter protests at the beginning of the summer, there was a call for City Manager Jon Jennings to resign from his position because of city policies that allegedly continued to disenfranchise Black citizens. Several councilors supported Jennings at that time, but the role and powers of the manager are expected to be a focus of the Charter Commission’s deliberations.

Six citizen initiatives on Nov. 3 Portland ballot

Portland City Councilors on Aug. 31 set Nov. 3 referendum votes on half a dozen citizen initiatives.

The council also agreed to include summaries of each proposal on the ballot, and to make the full text available at polling places and with absentee ballots mailed to voters.

The six initiatives were all proposed by People First Portland, a progressive organization. They include increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour; a ban on the use of facial recognition software by the city; implemention of a Green New Deal for Portland; an act to protect tenants; restricting short-term housing rentals, and removal of the city cap on the number of retail marijuana business licenses.

The city itself has already approved a ban on facial recognition software. However, if the citizen initiative passes, the city will adopt the ordinance language.

People First Portland had also proposed having a summary of each question on the ballot, rather than the full text of the initiatives. Councilor Belinda Ray amended that to have her own summary on four of the six initiatives, and to have the full text included on each, including mail-in ballots.

City Clerk Kathy Jones said to include the full text would result in about seven pages for a person to read when they cast their vote. A summary could have condensed that to one page, Jones said.

Dozens of members of the public spoke during this part of the meeting, which took up most of the more than five-hour special meeting. Those who spoke were told they weren’t allowed to speak on the substance of the initiatives, but rather on the narrow scope the council had Monday night: setting the election date and deciding which language to include.

Speakers were almost evenly split on which language to use. Several supported the having summaries written by a neutral party, rather than by People First Portland.

Stephanie Hogan said a summary was “critical” and it was important for the language to be fair.

“The election is critical and adding the summary is necessary to show your commitment to transparency,” Hogan said. “People have to know what they’re voting on.”

Kathy Palmer said the full text and a “fair summary” needed to be included on the ballot.

“It’s an issue of transparency and having all the facts before you,” Palmer said, adding she didn’t understand how a voter could be asked to make an important decision without all the facts.

Others, like Leo Hilton, argued the summaries are already neutral. And since the petitioners had collected 3,000 signatures with that language, it was tested and accessible for voters.

“That’s the language the 3,000 petitioners saw when they attached their names to those suggested initiatives,” Hilton said.

Jack O’Brien agreed, saying a summary is the only appropriate method. He said he wasn’t aware of other municipalities that put full, dense language on the ballots.

“Many important referendums have a clean summary so the voter is not confused by dense legalese,” O’Brien said. “You would be putting 11,000 words of dense legalese (on the ballot). I would not want to be in a position of explaining that to my constituents.”

And others still pushed back, asking for the full text to be placed on the ballot, and said it was insulting to say voters would be confused by the full language.

“Transparency is important,” Mandy Yates said. “I’m offended that as a voter I might not be able to understand the full text. As a voter I have the right to access the full text.”

Councilors unanimously agreed to set the referendum for Nov. 3, and to adopt Ray’s amended summary language for four of the initiatives; she did not propose the amended language on the facial recognition ban initiative or the cannabis cap campaign.

There was some discussion on how best to achieve neutrality in the summaries. Snyder said a summary by nature can’t capture every detail. She said neutrality is an important goal for the council along with providing the most accessible information.

“What we are all invested in is how do you give voters the most thorough information to make an informed decision?” she said.

— Colin Ellis

Edited Sept. 8, 2020, to correct that only summaries of the ballot questions will be included on ballots provided at polling places on Election Day.