The Portland Phoenix

Council weighs changes to citizen initiative process

A shot of City Hall in early March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A shot of City Hall in early March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Portland city councilors discussed possible changes to the city’s citizen initiative process during a Monday night workshop.

Several were uncomfortable with a proposal that would increase the required number of petition signatures for a citizen initiative to make it to the ballot. Under the changes proposed, that number would rise from the 1,500 requirement to 10 percent of the most recent gubernatorial election. Using the most recent election, that number would be just under 3,400.

The city’s top lawyer Michael Goldman said these proposed changes mirrored the state’s laws for citizen initiatives. The city ordinance was adopted in the 1950s, and was last amended in the early 1990s. At that time, residents had to go to City Hall in order to sign a petition. Now, circulators go out and ask residents to sign.

“I’m supportive of a 10 percent threshold, but am moveable,” said Councilor Andrew Zarro.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier said she was uncomfortable with the discussion as a whole.

“We are spending a significant amount of time talking about something that wasn’t a Council goal,” Pelletier said. “We have so many things happening in Portland, so many people feeling unsafe. So, I’m frustrated we’re spending so much time talking about this.”

Pelletier did not favor the restructuring process if it didn’t involve stakeholders, meaning groups or individuals who have put forward citizen initiatives before.

“It’s tough for me, especially with the signature count, to get on board,” she said.

Councilors also seemed split on a proposal to reduce the required amount of time before the Council can seek to amend a successful citizen initiative. Currently, the Council amend a referendum passed by voters until five years after it is enacted. The proposed change would reduce that to one year.

Councilor Roberto Rodriguez pushed for upping that to 18 months. He and Zarro called for a supermajority of the council to vote in support of amending — which would be seven of nine councilors. The proposed change calls for six. Their rationale for seven is that’s the same number of councilors required to pass something as an emergency.

Councilor Mark Dion favored a one-year proposal, saying that “if we feel there has to be some form of immediate intervention,” it would be up to the supermajority vote to take action.

Several proposed changes were discussed. One was a proposal for a financial impact statement to be generated by the city’s finance department when petitioners applied for an initiative. They also supported changes to filing procedures that would allow the city clerk’s and corporation counsel’s offices to review proposed initiatives to make sure they comply with the city’s ordinance.

A proposed change to limit citizen initiatives to the November ballot and exclude them from June ballots did not get much discussion. This June, a citizen initiative from the Rental Housing Alliance of Maine, a landlord lobby group formerly known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association, has put a referendum on the ballot to strip away restrictions on rent increases that were passed by voters in recent elections. June elections have considerably lower turnouts than the November ones. 

Other proposed changes presented to the Council Monday night include reducing publication costs in the local paper by only posting the text once instead of twice, though councilors were split on this too. City staff said this proposed change was a cost-savings measure. However, councilors like Zarro and Regina Phillips argued that “people miss things” and having it be posted in the paper more than once is necessary for public notice.

The City Council will hold a first reading on the proposals sometime in June. After the Council vote, the proposed changes would go to voters this fall for approval.

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