Job 1 for Portland Charter Commission committee is clean elections

Councilor April Fournier denies she has a conflict of interest in lawsuit against the city

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A committee is getting straight to the issue that helped launch the Portland Charter Commission: clean elections.

The commission’s Elections Committee – made up of Commissioners Marpheen Chann, Catherine Buxton, and Patricia Washburn – reviewed its upcoming slate of discussion topics at a Sept. 8 meeting, among them timing of elections, ranked-choice voting, campaign finance reform, and universal resident voting.

Four other committees are working on other issues including governance, education, departments, and procedures. They will meet separately until the full 12-person panel meets again on Oct. 27. 

Marpheen Chann
Marpheen Chann

The Elections Committee was slated to hear presentations Sept. 21, after the Phoenix’s weekly deadline. Chann, who chairs the panel, said members would hear from several speakers for guidance on clean elections, including Emma Burke, a candidate registrar for the Maine Ethics Commission; Anna Keller, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections; and Thomas Latowski and Cindy Black from the national organization Fix Democracy Now. 

“Really the meeting is a workshop on clean elections to take a look at the state’s clean elections system, how they manage it, and get their advice on best practices,” Chann said Monday. 

The debate over clean elections, which materialized in 2019, set in motion the events that led to the creation of the Charter Commission

It began as an attempt to have a charter amendment placed on a city ballot in an effort to provide taxpayer funding for elections. The amendment was sought by a group called Fair Elections Portland, which circulated a petition that received more than 6,800 signatures. City councilors rejected the proposal.

Fair Elections Portland originally sought language requiring the council to ask voters to establish a Charter Commission only if the council felt the proposal required a revision to the charter. But the city clerk’s office accidentally left the specific language off the petitions.

After the city attorney ruled the error prevented the question from being used as a proposed charter amendment, and would first require the creation of a Charter Commission, the council voted in October 2019 to put the commission question to voters.  

Voters approved the Charter Commission in the summer of 2020. But the fuel behind the commission by that time had grown into a wider dissatisfaction with Portland’s system of government, and the distribution of power between the hired city manager and the elected mayor, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

All this eventually led to a lawsuit against the city. A Superior Court decision in the city’s favor was overturned by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ultimately sent the proposal back to the City Council, which discussed the suit Aug. 30 in an executive session.

Buxton said during the Sept. 8 elections committee meeting that it might behoove the panel to wait to take up clean elections, in case it is resolved and goes to voters this fall.

“Clean elections are really important, but I would maybe favor addressing some other agenda items earlier in the process until we have more of a clearer picture of whether we know if clean elections will go on the ballot,” she said.

But the issue will not appear on the November ballot. City Clerk Katherine Jones said she has already printed the ballots for Nov. 2 without the clean elections question.

The elections committee will begin taking up new issues on Oct. 5. Chann said the committee needs to have three or four recommendations vetted and ready for full group discussion sometime in January. 

Chann, who also sits on the education committee, said that group held a public forum on Sept. 15. He said the committee also plans to bring in representatives from the schools, including Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, School Board Chair Emily Figdor, and School Board Finance Committee Chair Anna Trevorrow. He said they may bring in Mayor Kate Snyder as well.

“What we’ll look at first and most importantly is the interaction between the School Board and school district with the City Council, especially as it relates to the school budget,” Chann said. 

Following the city’s recent property revaluation, he said, residents are “more aware of their pocketbooks and budgets.”

“​​We’re focused on how to make our education system work better and more efficiently at the same time, and making sure that people in Portland are getting the best education we can provide,” Chann said. 

Each committee meets at least twice a month, and there is some overlap discussion that may require multiple committees to collaborate. For example, Chann said there is work the Governance Committee may want to take up that the Elections Committee may also want to work on, such as the size of the City Council and structure of council districts.

One of the continuing complications in the clean elections debate is that City Councilor April Fournier is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city she now governs. When the question of a potential conflict of interest was raised she said she will not recuse herself.

“My presence on that lawsuit was never about my personal gain in any way,” Fournier said in a Sept. 2 statement. “I never had any money at stake. This was about my community trying to make a change in our city constitution, and I will not apologize for my role in standing up for the voters who signed that petition.”

Fournier said she discussed her situation with officials at the Maine Municipal Association, National League of Cities, and the state attorney general’s office, as well as the city’s legal counsel, and does not believe she needs to recuse herself from any discussions.

“I intend to review this charter amendment submitted by Portland voters with my council colleagues,” she said, “and we will make findings based on evidence brought to the council, just as the Maine Supreme Court has now asked us to do.”