While two of the most substantial of the proposed changes to city government were defeated at the polls, voters passed seven of 13 referendum questions last week, setting the stage for reforms in rent control, police oversight, and a system for implementing clean elections in local races that has been long in the works.
Damon Yakovleff, a Portland resident and member of Yes for Democracy, a group promoting the eight Charter Commission recommendations, highlighted Question 3 – the clean elections reform – was a victory. Question 3 passing was the “culmination of a multiyear effort” to get clean elections in Portland races, he said, and voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.
“It faced a lot of hurdles, foot-dragging by the city, and attempts to quash it,” Yakovleff said. “My overall reaction is to look at that big picture stuff as positive.”
John Brautigam, senior advisor and counsel for the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said his organization was pleased to see Question 3 pass convincingly. The issue of clean elections was the item that, in a roundabout way, launched the Charter Commission process. In September 2019, a group called Fair Elections Portland sought to have a charter amendment placed on the city ballot to provide taxpayer funding for city elections. The group sued the city in September 2019 after councilors rejected the proposal. Following further dispute and a city error regarding petitions, the Council in 2019 agreed to put the formation of Charter Commission on a ballot to see if citizens wanted it.
And since it passed, it will take effect for the next municipal elections in 2023.
“We’ve got some work to do over the next half year or so to put it into place and decide some designed features of the system,” he said. “And to calibrate the amount of money candidates will be able to get, how it will work, how they will qualify, and put in systems so it’s all accountable and transparent.”
Question 3 created a program for candidates to receive taxpayer-funded campaign funds, as well as banned foreign contributions on ballot questions and banned corporations from donating to candidates.
He said there are different models the city could look to use for Portland, including the state model which has been in place for more than 20 years.
Clean-election campaigns are voluntary, meaning a candidate who runs for City Council in 2023 doesn’t have to participate and can choose to raise funds in other ways. However, Brautigam said the benefit to having this in Portland is it means a person doesn’t have to be wealthy or have wealthy friends in order to run a competitive campaign. Over the past 10 to 15 years, Portland races have been getting more expensive, and those interested in running for office are faced with the dilemma of how they will fund a race. A clean elections campaign gives them “a modest amount of funding” that is enough to run a campaign but is not extravagant.
“It will make it possible for everyday people to run who don’t have wealthy friends or who don’t want to tap into anybody else’s special interest money,” he said. “Obviously the candidates who participate, it cuts ties between them and contributors.”
While Yakovleff was disappointed by Questions 2 and 5 failing to pass, the issues those measures sought to address “will still be festering” and need to be addressed in the coming years, he said. In his view, Question 2 had a lot of elements that might have passed on their own, but because they were grouped together, ultimately failed. So eventually passing parts of these reforms is “not insurmountable.”
Yakovleff doesn’t think there will need to be another Charter Commission to revisit proposed reforms. Instead, measures might come forward again via citizen initiative referendums. While some reforms on the ballot might be taken up by council committees, others that require changes to the charter would have to go to voters.
“The Council itself could propose Charter changes,” he said. “I’m not sure if they have the appetite for that. But I think there are some paths forward for additional reforms.”
The issue of citizen-initiated referendums may rear its head again in the future. The Council will likely have a workshop on the idea of changing the citizen initiative process, possibly to increase the number of signatures an initiative requires to get on the ballot. But any changes that eventually might be proposed would have to be approved by voters.
In a press conference the day after Election Day, Mayor Kate Snyder said the city will begin implementing the measures that passed soon. Staff is reviewing language for the ordinances that pass. Question C, which enacts new protections for tenants, will go into effect on Dec. 8. Those protections include requiring that tenants receive a 90-day notice if their landlord intends to raise rent or end the lease, limiting landlords’ ability to enact five-percent rent increases only when a tenant leaves on their own, and setting a $25,000 fee for landlords who convert an apartment into a condominium, among others.
The Charter Commission proposals that passed are being reviewed by the city’s legal staff and the Commission’s attorney. They may take longer, given that some have financial impacts on the city.